We all understand that timber provides a reliable, sustainable construction material. In the past, it was a material of choice and many of the UK’s historic buildings show its longevity. Now, with the tallest timber building in the world having recently been completed – Melbourne’s Forte apartment building at Victoria Harbor – timber is in the ascendancy again.

In order to support and maintain this momentum in the industry, TRADA, with its long history of educating the construction industry about timber, has reinvigorated the offering to universities and its University Engagement Programme is entering its fourth year. The aim is both to inspire the architects and engineers of the future, showing them what can be achieved with timber and how to do it, as well as to continue to expand the support TRADA gives to research on timber and timber products.

"In the past many university departments had a timber ‘expert’ on their staff and, although some of these do still exist, as do timber enthusiasts, many schools of architecture and engineering no longer have these specialists, particularly in the technical aspects of timber," said Elizabeth Turner, TRADA’s university liaison manager. "That said, both lecturers and students see the need to understand sustainable construction methods and these are increasingly being taught. But do they have access to the right information?"

TRADA’s University Engagement Programme is addressing this by providing a range of timber resources to allow an understanding of the material – how to build with timber to enable students to explore the possibilities offered to them by this unique and accessible construction material.

So what is TRADA providing? There is a dedicated area of the TRADA website for the University Engagement Programme where resources are available to TRADA’s lecturer and student members. Covering a range of topics, a series of written modules is linked to TRADA case studies and well-respected Wood Information Sheets, providing information specifically packaged to support study for an architecture or engineering degree.

However, probably the most important facet of the University Engagement Programme is the funding of Ms Turner’s role. It’s her job to ensure the programme runs smoothly and links between universities and the timber industry are forged and strengthened.

Timber lectures
Ms Turner, who has seven years’ experience at TRADA, spends much of her time visiting universities to deliver timber-related lectures, either as part of a technology module, where clearly the technical aspects of timber are important, or at the start of a design project where students have a defined brief as part of their studies. Recently, civil engineering students at the University of Sheffield were surprised to know the lengths glulam can span. But lectures are not the only things she gets up to – a recent gridshell workshop at Sheffield Hallam University was a great opportunity to help students with their understanding of wood in a hands-on role.

In addition, keeping up-to-date with timber research is essential and the programme also focuses on this important aspect. With the UK’s universities offering a huge resource of brainpower, as well as in some cases excellent facilities, many work collaboratively on large projects, with others being centres of excellence in timber. Just like all other materials, timber will only benefit from further investigation into its possibilities and changing technology can only open up new avenues.

Competitions form an important part of the programme, challenging and inspiring students to design and build with timber, giving focus to the students’ studies but also offering them wider opportunities to learn and develop. Ms Turner has maintained the long, successful association with the North East Timber Trade Association (NETTA) and 2013 saw the second year of an engineering competition at Coventry University to design, build and test an engineered beam.

The Dan Kemp Memorial Pavilion competition has been showcased on TRADA’s stand at Ecobuild over the past three years and shows the imagination of architecture students and the importance of being able to turn designs into a full-size structure. All of the successful students in this competition have learned far and beyond what was required in their studies – and that should make them more rounded architects in the end.

Timbmet’s sponsorship of this competition is invaluable and there are other TRADA members who support universities and the programme by sponsoring competitions or providing materials. For example, Arnold Laver helped a design unit at Oxford Brookes both with materials for one-to-one prototypes and a chance to display work, offering a fabulous opportunity to students as well as to the wider timber industry.

"Through the University Engagement Programme TRADA is hoping to inspire both lecturers and their students and be the university timber ‘expert’," said Ms Turner. "This should, in time, ensure the next generation of architects and engineers does know that timber is a superb option for a variety of building types. Inspiring the designers of the future with a passion and understanding of this wonderful material can only reap rewards for us all."