Many timber industry associations are targeting architects and specifiers these days and TRADA is no exception. However, it really hit the mother lode with its one-day seminar event aimed at building professionals – around 160 of them showed up and it wasn’t just the promise of a CPD certificate that lured them.

“In Touch with Timber”, held at London’s Commonwealth Institute earlier this month, comprised a series of presentations in the morning, followed by nine mini-seminars in the afternoon. All were designed to bring specifiers up to date with latest developments and innovations.

Peter Ross, TRADA president and consultant to Ove Arup and Partners, outlined some of the reasons why specifiers should plump for timber and the issues they should consider when doing so. These included sustainability, which, he said, should be a whole building philosophy, and certification, provided the relevant “assurances” could be obtained.

Other key issues Mr Ross highlighted were timber’s energy efficiency, particularly as “the building regs are due for another turn of the screw”; durability, because “it doesn’t make environmental sense to build a short-lived building”; and conservation/ restoration, because “saving a building prevents you having to build it all over again”.

“In real terms,” he said, “whitewood and redwood are less expensive than five years ago, so this is a good time to build with timber.” However, he added that timber was rarely the cheapest option and that it had a “tough battle” if price was the key factor. The primary reason for specifying timber, he said, should be that “it’s a fantastic material that people love to see and touch”.

Flexibility and adaptability

That sentiment was shared by Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects. For his practice “the love of timber has been the driving force behind design”. Its attraction lies not just in its renewability and its carbon neutrality, but also that it is “extraordinarily flexible and adaptable” and can be used in many different structural and decorative applications throughout a building.

Mr Clegg illustrated his points with case histories including the Woodland Enterprise Visitor Centre at Flimwell, the Earth Centre Canopy at Doncaster and the Olivier Theatre at Bedales School. The latter construction included an oak frame clad with Douglas fir. “The problem with oak framing is that it shrinks a lot,” said Mr Clegg. The solution was to use adjustable fixings and seals around windows and sliding joints in the walls. “We have to assume it’s a live material and we enjoy the challenge of a building that moves.”

Addressing “Building with the environment in mind” Richard Harris, senior associate with Buro Happold, said that timber was sustainable if properly sourced and backed by chain of custody certification. But he acknowledged the current problems in this field. “It is a bizarre and environmentally dangerous situation with the industry in confusion and some environmental pressure groups campaigning against the use of a material that offers enormous environmental benefits,” he said.

Marketing tool

But, he added, the timber industry was able to use certified products as a major marketing tool as “local authorities, public utilities, government departments and major national building companies are increasingly specifying certified products”.

Timber frame is the acknowledged favourite of the self-build sector, but as mainstream builders gain interest, then Dr Paul Newman, head of timber technology at TRADA Technology, predicts the use of a wider range of timber frame construction methods in addition to the current open panel favourite. Closed panel, SIPS (structural insulated panels), volumetric and stick built/post and beam will all become more widespread, he said.

Performance levels will continue to improve as new targets are set: “with Part L changing again in 2005 we will be heading towards a U-value of 0.27, but whole building calculations [rather than for individual components] are likely to become much more important,” said Dr Newman.

“We’re just getting to grips with the new acoustic regulations,” he added. “Separating walls already exceed the new levels while a ‘standard’ timber party floor can meet the new performance levels but is far from ‘robust’.”

Part of the way to reach these targets is to improve site practices and timber storage: “there needs to be an emphasis on quality of construction,” he concluded.