The new Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT) has been designed by Oakwrights to provide an optimum, student friendly learning environment for the UK’s urgently needed new generation of timber engineers.

More than that, the structure is intended to be a teaching aid and inspirational lesson in itself. The elegant wooden bones are on show to demonstrate just how a modern timber building comes together and works, blending technical and environmental performance. At the same time the design ties the Centre into its context and uses wood’s natural aesthetic to make the most of its wellness benefits.

The CATT forms part of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) and is being built on its Skylon site near Hereford, named after the 1951 Festival of Britain’s iconic tower. Like the latter, the campus is intended to be a beacon for industry; attracting new talent to careers in engineering and setting them on their way, said chief academic officer, Professor Beverley Gibbs, with “an engaging, hands-on, challenge-based education”.

Alongside the CATT will be the Centre for Automated Manufacturing (CAM) and the Centre for Future Skills (CFS).

NMITE’s stated aim is to “transform engineering higher education in Britain”.

But, it stresses, it is not going it alone on its mission. It is committed to working closely with business to ensure it meets its needs, and with existing industry organisations and educational institutions.

“In the development of the CATT we are liaising with timber companies and bodies including TRADA, Napier and Bangor Universities and the Structural Timber Association,” said NMITE head of partnerships Toby Kinnaird.

Further ensuring it is plugged into industry, NMITE is publicly and privately funded. It was awarded an initial £23m by government, with £8m coming via the Marches Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). But this money has to be match funded by business.

Professor Gibbs added that NMITE was also keen to receive timber sector input on the CATT’s courses and the equipment it should have in its 500m2 workshop space. The aim is an educational resource developed by the industry, for the industry. “Co-creation is critical to making CATT sustainable and ensuring it realises its ambitious mission,” she said.

Naturally the brief for the CATT building was that it should be timber-based. The aim is also to provide a “living lab” for its 200 learners, said Mr Kinnaird.

“We not only wanted to demonstrate how a modern timber building fits together,” he said, “we wanted it to be possible to monitor its performance in real time, for example, with sensors on beams to explain the reason a certain element is where it is because of the particular loadings.”

Oakwrights won the project because NMITE liked the way it “responded to the brief, delivering an innovative, energy efficient design”. It also liked the fact that it represented the modern face of timber construction, with its blend of traditional timber-frame craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology adding to the CATT’s back-story for future learners.

“Craft skills remain key to our work, but very much combined with latest processing equipment,” said Oakwrights’ Bill Keir. “We’ve had a Hundegger K2 CNC joinery machining centre since 1999 and later added a K2i and a CNC-driven Weinmann WEK panel making machine to make our Wrightwall insulated panels.”

The CNC equipment, he added, all runs on joinery and timber construction software from Dietrich’s, one of the CATT’s industry sponsors.

The design team’s objective, said Oakwrights architectural manager Helen Needham, was a building that will make learning “an enjoyable, memorable experience, while growing practical engineers equipped with useful skills and celebrating the qualities of the construction material”.

The design concept was also influenced by the local environment, notably the nearby ‘Rotherwas Ribbon’, a bronze-age pathway made from fire-cracked stones unearthed in the construction of a new road.

“I found the stones’ sculptural forms fascinating and they inspired the fragmented, asymmetric nature of the building,” said Ms Needham. “The form started to look like a plough digging into the ground, giving a nod towards Hereford’s agricultural links. At the same time, we wanted to have fun with the external timber cladding and standing seam roof to echo the stratification found in archaeology. Due to these lines and the CATT’s proportions the competition design team has also nicknamed it The Splinter.”

The outcome of these various design influences is a striking, sharply angular 2,750m2 building that rises from 8.3m at one end to 17.8m at the other. Extensive, glulam column-supported roof overhangs further emphasise its shard-like profile.

The Centre is expected to sit on pile foundations, with the larch glulam frame forming the core structure and CLT the floors. The timber elements will principally joint together wood to wood, but with steel connectors at certain points.

Wrightwall and Wrightroof panels, comprising I-joist frames and SMARTPLY skins, will form the walls and roof. “These are filled with cellulose insulation made from recycled newsprint using an X-Floc Blowing machine feeding a 5-channel ISO Floc blowing plate, which like all our other CNC machines are Dietrich’s software-controlled,” said Mr Keir. “The building will be heated, but Wrightwall is capable of delivering Passivhaus levels of insulation. In fact, we’ve used it to build the first Passivhaus-certified oak frame homes in the UK.”

To further underline the building’s environmental credentials, the aim is for it to achieve joint FSC and PEFC project certification.

Besides the workshop area, the CATT will include open break-out spaces and, of course, classrooms, or learning studios, of which eight are envisaged.

“NMITE academics developed an algorithm to design the studio environments, leading to their division into three areas; a teaching space for learning through various presentation methods; a reflective area for students to consider, invent, and question; and a practical space for conversation, lockers and so on,” said Ms Needham.

The building features roof lights and extensive areas of energy efficient glazing to maximise natural lighting.

“This also allows visitors to see the timber structure from the outside and from inside provides views of the surrounding area,” said Mr Kinnaird. “The Skylon site is in wooded parkland and we want to make the most of that to further improve the learning experience.”

While colour will be used within the CATT as signposting, the timber will be extensively expressed to tap its well-being effects.

“The beneficial impacts of being in a wood building are increasingly recognised, and they’re being shown to be particularly appropriate for learning environments, reducing stress, improving focus and productivity,” said Mr Kinnaird.

Oakwrights has also designed in various ‘moments’ around the building to highlight individual aspects of the engineering, plus viewing areas to show off the structure in the round.

These include the dramatic, light-flooded, triple-height central entrance atrium, complete with a curvaceous timber ‘pod’ supported on a cantilever structure over the lobby, which will double as a teaching and viewing space. There’s an external balcony from which you can see the structure supporting the roof, plus an internal platform looking out over the industrial space.

The other two buildings on the Skylon site, the CAM and CFS, are subject to a separate tendering process, but Oakwrights has sketched design concept ideas for them.

“We viewed the site masterplan holistically from the outset, ” said Ms Needham. “The sketches follow the design idea of fragmented form, inspired by the local heritage analogy and site context, and feature the same timber materials and construction methods.”

The main contractor for CATT has just been announced as Speller Metcalf and next steps are progression through RIBA design stages 3-7. The aim is for completion in March 2021 and for the first intake of learners to be in the building later in the year; a mix of apprentices, full-time and visiting students and professionals undertaking CPD.

So it shouldn’t be too long before the CATT’s first alumni are out in UK construction applying the lessons learned in and taught by its impressive building.