Training tomorrow’s timber engineers

4 May 2013

A major new initiative between the industry and Edinburgh Napier University aims to boost the UK’s timber engineering skills base. Mike Jeffree reports.

In September seven graduates will start the Timber Engineering MSc course at Edinburgh Napier University (ENU) thanks to funding from the UK timber industry - and it could be more.

The course participants at the university's School of Engineering and the Built Environment will be the first beneficiaries of a new initiative, announced earlier this year. This invites timber businesses to fund a scholarship, with the aim of boosting numbers taking the MSc and ultimately increasing the UK's level of timber engineering knowledge and skills.

So far seven leading industry names have signed up for the project and pledged £3,750 each to cover the tuition fees for the year-long masters degree. It's a take-up which has been greeted enthusiastically by the university.

"We've had support from the timber industry before, with companies helping fund undergraduates on our civil and timber engineering BSc course, and other industries also support scholarships in fields relevant to them," said ENU development executive Lucille Bluefield. "But the early response for this project is phenomenal and hugely encouraging."

A key figure in the development of the Timber Engineering MSc scholarships, and the lead ambassador for the initiative to the industry, has been industry veteran Geoff Rhodes, chair of ENU's Forest Products Research Institute advisory board. As he explained to TTJ earlier, the initiative is a response to the UK's long-acknowledged lack of training and expertise in timber technology and structural engineering, and the resulting reluctance among engineers, contractors, architects and other specifiers and designers to work with wood.

"How long have we heard the complaint that construction professionals are comfortable and confident in using steel and concrete, but averse to timber?" he said. "The key to resolving this is training; instilling knowledge and awareness of timber's capabilities and potential and, of course, enthusiasm for the material, in bright young engineers and architects at the outset of their careers."

By encouraging more people to study and specialise in timber engineering, he added, the timber industry would not only create a much stronger pool of expertise in using the material, but potentially a body of building professional advocates for it to the wider construction sector.

"The industry must promote timber's capabilities and benefits itself, but having building professionals recommending its use and explaining its potential to other building professionals really reinforces our argument," he said.

Mr Rhodes and ENU also say the timing is right to persuade graduate engineers to specialise in timber engineering.

Environment-driven changes in construction and the built environment, given added impetus by regulation and green building codes, are creating a growing appetite for sustainable building systems and products. If it can get its messages across, and educate building professionals about its capabilities and potential, timber could capitalise.

"There still seems to be a disconnect between the growing awareness among engineers and architects of the need to improve building's sustainability and carbon performance, and what timber can contribute to that," said Ms Bluefield. "This is a gap the timber engineering course can help bridge."

"It really is the moment for this project," agreed Mr Rhodes. "Timber has a fantastic proposition to help construction achieve its low carbon objectives, and it's getting better all the time with the development of new engineered products and building systems. While we may still lag behind other countries in timber construction, there is also a growing body of exemplary timber buildings in the UK to strengthen our case. So, as well as the funding, we can attract students to the MSc course with the argument that timber engineering has a tremendous future and great career prospects."

Companies which back the scholarship project, says ENU, can also can also get a range of immediate benefits themselves. They can name the scholarship after their business, but perhaps more importantly, also interact with the funded student and the university.

"They can mentor students, increase their product knowledge, offer work placements, deliver guest lectures and liaise with us to help develop the course itself," said Ms Bluefield.

So far Mr Rhodes and the ENU team have approached around 80 potential sponsors, which are also given the option of helping fund students' living costs.

The first company to sign up was merchant group Arnold Laver.

"The initiative really struck a chord for us," said managing director Andrew Laver. "There are still intellectual barriers about using timber in UK construction and there are two ways to tackle it. One is to be less proprietorial about our information and get it out there to building professionals; the other is to ensure they are informed from the inside, which is what the MSc programme will achieve. It's not a quick win, but longer term it will create a growing body of timber engineering expertise right at the coal face and help our products break through the glass, steel and concrete ceiling in construction."

Mr Laver said that his company's support for the scheme could be ongoing.

"I see no reason why this should not be a long-term involvement," he said.

Next to back the project was the Timber Trade Federation (TTF), which is contributing a total of £5,000 to pay for tuition fees and some of its student's living expenses.

"As soon as we heard about it, we thought what a fantastic idea - in fact it was one of those 'why didn't someone think of this before?' moments," said chief executive John White. "It has been a recurring refrain that building professionals don't know enough about timber, don't get enough training in it relative to other materials and are afraid to use it. Well now someone is doing something about it and the industry has the opportunity to support them - at a relatively low cost to individual companies and organisations. It's exactly the sort of thing we should be spending our money on, and on a regular basis to really influence and develop the market for timber." The TTF also plans to "fully engage" with the student they support.

"We could offer a work attachment at the Federation, help with careers advice and provide contacts, both to help their studies and for their future employment," said Mr White. "And it should be a two-way process for the industry. We can learn from the students about their aspirations and what they want from us." Anglo-German timber software and building systems specialist SEMA4c also aims to be fully involved with its scholarship student.

"I've asked Napier if we can identify a student that has a particular interest in the design aspect of timber engineering and we will work with them during the year," said managing director James Sweet. "Design and software will become increasingly important if all the noise about Building Information Modelling (BIM) turns into a deliverable reality. The whole project delivery process will be fully integrated and design software will be at the core." He described SEMA4c as "passionate about training in the timber industry".

"We're also working with senior stakeholders and hoping to work with the TTF to develop an appealing proposition for 16 to 20-year-olds to enter the industry," he said. "This will require good training or apprenticeships and good career paths."

Ian Smith, head of ENU's School of Engineering and the Built Environment, said that once students have finished their Timber Engineering MSc, they're likely to be rapidly out working in the industry. "We're very proud of our record for students securing jobs," he said. "In fact, thanks to our engagement with industry and our focus not just on learning, but on training for work, we're among the top 10 UK universities for graduate employability."

The Timber Engineering MSc scholarships, he added, were being promoted to ENU's 60 final-year civil engineering undergraduates, and also students at other UK universities.

"The big challenge now will be to get the candidates to take the course, and that is something the timber industry can hopefully also help with, liaising with schools and engineering undergraduates," said Mr Smith.

Mr Rhodes, meanwhile, is pushing to get another eight companies to fund an MSc student, and he's being assisted by those that have already signed up, including SEMA4c.

"If a new business like ours can put its hand in its pocket, so can some more established companies," said Mr Sweet. "Bob Geldof had a good expression for this at Live Aid, you may recall!"

Scholarship Funders to Date
Accsys Technologies plc
Arnold Laver
BSW Timber Group
James Jones & Sons Ltd
James Latham plc
Timber Trade Federation

The Timber Engineering Msc
The course covers project management, analysis and timber design, sustainable building design, timber materials application, timber form and construction. In the third term students undertake a Geoff Rhodes: "Timber engineering has a dissertation.

Peter Latham, chairman James Latham plc: “These students are the future of our industry and we’re delighted to be part of such an innovative, forward-thinking programme"
Napier civil and timber engineering graduate Jack Hawker: studies a “fantastic experience”
John White: “It’s the sort of thing we should be spending our money on”
The Timber Engineering MSc scholarship proposal has been widely distributed
Geoff Rhodes: “Timber engineering has a tremendous future and great career prospects”
James Sweet: “passionate about training in the timber industry”
Andrew Laver: the MSc will educate building professionals “from the inside”