A hardwood CLT building first

20 January 2017

Professor Alex de Rijke, founding director of wood-loving architecture practice de Rijke Marsh Morgan — dRMM — reflects on the invention of hardwood CLT and its latest application in progress at Maggie’s Oldham

The world’s first permanent building constructed entirely of hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT) is being built in the UK.

Designed by dRMM, Maggie’s cancer care Centre in Oldham is a simple timber rectangle featuring a central, tree filled light-well. The building hovers over a generous pine and birch garden, supported by slender columns.

Hardwood CLT, a relatively new material made from highly sustainable American tulipwood, was selected as the principal material for its structural performance, its expressive, warm finish and its health and well-being benefits. Wood is known to reduce blood pressure, heart rates and recovery times. Structurally and conceptually it is the right fit for Maggie’s Oldham.

Tulipwood CLT was invented in collaboration between dRMM Architects, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and Arup for dRMM’s London Design Festival (LDF) Landmark project ‘Endless Stair’. Since then it has been gaining attention for its advantages over other materials. It has a better strength-to-weight ratio than concrete or steel, is carbon negative and has a more sophisticated finish than softwood.

The boundaries of the material were further tested in ‘The Smile’, a structurally ambitious installation for the 2016 LDF, designed by Alison Brooks Architects in collaboration with AHEC and Arup.

Now, as construction at Maggie’s Oldham progresses and the internal fit-out begins, we are in the midst of another pivotal moment for modern construction.

Research and development in engineered timber design and construction are deeply important to dRMM and we have pioneered its use since 2000. We were responsible for the UK’s first CLT building, the Kingsdale School Sports and Music hall, as well as the Naked House CLT flatpack-housing prototype. I and fellow director Jonas Lencer have also presented at timber conferences worldwide and, in 2005, I predicted engineered timber would be ‘the concrete of the 21st century’.

My experiments with laminated timber have progressed over 30 years in practice and academe, looking at the structural, environmental and aesthetic properties of a range of materials, from softwood to plywood.

The opportunity to develop tulipwood CLT with AHEC and Arup for ‘Endless Stair’ and now Maggie’s Oldham, was taken with the intent of demonstrating to the construction industry the ability and potential of the material.

The application of sustainably grown hardwood and particularly tulipwood CLT in building is now endless. Its environmental, structural and visual qualities are unquestionable and its use at Maggie’s, which is due for completion this summer, will also be a manifesto for wood as the natural choice for the architecture of health and psychological well-being