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Blonde on blonde

With its ubiquitous unstained timber, Waingels College is regarded as an exemplar project in contemporary wood. But how does it perform technically and as architecture?

Waingels College is lignophile heaven. Nearly everything is wood: the structural frame, the floors, the ceilings, the external cladding, the brise-soleils, the stairs, the internal sections of the composite windows, and so on and on. Even the thermal insulation is a timber product, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the loo seats were wood as well. If it wasn’t a school it would probably be a place of pilgrimage for tree worshippers.

In fact, according to Liam Dewar, director of Eurban, which designed the engineered timber, Waingels is internationally regarded as an exemplar of contemporary wood technology and is Britain’s largest laminated timber building.

All of which raises two questions. Why is Waingels so relentlessly wooden? And how successful is its timber construction on the levels of performance and architectural quality?

Responding to the first question, Sheppard Robson partner Lee Bennett and associate Pierluigi Chinellato recite the usual truisms about timber’s warmth, explaining that Waingels’ green belt site influenced the choice of materials and that research in Germany demonstrated that pupils preferred timber finishes to plaster.

But Dewar, being responsible for building this contractor-designed portion, quickly gets down to brass tacks. ‘The main drivers were cost and speed, which is really important in school projects – engineered timber provided a 30 per cent time improvement.’

On top of this, he argues that timber also trumped concrete and steel because of its constellation of thermal, fire, structural and acoustic properties and its inherent sustainability and adaptability.

Another reading of the timber’s rawness sees it as brutalism reincarnate

It is essential to unpick the various types of timber construction at Waingels to avoid confusion. First, structural walls are FSC-certified cross-laminated timber, manufactured in a Swiss vacuum press. Second, large-span beams and columns are generally glulam, from the same manufacturer and source. Third, the floors and roof decks are structural timber cassettes, also Swiss, with perforated soffits and wood fibre insulation, and these provide acoustic attenuation, avoiding the need for surface-mounted or suspended absorption.

There is also a storey-high timber truss, which enables the library in Block A to span 11m across the main hall. All of this was designed, supplied and installed, although not manufactured, by Eurban, with structural engineering by its sister company, Carbon Eng. Eurban also installed Velfac’s composite windows. The unstained softwood external cladding, with a life of 25 years, was manufactured by Finnforest.

The construction logic is convincing. Cassettes were chosen because they are more cost-effective for the required 7.5m spans than solid timber panels and, because their perforated soffits carry wood fibre acoustic quilting, the number of on-site packages was reduced. ‘Crosslam wasn’t the cheapest option,’ says Dewar, ‘but it offered a number of benefits.’ Its standard thicknesses, in 20mm increments, simplified the design process, enabling everyone to work with round numbers, and made it easy to align Crosslam and glulam elements. ‘Being made from “sliced glulam”, Crosslam is very stable, so it was suitable for the extensive exposed construction,’ adds Dewar. Sprinklers and limited requirements for acoustic separation in many areas also meant the timber had to do less.

Timber also offered environmental benefits. The Swiss manufacturing plant was relatively close to the site and is an integrated works, avoiding transportation between sawmill and factory. Because the Crosslam and the glulam came from a single manufacturer, there was better co‑ordination of design and materials delivery.

Waingels could ultimately serve as 2,208m of fuel and, although solid timber cannot compete with concrete’s thermal mass, this limitation has been addressed by increasing the volume of internal spaces. ‘Hanging concrete off the ceiling is a very clumsy solution,’ says Dewar.     

Putting time, cost and performance to one side, you could argue that the main reason why Waingels is so utterly timber is to do with the way Sheppard Robson envisioned the school, or that it even rests on philosophical premises, either flaunting timber as an ecological emblem or returning to the idea that buildings’ construction should be expressed – a conviction that would explain the decision to avoid concealing the structure and services, although this approach would only save money if the project team tolerated bodged details, such as the crossing conduit runs at Waingels. Good architecture with co-ordinated exposed services costs time and money.

‘There’s generally a rawness to some of the timber,’ says Bennett, ‘but I think it’s an acceptable one. It’s the ambience that matters.’ It’s acceptable, because state schools shouldn’t, and invariably cannot, be extravagant. And maybe that’s why Waingels has skirtings that fail to return around corners and cover strips forced into corners. The quality of some of the finishing is not great. But another reading of the timber’s rawness would involve seeing Waingels as brutalism reincarnate.

It could be regarded as a parallel to the rugged qualities of Le Corbusier’s béton brut, although of the three grades of timber finish at Waingels, the Grade D structural work is intended to be concealed. Alternatively, on a deeper level, Waingels is brutalist in its readiness to grapple with technological change without being afraid of offending delicate sensibilities. If the outcome at Waingels lacks finesse, this could be because this ‘new’ new brutalism is in its infancy.

So there are places where Waingels does not work on a visual or tectonic level. There is little articulation between structural members, for example, at sloping beam-to-column junctions. These assemblies look as though they’ve been run through a jig-saw and enlarged by 5,000 per cent. The material may as well be cheese for all its detailed design tells you about it. But there are also places where it succeeds.

Given material homogeneity, with none of the distraction of contrasting finishes, Sheppard Robson has emphasised the geometry. Although this symphony of knotty, blonde timber feels cheap, cheerful, mean and bland, it does succeed in reflecting the ample internal daylight and, generally, this emphasises the form, rather than dissolving it.

But, ‘new’ new brutalism or not, engineered timber cannot match the gravitas of in situ concrete and perhaps this is why, as at Sheppard Robson and Eurban’s Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, Waingels’ ultimate visual success rests on a dialogue between its timber background and highlights provided by contrasting materials – aqueous polycarbonate cladding at the institute and colourful external render and internal paint finishes here.

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