Developments in Timber Engineering: The Swiss Contribution By Anton Steurer.Birkhäuser, 2006. 336pp.£39.90
When the Building Research Establishment conducted tests at its Cardington Laboratory in 2000 that showed that sixstorey timber buildings could be structurally stable and survive in cases of fire, this was rightly hailed as a breakthrough for timber construction. Yet 250 years ago Swiss carpenters were building multi-family log homes that were up to five storeys high, and some of them are still standing.
As Anton Steurer's book shows, Swiss tradesmen and, more recently, engineers, have made major advances in the understanding of timber and its behaviour. This is complex because of the material's heterogeneous nature and the fact that it behaves better in compression than in tension.
Steurer is writing for a non-technical audience, and so he demonstrates engineering rather than explain it. He tells you what has been learned, rather than laying out the mathematical proof - a tendency that is exacerbated by the fact that when he employs diagrams showing tensile and compressive forces, it is not always clear which is which.
But he has a fascinating story to tell, showing some of the detailed research that used both empirical methods and analysis to make the behaviour of timber more predictable and hence allow it to be used more boldly. Development of laminated timber, of trusses and of connections all figure in this book, and there are photos of appealingly Heath Robinson apparatus, testing timber to failure in every possible way.
Engineers even took stressed glulam beams apart layer by layer after five years to measure the residual stresses.
The initials of various Swiss research institutes feature widely, and if sometimes the attempt to bring international efforts back to Switzerland is a little contrived, their contribution was clearly vital. This is a country which produced not only skilled carpenters but also mathematicians such as Euler and Bernoulli. And the Swiss railways played a key role in the adoption of laminated construction in their search for an inexpensive and low-maintenance alternative to iron, which was corroded by locomotive emissions.
Steurer's 'memorable buildings' were definitely chosen for their engineering rather than their architectural qualities, which are variable.
But the last section, which shows developments in bridge design, is fascinating. There seems to be a clear affinity, for instance, between the earlier pioneering work of the Grenmanns in the 18th century and the Selgis road bridge, completed in 2001, both because of and despite the technological advances that went on over more than two centuries.
Although this is certainly not a glossy architectural book, it has a reassuringly low ratio of words to images. Photos of buildings are complemented by shots of laboratory tests, graphs and drawings. This is a godsend, since the English translation is not always impeccable. As it says at the beginning, 'This book is also in a German language edition available'.