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Cullinan Studio celebrates timber

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Ted Cullinan, Meredith Bowles and Simon Smith reflect on designing with timber

Three talks by three designers experienced with timber illustrated the diversity of what is possible with wood. Ted Cullinan, Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects and engineer Simon Smith each reflected on a series of projects to frame their own timber narrative. The discussion that followed highlighted the barriers to more widespread adoption of timber.

All three speakers spoke about the simultaneous versatility and robustness of timber which make it suitable for a wide range of applications from an ice rink roof to a willow bridge. Yet a significant obstacle to complex designs in timber is a lack of traditional skills in the UK. This perception extends to the design professions as timber design, particularly in engineering, was felt to be under-represented on university courses. This lack of education and the desire to reduce professional risk were cited as reasons for opting for cross-laminated timber (CLT) on a number of projects. 

Meredith Bowles opened the session explaining how his work aims to emphasise timber’s inherent qualities. Meredith described Studio in the Woods, the annual student workshop he tutors where participants create a structure entirely of timber. Showing images of Dune House, he explained how its robust CLT enclosure on the first floor contrasts with the openness of the glass-walled ground floor. 

Describing the history of the drained wetlands that created the fens where his practice is based, Bowles cited water as timber’s biggest enemy. Rural poverty has led to a  vernacular of simple timber buildings, and he described how his own dwelling, Black House, was designed to fit into the local tradition of simple, low-impact buildings. 

Black House by Mole Architects

Black House by Mole Architects

Simon Smith’s message was to try to minimise the use of materials. Quoting research by Julian Allwood (recently on Footprint), he attacked today’s practice of substituting more materials for labour. Smith’s view is that designers are often lazy and could hone their designs to do more with less. He expressed mixed feelings over the fact that in the last ten years, he has used some 15,000m² of timber, questioning whether he could have done the same with less.

Smith presented a proposed ice rink in Cambridge that used cross-laminated timber and a bowstring truss, maximising the structural qualities of the materials and reducing the amounts needed. 

When it came his turn, Ted Cullinan got out his legendary felt-tip pen and flipped on the overhead projector. Choosing one project from the seventies, eighties and nineties, Cullinan brought them to life with amusing anecdotes. From the seventies, he spoke about a series of offices designed for Olivetti located on ‘fabulously boring’ industrial estates. Designed to be adaptable and expandable, they featured wire ducting for the computers, which typewriter manufacturer Olivetti had recognised would be part of the office of the future. 

Cullinan’s project for the 1980s was the reconstruction of St Mary’s Church in Barnes. Destroyed by fire in 1978, the church was restored and a new sanctuary added to the north. Trusses made of steel flats bolted to timber support a large timber roof supported.

The last project Cullinan presented was housing at Hooke Park in Dorset for the Parnham Trust. The houses were built from forest trimmings, usually burned or turned into chip board. The curved timber roof was bent using barrels suspended at each end. Illustrating it for us with a sketch of stick men hanging drawn in the place of barrels, Ted noted, ‘You draw things that didn’t happen because they explain more vividly what did happen.’  

The discussion following the talks highlighted the simplicity of CLT and architects’ misperceptions that complex use of timber is risky or expensive. Smith remarked that there is a danger that sophisticated carpentry skills will be eroded by manufactured systems. Bowles added that he chose to construct the roof of the Dune house in CLT because he felt that the limited number of contactors able to construct the complex timber frame in situ made that route too risky. Smith noted that engineers wanting to design in timber should either go to Napier University or train in Austria or Germany, because there are few options in the UK. Comments from the audience reinforced this notion of a shortage of traditional timber construction skills in the UK. Henry Saunders, a conservation architect, commented that  traditional timber skills do still exist, primarily in conservation. 

Events of this kind enable designers to share recent practice and challenge the assumptions that sometimes limit innovation. Keep up the good talks.

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