Have you ever thought about designing a school and cladding it in wood? If you have, Alex de Rijke's experience might put you off. Speaking at the AJ's conference on timber earlier this month, de Rijke described his struggles on his latest project at award-winning Kingsdale school.
On this stand-alone music centre and sports hall, de Rijke had to argue with the insurer, Zurich, to be allowed to use timber for the structure, but lost the battle altogether over the cladding.
This is evidently not a blanket ban, since White Design managed to use timber on its Kingsmead school in Cheshire. Craig White, also a speaker at the conference, said that Cheshire council persuaded Zurich to insure that building.
The apparent anomaly probably relates to the individuals the two architects dealt with, but de Rijke is a determined person who would not give up without a struggle. He is now cladding the building with metal with a wood-grain finish, as a homage to what might have been.
Arson in schools is an extremely serious issue, but numerous studies have shown that properly specified timber does not actually burn that easily. The question is, who determines what is to be specified? Evidently the architect should be top of the list, but the client can also have an influence for good or ill. Even wise contractors can make a positive contribution. But an insurance company? They can be added to those stultifying influences of the past: the pension funds that decreed that offices should all be designed to withstand ludicrous floor loads;
and the mortgage lenders who put a brake on innovation in housing. Never mind gripes about planners, it is the dead hand of institutions that can really stifle imagination and improvement.
At a time when architecture is having to face up to changing regulations and the revolution that a real sustainability agenda will bring, the last thing we need is to be held back by a lot of ill-informed pen pushers.