Connective architecture in the High Weald_2016

2016_studio’s enquiry developed through a clearly focused investigation into wood and its applications as a material for use in construction.

Matteo Thun, award winning Italian architect, designer and timber specialist, claims that this building material is the substance of the 21st century.1 We questioned this. How is it that wood, with its long association with craft, vernacular buildings and the past, can compete in today’s race for ever more ‘intelligent’ materials and sustainable futures?

We as designers and educators need to participate in embracing development strategies that are both energy efficient and utilise local physical and human resources in an appropriate and just manner. We cannot overlook this because the built environment is responsible for roughly 50 per cent of the worldwide consumption of energy; it causes half the emissions of greenhouse gases; and it devours 50 per cent of our resources.2

Studio work was developed on sites in the High Weald district, historically the most wooded natural area in England, less than 30 miles from Brighton and the studio facility in the university.

Investigations into the life-cycle of timber; from seed to saw mill, to workshop and construction site, were supported through our studio partners at the Woodland Enterprise Centre, Flimwell and with specialist technical assistance from Architecture Ensemble’s Steve Johnson, whose completed award winning projects at WEC Flimwell and elsewhere have been widely published.3

As the only regenerable material used in mainstream construction, wood has sustainability credentials which are unequalled. Its life cycle is practically endless, from harvesting, manufacture, construction and product life through to potential reuse and recycling. Projects such as the 2002 Stirling Prize shortlisted Weald and Downland Gridshell building (fig), designed by Buro Happold and Edward Cullinan Architects with Steve Johnson as project architect, demonstrate how buildings can accommodate the continuation of this carbon cycle through their design for material reuse.

Engagement with the wide array of precedent timber structures at WEC Fimwell (fig), both within and beyond architecture, provided insight into the potential of the material and specific characteristics of different species. As part of the studio’s Design-Make residency at WEC Flimwell, hosted by founder director David Saunders, the studio collectively designed and fabricated structures building on an understanding of how the material properties of timber can be enhanced through forestry techniques, treatment processes and engineered solutions (fig). Our attitude towards design began with the material itself. Through understanding its properties, potential and technical detail we subsequently defined its deployment and composition (fig).

We question whether in more than 400,000 years of its use as a building material, the shift from frame to high-performance panel represents the maximisation of the material’s potential. In doing so, we wish to challenge the current attitudes propagated by the timber industry.

As a material with credentials that support Matteo Thun’s claim for a headlining role in 21st century, and to which the work of the studio seeks to contribute, we advocate that within the educational framework currently offered to architectural students, we should continue to explore alternative and diverse avenues of enquiry to support our understanding, knowledge and expertise in the use of the material?

1 Thun, M., (2015). Wood in Architecture, Interior and Product Design – A Homage to a Building Material, in Holz Wood, Best
of Detail. Edition Detail, pp. 11.
2 IPCC (2019). Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments — IPCC. [online]
3 Johnson, S. (2005). The Architecture Ensemble. In Architectural Design, 75(4), pp.96-99.


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