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Wednesday, 26 February

A Wooden Heart - Timber to Transform London's Skyline?

An ambitious concept for London’s first timber skyscraper has been presented to Mayor of London Boris Johnson by a team that believe it is viable.

The conceptual plans for an 80-storey, 300m high wooden building integrated within the Barbican are from researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture working with PLP Architecture and engineer Smith and Wallwork on the future development of tall timber buildings in central London.

The use of timber as a structural material in tall buildings is an area of emerging interest for its variety of what will particularly attract the green lobby – it is a renewable resource, unlike prevailing construction methods using concrete and steel. The research is also investigating other potential benefits, e.g. reduced costs and improved construction timescales, increased fire resistance and significant reduction in the overall weight of buildings. The conceptual proposals currently being developed would create over 1,000 new residential units in a 1 million sqft mixed-use tower and mid-rise terraces in central London, integrated within the Barbican.

“We’ve put our proposals on the Barbican as a way to imagine what the future of construction could look like in the twenty-first century,” said Dr Michael Ramage, Director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation. “If London is going to survive it needs to increasingly densify. One way is taller buildings and we believe people have a greater affinity with taller buildings in natural materials rather than steel and concrete towers.”

The fundamental premise the team has put forward to Johnson is that timber and other natural materials are ‘vastly underused’ and are not given nearly enough credit. “Nearly every historic building, from King’s College Chapel to Westminster Hall, has made extensive use of timber,” argued Ramage.


Design potentials

The tall timber buildings research also looks towards creating new design potentials with timber buildings rather than simply copying the forms of steel and concrete construction.

The transition to timber construction may have a wider positive impact on urban environments and built form and offers opportunities not only to rethink the aesthetics of buildings but also the structural methodologies informing their design as well.

The type of wood these new buildings would use is regarded as a ‘crop’. The amount of crop forest in the world is currently expanding. Canada alone could produce more than 15 billion m³ of crop forest in the next 70 years, enough to house approximately a billion people.

At present, the world’s tallest timber building is a 14-storey apartment block in Bergen, Norway. The proposals presented to Johnson included concepts for a timber tower nearly 300m high which would make it the second tallest building in London after The Shard.


Safety concerns

Perhaps the most obvious concern for potential residents of homes built primarily from timber is fire risk.

However, the team involved in the project said the proposed building would eventually meet or exceed every existing fire regulation currently in place for steel and concrete buildings.

Recent research has also shown that timber buildings can have positive effects on their user and occupant’s health. Some recent studies have also shown that children taught in schools with timber structures may perform better than in those made of concrete.

“We’ve designed the architecture and engineering and demonstrated it will stand but this is at a scale no one has attempted to build before,” conceded Ramage. “We are developing a new understanding of primary challenges in structure and construction. There is a lot of work ahead but we are confident of meeting all the challenges before us.”

The designs for the Barbican is the first in a series of timber skyscrapers developed by Cambridge University in association with globally renowned architects and structural engineers with funding from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Picture:   Proposals for a timber skyscraper in the Barbican complex have been submitted to Mayor of London Boris Johnson

Article written by Robin Snow


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