Fact or friction

Fact or friction

In January’s ‘The Last Word’ feature, Helen Groat, Senior Engineer, Arup, discusses the capabilities and intricacies of timber for use in the architectural industry


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Developments in timber engineering, with respect to machining complexity, innovation and the types of timber used, have heightened interest in the material and increased its popularity. Through its work on a number of timber projects Arup has come to understand timber’s many fascinating aspects.

Research and development continue to be key to Arup’s application and advocation of timber in mainstream construction. The recent Fingers Crossed sculpture, for example, which featured in this year’s London Design Festival 2014 and at the Timber Expo, exploited CNC machining technology to create a geometry impossible in any other structural materials, using one of the oldest engineered timber products, plywood.

Students on the Architectural Association’s (AA) Emerging Technology course were tasked with developing a concept design for an indoor timber pavilion. Students were interested in pursuing this idea to its limit, by avoiding all steel elements including connections, which are typically one of the more expensive parts of any timber structure. The team, which encompassed Arup, the AA and the Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA), undertook this by introducing interlocking friction connections and investigating how the stiffness of plywood could be used to create a variably curved sculpture with a sinuous aesthetic.

Friction connections are unlikely to take off in building engineering designs. Nevertheless, explorative sculptures, such as Fingers Crossed, help to enhance the client’s and design team’s understanding of the behaviour of curved timber and the capability of CNC machining, in a way which will encourage further testing and development. Being able to demonstrate the capability of timber which is versatile, alongside the more traditional steel and concrete, will hopefully encourage an increasing number of designers to consider this highly sustainable, flexible and relatively lightweight material as one which they can design with for mainstream buildings.

Within Arup, we are driving towards this idea of timber as a common material by examining its capabilities and developing new innovations through the course of designing our projects. Enhanced tolerances and lower foundation costs are just some of the benefits of using timber, the former being absolutely critical to the success of Fingers Crossed. The continued exploration of timber and its rigorous testing is critical if this is to be introduced into mainstream building projects.

We have found that collaboration is key to truly understanding the limits of timber in any given project; if all parties are willing to investigate and challenge conventional thinking, the future of timber as a 21st Century building material is guaranteed.

Images courtesy of ©Daniel Imade/Arup

Jade Tilley
Jade Tilley

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