Wood — Building Material of the Future

SLIDESHOW: “Where in the past wood was used because it was available and cheap, we see now that there are very different reasons to use wood,” said Lidewij Lenders, Dutch architect and co-founder of MAATworks.

The combination of innovation and craftsmanship in the medium of wood will be a factor in the homes of tomorrow.

Architects, builders and designers are pointing to how people are rediscovering a love of wood in and around their homes.

“I feel there is a ‘movement’ to use wood in architecture now,” says Lidewij Lenders, Dutch architect and co-founder of MAATworks.

“Where in the past wood was used because it was available and cheap, we see now that there are very different reasons to use wood,” she explains.

Lenders made a name as a specialist woodcarver after building a wooden house for herself and her family. “Living in it, I became convinced about the comfort wood gives. It is beautiful and gives a warm atmosphere. Now I never want to live in concrete again.”

Last year, MAATworks created a slender five-storey Amsterdam townhouse entirely out of wood, which it named Houten Herenhuis (wooden house), for a client who was “enamoured of Scandinavian wooden homes”. With a bright-red façade and large windows displaying an angular engineered pine staircase, the award-winning residence instantly catches the eye. Lenders has since been commissioned to build several more wooden homes in a similar style.

“Living in a wooden home is good for acoustics and humidity, because wood somehow adjusts to a comfortable inner climate,” she says. In her opinion, beauty is related to honesty and modesty, which are the defining principles of wood. “That’s why I love to work with wood; the material is beautiful in itself and it’s suitable for ‘honest’ and minimal detailing.”

The combination of innovation and craftsmanship in the medium of wood is rarely more evident than in the steam-bent home built by British lighting and furniture designer Tom Raffield. Tucked away in six acres of ancient Cornish woodland is the home that Raffield built for himself and his wife Danielle last year. “It’s our dream home,” he says.

The Raffields bought the original listed gamekeeper’s lodge five years ago to create a family home. Featured last year on the British cult architectural TV programme Grand Designs, the house was reimagined using the steam-bending method — with a twist. While studying at Falmouth College, Raffield realised he wanted to go further than traditional steam-bending techniques would allow and so he invented what he called the bag technique.

Traditional steam bending sees wood placed in a chamber of steam and then removed into the air to be bent. Raffield developed a new technique using a steam-filled bag on localised sections of the wood, enabling him to create more complex bends in the wood while it is still pliable from the steam.

Technological advancement in techniques means that wood can not only be used to create unique furniture pieces and fantastical residences, but is now being used to build skyscrapers. A number of these are already changing the skyline. The wooden Treet apartment block in Norway is currently the world’s tallest wooden building, at 14 storeys. This year will see the foundations laid for the 21-storey Haut building in Amsterdam; while in Canada, Brock Commons, an 18-storey wooden dormitory, is due to be completed at the University of British Columbia. The ‘Trätoppen’ (The Treetop) a 40-floor residential tower in Stockholm, designed by Anders Berensson Architects, is in the process of getting planning permission; while Canadian architect Michael Green is seeking approval for a 30-storey tower in his hometown of Vancouver.

Some might feel nervous about the idea of living in a super-high wooden building, where even the elevator shafts are wooden. What about fire, strong winds, or even woodworm? But recent research by architectural company Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into the properties of engineered wood — specifically cross-laminated timber (CLT) — concludes that wood can be more fire-resistant than steel. This is due to the way the wood chars on the outside, protecting the inside, while steel melts at high temperature. What’s more, wood is easier to assemble, cheaper, and more sustainable than steel and concrete, as it acts as a carbon sponge and can be replenished year after year.

And most importantly for big cities, wood is light. Concrete and steel require huge amounts of energy to transport them around the country and massive foundations to be dug. Even though CLT requires engineering to cut and press it, is far more environmentally friendly than man-made building materials.

Back in Amsterdam, Lenders firmly believes in the future of wood as the only truly sustainable building material. “Wood is CO2-neutral in itself. During the life of a tree it absorbs CO2 to convert into oxygen. Old wood digests into compost. So, as long as you plant new trees, building with wood fits in this natural cycle.” Lenders adds that wood makes the perfect medium for pre-fabricated building methods, especially when it comes to mass production in poorer areas. Wood is suited to computer numerical control (CNC) milling, a technique that allows the architect to design the interior and exterior building blocks as one.

And finally, living in a wooden home, she adds, “smells really good”. What’s not to love?

Wood-lovers on the beauty of wood
John Makepeace OBE is a British furniture designer who taught furniture making to the Queen’s nephew. He believes that the beauty of wood lies in its infinite variety. “No two pieces are ever the same.” Makepeace is especially fond of rare and unpredictable woods such as ripple sycamore (“it takes on the quality of moiré silk”); washed burr oak for its rugged texture; yew wood’s “rich orange colour and sensuous feel”; oak from Longleat planted in 1740 and harvested in 1980, beautifully cared for by generations of foresters; and even “black-bog oak dug up from the fens where they have been since storms 5,000 years ago”.

Makepeace believes that there is a growing demand for wood handled by craftsmen rather than machines. “To make the best of such a precious material requires the individual attention that can be given to it by a craftsman. Industry can only handle the less-interesting woods that are predictable in character,” he says.

But Makepeace caveats that the design of exceptional objects should be a clear expression of our time. “Science and technology enable us to achieve new possibilities through an improved understanding of materials’ best properties and how to combine them,” he says. The combination of innovative design and fine craftsmanship is “hugely appealing”.

Simon Burvill of Gaze Burvill is a master garden furniture maker and trustee of the British non-profit Woodland Heritage. He believes the beauty of wood lies in its simplicity. “Humans always seek simplicity. People try to enhance design with add-ons but it’s well known that timelessness comes with simplicity.”

There are a lot of constraints in his craft as the furniture has to withstand all types of weather. “So we usually use the fantastic material oak, at least 120-year-old oak.” Gaze Burvill dries the oak in a kiln to ensure durability as it expands and shrinks between seasons, and leaves adequate space between slats and joints. “You’re wrestling with demands of the outdoors, plus comfort and good looks. Once you tick all those boxes you end up with timeless pieces,” adds Burvill. The other advantage of oak is that unlike tropical hardwoods you can steam-bend it, a technique Gaze Burvill is famous for. “With steam-bending the grain follows the curve of the body and the landscape.”

Finally, says Burvill, there is oak’s sheer beauty. “When you see the medullary rays, you see the heart of the tree, like a tiger stripe. You get a wonderful pattern when it catches the light.

“We haven’t even begun to tap the depths of what wood can do for us. It has a terrific future.”

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