Architects working with mass timber must stop imitating concrete buildings by focusing on height and form and find a new way to measure success, says expert Andrew Waugh in an interview for our Timber Revolution series.
“We’ve framed the success of wood within the narrative of concrete, but we need to step out and find our own way,” said London-based architect and master woodworker Waugh.
He believes that making buildings in wood rather than concrete requires architects to take a fundamentally different approach to design.
“When you design in concrete, you often come up with the building before you think about how to build it,” he told Dezeen. “That process needs to change.”
“With wood, you have to think about how the building will stand and the individual pieces that hold it together. That’s what generates the shape,” he said.
“Now we understand the technical advantages”
As founding director of Waugh Thistleton Architects, Waugh has been developing buildings with cross-laminated timber (CLT) structures for 15 years.
These include ground-breaking residential projects Murray Grove and Dalston Works, built in 2009 and 2017 respectively, plus the recently completed Black & White Building for workplace provider The Office Group.
The studio now builds almost exclusively in wood. Each project is designed with a component-based approach, and engineers are consulted from early on.
“In the beginning, we were definitely making concrete buildings out of wood,” said the architect.
“Now we understand the technical benefits of the material, as well as the sensory benefits, so the timber becomes a really significant part of the architecture,” he continued.
“It’s a different mindset, but it doesn’t take us any further.”
Wooden skyscrapers are “bullshit”
In particular, Waugh is skeptical of the growing trend for high-rise wooden buildings and proposals to build tall skyscrapers out of wood, questioning whether they make the best use of the material.
“Architecture practices all over the world are coming out with these CGIs of super-tall buildings, colored in brown with an arrow that says timber,” he said.
“It’s bullshit because if you’re going to build a tall building out of timber, you still have to fill it full with concrete to make sure it doesn’t wave around.”
According to data from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the five tallest wooden buildings in the world were all completed within the past four years.
The alternative, Waugh suggests, is to stop increasing building heights and instead find other ways to measure the success of a wooden building.
This could be – as suggested by Dezeen columnist Maximilian Pramreiter – by measuring the building’s material efficiency or by measuring its well-being impact.
“Perhaps we should measure success in relation to enjoyment?” he suggested, referring to the Scandinavian concept of coziness. “It can be about how good and happy you feel in the room.”
“We’re not going to run out of trees”
Waugh believes that it is possible for all architects to pivot towards a timber-first approach.
Although there are only about 70 CLT manufacturers worldwide at the moment, the architect points out that there were “only four or five” a decade ago. He expects that number to rise rapidly as the pulpwood market continues to grow.
“We’re not going to build all buildings from CLT tomorrow because there aren’t enough factories, but there will be,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”
Research is a fundamental aspect of Waugh Thistleton’s practice. In 2018 it published the 100 Projects UK CLT report, offering comprehensive guidance on the benefits and challenges of building with CLT.
Based on his expertise, Waugh doesn’t see demand for wood outpacing supply in the long term. He believes that Europe’s timber yield can be significantly increased with better forest management.
“In Europe, more than half of the timber that is felled is burned as a so-called renewable energy. This must stop,” he said.
EU countries burned 23.1 million tonnes of wood pellets as an energy source in 2021, according to UNECE data, while a single UK power plant imported and burned 7.8 million tonnes of pellets.
“We need to plant more trees and get better at using them by burning less and being more efficient,” Waugh said. “But it’s not like we’re going to run out of trees anytime soon.”
“We are just at the beginning”
One of the technical challenges of building in wood is dealing with water intrusion. If a solid timber building is not sufficiently waterproof, it can cause the structure to deteriorate.
Waugh points to similar problems with concrete when it was first introduced. He is confident that problems like this will be solved as knowledge of solid timber buildings grows.
“We’re just at the beginning,” he said.
“It took us decades to understand how to use concrete,” he added. “Before World War II, architects were sued because their buildings collapsed.”
“We go through similar learning curves with wood.”
Either way, Waugh believes a wood revolution is imminent due to the level of investment going into pulpwood.
His practice is currently developing schemes around the world, in countries including the US, Norway and Italy.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said legislation would drive greener buildings,” he said. “It hasn’t happened.”
“Instead, it’s money that drives change. Investment funds are demanding low-carbon buildings because they don’t want to own big concrete and steel buildings in 10, 20 or 50 years.”
The architect’s concern is that the interest in wood has become modern and can be seen as a passing trend.
“This could be a fashion moment that we’re in, rather than the beginning of a paradigm shift, which is what it should be,” he said.
“I fear that many architects treat wood as an additional material in their palette, and this upsets me. This is not a palette choice; it is a complete shift in the way we think about the values of architecture.”
Images are published by Waugh Thistleton unless otherwise noted.
This article is part of Dezeen’s Timber Revolution series, which explores the potential of mass timber and asks whether going back to wood as our primary building material can lead the world to a more sustainable future.