The Modern Timber House in the UK

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I attended a discussion at the Building Centre based around Peter Wilson’s book ‘The Modern Timber House in the UK’. It was completely packed – so I could never see the speakers – and the high level display had some unhelpful slides on a loop – so I was lucky copies of the book were handed out for free! I might question the commercial wisdom of handing out a free copy of your new book to the 200 or so people most likely to buy it, but thanks!

As the speakers and reviewer pointed out, timber construction has moved forward enormously in the UK over the last 10 years. Previous editions of this book probably would have had to look far beyond the UK to find suitable examples, and it would seem like future editions could feasibly focus on individual cities and areas. It seems like London (home of the tall timber house [roughly 6 stories and up and ‘affordable’ timber housing]) and the Isle of Skye [small thermally efficient homes in exposed and inaccessible locations] could merit books of their own some day.

The key benefits of timber seem to be: improved quality through extensive prefabrication (leading to the relative ease of tricky geometries and easily achieved airtightness), lightness (reducing required foundation capacity and traffic to site), speed of construction on site, and carbon sequestration capacity. Solid timber was noted for its good acoustic insulation properties – one guest at the talk told of its use in flats next to rail lines, allowing better utilisation of these sites with quality housing. For those with the ability to take a project from start to end as a 3D model with complete confidence, many of these ‘wins’ become quite standard. Though they aren’t mentioned in this book, which openly tries to persuade in favour of timber, drawbacks seem to be: a lagging insurance and building standards industry, economy at small scale, careful detailing to avoid continuously wet wood, and lower structural strengths limiting development heights and increasing the volume of structure. Slender structure is often curtailed by fire regulations, even when disproportionate collapse requirements are satisfied.

Many of the houses in the book feel very ‘grand designs’ – there isn’t much optimisation to be seen, and a lot of personal effort. To create something worthwhile, a system that offers the right level of optimisation for a variety of sites seems necessary, at least for the London market. This would offer 3-8 stories with a variety of plan geometries, and completely standardised details. For small dwellings the Isle of Skye and the Scottish Highlands seem to have found something of a similar level of repetition and customisation through companies like Heb Homes.

A few favourites:

  • North Vat, Dungeness – for sitting in its environment comfortably, despite being unusual in its design and colour. Feels much less alien than other examples.
  • Lateral House, Bayswater, London – for the crispness of the intersection of its front wall and pitched roof, and general level of finishing throughout – amazing attention to detail.

Overall – worth a look through to identify the best projects and what makes them different from the mediocre ones. The book would have benefitted from many more diagrams, many passages of text are technical and hard to follow in writing, and I feel a few diagrams would have helped these passages greatly. I feel the future of timber is in its ability to be easily manipulated by CNC machines, allowing high quality projects with a high degree of automated design – much as opendesk do with furniture today – so a chapter on the use of CNC to develop increasingly complex juntions, and increase the proportion of projects automatically designed, would have been of interest to me.

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