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Words:
Michael Ramage and Rob Foster

Winner: Design and Technical

How a supertall timber building might look in London: 80-storey Oakwood Tower in the City designed by PLP architecture.
How a supertall timber building might look in London: 80-storey Oakwood Tower in the City designed by PLP architecture.

Supertall Timber: Design Research for the Next Generation of Natural Structure
Dr Michael Ramage and Dr Rob Foster, University of Cambridge, UK
Simon Smith, Smith and Wallwork, UK
Kevin Flanagan & Ron Bakker, PLP / Architecture, UK

The Supertall Timber project aspires to make truly tall wooden buildings a reality through collaborations between architects, engineers and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation.  The project pioneers a new model of design-led research and research-led design, where we are able to develop prototype designs and test specific structural elements in our research laboratories. The resulting designs, and the process through which they were developed, highlight a number of insights for architects.

Timber has a substantial role in large building design: our research has established that engineered timber in the 21st century is an appropriate material for new buildings well beyond the current scale of use.  While there is still much research to be done, there is nothing fundamental about timber as a material that should limit its use.  It is essential to design ‘with’ it rather than against it. Engineered timbers can be as strong and stiff as steel, relative to their weight. However, the structural sizes required will often be larger than for steel and reduced strength and stiffness across the grain mean that connection design can become a key consideration. Where aesthetic design embraces the need to consider the engineering and construction requirements of a new material, new architectural and structural forms are possible.

The response of the public, policy makers and developers to the prospect of much taller timber buildings has been overwhelmingly positive

Professional diversity is essential. Each project team began with one or two days of intensive design which brought together leading architects, engineers and researchers in one room, with the sole purpose of addressing the challenge of designing a tall building using wood. These charrettes were astonishingly productive and cemented relationships, enabling the projects to keep developing. The Chicago based architect of one project observed recently that in his view, not just the project but also the team was formed in those first two days – amid piles of tracing paper, chunky markers and white foam. At various points it has been led alternatively by architecture, engineering, or research concerns. The invaluable starting point was to have a range of interested and engaged professions in a room for two days focusing solely on design.

Research and design are symbiotic: designers and researchers can effectively collaborate on projects, both live and conceptual, to think big and extend the boundaries of what is thought possible. This is particularly important on designs using timber and other natural materials where there is a huge gap between the current state of the art in practice and what research suggests may be possible. By bringing designers and researchers together to think about designing a 300m tall timber building, approaches and design solutions were developed that could also be readily applied to timber buildings of more moderate height. It has also been interesting to see that the response of the public, policy makers and developers to the prospect of much taller timber buildings has been overwhelmingly positive. While research may seem like a luxury in time-constrained practices, this project has shown such work to be a valuable investment in furthering the state-of-the-art and the capabilities of a practice.

It is perhaps worth noting that the design teams involved in the Supertall Timber project have been approached by developers interested in transferring the knowledge and understanding gained as part of this research into real projects.


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