Hugh Pearman enjoys, again, the remarkable and enduring properties of this most versatile, sustainable and hard-wearing of materials
What CAN’T wood do, really, architecturally and in furniture design? One of the most fascinating things about being involved annually with the Wood Awards is to see the ever-expanding range of possibilities using this versatile material, from the ultra high-tech to the traditional. Which means from the highly experimental products of one of the world’s leading architecture schools to the most satisfying and lovely hand-crafted details of a kind that medieval crafts folk would recognise.
And let’s not forget the good everyday, since the use of strong, durable engineered wood products structurally in buildings is now commonplace where a decade ago it was rare and special. When supermarket chains and a motorway service station specify such materials, you know a corner has been turned.
Judging of the Wood Awards is always a congenial but closely-argued affair, drawing together a wide selection of specialists. It comes down to achieving a three-way equilibrium of aesthetics, structural integrity and craft. Structure is clearly a vital consideration in buildings but increasingly so in furniture as the designers become more audacious. Also common to both sections of the awards is the increasing prevalence of hybrids: sometimes unexpected combinations and juxtapositions of materials. Wood and stone is an ancient marriage – one of our category winners manages to give this tradition a very contemporary reading. Wood and steel is a more recent one, used very happily in a lively and educational treewalk we awarded. And in the furniture section, wood and soya-based resin, foamed with sawdust, is the latest wonder product to be tried.
That last one also carries another important message: the avoidance of waste through the use of what previously would have been regarded as such, namely sawdust. This is further proof of one of wood’s strongest suits: its sustainability. In other contexts ‘sustainable’ has become an almost meaningless buzzword but when one is looking at the restoration of a large timber building that has existed very happily for nearly 600 years – one of our commendations – you get a real sense of its durability.
Henry VI was on the throne when this was built in 1426. The population was around a tenth of today’s level. Another 138 years would pass before the birth of Shakespeare. And there it is, and you can visit it. What were we commending, we wondered – the work of today’s restorers or of the medieval carpenters? A similar question arose with renovated 1960s timber-built houses. Not a problem, we swiftly decided: today’s designers are themselves tipping their hats to earlier generations.
Our awards cover Commercial and Leisure, Education and Public Sector, Private, Interiors, Small Projects, Existing Buildings and Structural. On the following pages you will find our winners and commendations in each of these. Plus our Arnold Laver Gold Award winner. This year’s architectural laureate effortlessly achieves that three-way equilibrium, working at a very high level of aesthetics, structure and craft, all in the service of human co-operation and dignity. It has a look all of its own, which recalls other lightweight timber designs such as aircraft. That of course means delicacy and transparency: others of the awards and commendations prefer solidity and enclosure. Add in that potential lifespan of centuries and yes, this is a material that really can do just about anything.
Hugh Pearman, editor, RIBA Journal
The Wood Awards 2016