Wood Awards 2015: The joy of wood

Welcome to this year’s Wood Awards where you can see all the winning and shortlisted schemes. As an introduction, Hugh Pearman considers what sets wooden architecture apart

Is there something conceptually different about architecture that is made out of wood?  In furniture, this is unarguable. But does the use of the material guide the architect’s hand in such a way that the resulting building is clearly distinguishable from a sister building with the same brief, made from different materials?

I would argue that yes, it does: that in devising buildings with wood in mind – and here I mean structurally, not just the external envelope – architecture adapts accordingly, if perhaps subconsciously. It’s not just a matter of calculating what you can do with given dimensions of green oak or laminated beams or particle board or engineered slabs of CLT (cross-laminated timber, which has been described by one leading architect as ‘the new concrete’). It’s as much to do with an attitude of mind: that here is a material that is grown rather than made, that is infinitely replaceable, that treads lightly on the earth.

These are factors that count heavily with architects, especially the rising generation. In an echo of the ‘nose to tail eating’ movement where no part of the animal is wasted, here is something more herbivorous: it is possible to design and specify a building where no part of the tree is wasted. Especially if your modest energy needs are generated from green sources which will include biomass-fuelled power stations.

In this context I was intrigued to learn recently that scientists are investigating how feasible it is to make the growing of timber completely predictable at the cellular level, so that densities, and therefore strength, can be precisely predicted in the way that is more usually associated with synthetic materials.  This would certainly help reduce global carbon emissions and allow more delicate structures, and so should be welcomed. But this risks missing one of the joys of timber, which is the look and feel – and sometimes the mass – of it.

It is a very forgiving material in the way that it carries a certain redundancy, which also means repairability. How many conservation projects have you seen where an ancient, perhaps derelict, timber-frame building has been brought back to life, repaired, straightened – even perhaps disassembled, moved and re-erected? Wood can do that. It lasts. It adapts. Long before the term was coined, it was your basic ‘kit of parts’. The different kits that evolved in various societies did so with the human body in mind – what people could readily handle, singly or in groups, as they assembled buildings. I contend that something of that memory remains.

And this is what makes the annual parade of fine architecture and design presented by the Wood Awards such a joy. On the one hand this year, we see a great big office multi-storey block for a media company that makes full use of the technology of timber structure. On the other hand, we find an exquisite little lakeside building that revisits the idea of the ‘noble barn’ as put forward by Britain’s first Renaissance architect, Inigo Jones. Or you can take other contrasts: an ultra-sleek conservatory roof to a Crossrail station in London’s financial district, or an uplifting sequence of spaces in an Edinburgh nursery school. And then we see furniture designs that would be at home in any of these buildings – something that makes this award unique as a fusion of architecture and design.

This range tells you everything about the capabilities of timber in the hands of the best architects, designers and makers. Take a look, and enjoy this year’s winners and commendations. Wood brings out the best not only in buildings and furniture, but also – and this is cause and effect – in people.

Hugh Pearman, editor, RIBA Journal

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