3 December 2010

Wood Talks

Wednesday evening saw the final part of this year’s series of Wood Talks run by The Building Centre and it did not disappoint.

‘The time for timber has come’ declared Craig White of White Design, the chair for the evening. The need for low embodied energy in construction materials is becoming increasingly important and the use of timber to achieve this is a no-brainer.

John Hope Gateway - Edward Cullinan Architects

The presentation of the John Hope Gateway at the Edinburgh Botanical gardens, by Edward Cullinan Architects was skilfully delivered by Roddy Languir. He described how the existing routes and views were analysed, and formed the conceptual basis of the design along with props, planes, spiral and canopy with arboreal references throughout.

In this instance timber is used as a sustainable, low-energy material forming part of an environmental solution working within the context of its botanical surroundings. Its exposed glulam beams elegantly jointed to steel columns form the ‘canopy’ under which visitors can sit and enjoy framed views of the gardens.

Gordon Cowley of Cowley Timberworks presented ‘Geometrically challenged structures’ through a wonderful array of creative timberwork from geodesic domes (Napier University, Bradford Royal Infirmary) to the ‘tensegrity structure’ of the Cutty Sark Pavilion.

The message was clear; in a country whose local timber resource is scarce, the less wood we use within a structure the better. Efficiency within the structure is key, where beauty lies within the ingenuity and pure simplicity of the resultant form.

Southall Gurdwara

The conclusion to the evening’s presentations focused on the realisation of the new Pompidou Centre in Metz – a story unravelled by Philip Gumuchdjian, inspired by the nearby Cath√©drale Saint-√Čtienne, the hexagonal shape and Pompidou himself, and Shigeru Ban’s woven Chinese straw hat.

The complex timber structure of the canopy which overhangs in areas by 20m, is an achievement in constructional ingenuity, and would not have been possible 20 years ago even though it utilizes ancient building techniques. The result is an iconic building which effectively connects a new site for urban development with the main city across a major railway, by framing views and being a destination in itself.

Pompidou centre metz
The three speakers approached the use of timber in distinctly different ways. A balance between environmental benefit and conceptual representation is achieved at the John Hope Gateway; beauty lies within the delicate efficiency achieved in all of Cowley’s geometric creations through his thorough understanding of the material and its structural potential; the Pompidou Centre in Metz represents the use of timber for its aesthetic characteristics, and how an ambitious execution of a design developed through advanced computer modelling can result in an iconic building which captures the attention of people from all corners of the world.

The Pompidou Centre may be extravagant, and the elegance achieved in Shigeru’s smaller projects lost within a complexity at a scale too large for most of us to comprehend. Efficiency does not seem to have been factored in the process of the design, and although there are a number of token gestures toward the environmental performance of the building, this is in contrast to the indulgence of the sheer size and complexity of the undulating ‘woven’ timber roof.

Timber is a beautiful and sustainable material which appeals to our senses. Using timber in innovative ways can awe and inspire provided that it is used in an honest and comprehensible way. If we are to promote the use of timber for the future of our built environment, we must not lose sight of its integral characteristics.

If we make an effort to understand the material and its sustainable qualities then we are a step closer to realising its full potential. The boundaries are now being pushed in a direction where timber has become exciting as well as the natural choice for a sustainable solution proving that it is indeed the time for timber.

30 November 2010

Work, Rest and Play…?

The humble office; for most of us it is a home away from home. With increased working hours we tend to see our colleagues more than our families.

Why then are so many working environments not designed for ‘living’?
Johnson Wax Building interior image

Early modernists believed the office was a machine for focussed work and productivity. While these qualities are still important to any working environment, the way in which we work has largely changed. Developments in technology and communication have resulted in hotdesking, working from home and even working from abroad.

The freedom and flexibility these offer certainly compliment our busy lifestyles, but are they in fact making us more distant from our peers?

The thought of working from home is often an appealing one… no structured hours, dress code or harrowing commute! All very good, but the insular nature of it is surely not conducive to a healthy society. I can contact anyone at the touch of a button but where is the gossip, banter and fun of working with PEOPLE? I’m also not convinced that working from home would increase my productivity*.

The slide at Google HQ

If the new office is about social interaction and the sharing of knowledge, could it become the adult playground?

One example which pushes this notion to the extreme is the Google HQ in Zurich. The building brings staff together in a fun environment – complete with slide – to promote social interaction and communication. They believed that productivity could be increased by ensuring staff are happy and relaxed. This investment has been proven to also improve staff retention and reduction in sick leave.

Relaxation spaces at Google HQ

Some of the unconventional features of the building were a result of the users being heavily involved in the design process. The importance of this level of staff consultation is supreme… but probably an entire other discussion.

Informal meeting space. Redbull office. Sydney

Of course a slide or fireman’s pole is not appropriate for all workplaces, but as our lives become more focussed around work, that element of ‘living’ is increasingly important.

*As I write this blog from my laptop at home, It has taken far longer than it should due to distractions like magazines and Facebook (and an episode of Jeremy Kyle I’m not proud to admit!). If working from home is a way of the future, I’m not sure it’s for me…