Investigate timber construction

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Methodology

This research is an attempt to investigate timber construction for non domestic construction of single storey buildings in the UK. It is based on an observation that in other EU countries there is more widespread use of timber structural forms for this type of building, while here in the UK there are few examples of timber structures of this type. Therefore the initial research will be aimed at looking for what differences in the UK construction industry exist that make the decision to specify steel frame rather than timber and almost universal choice. Also, where examples of timber structures have recently been built in the UK there will be an attempt to understand what the drivers where which encouraged the use of timber, and what barriers were overcome in order to make this choice of material competitive with the predominant steel form.

 

Literature review

Timber and construction industry literature

The Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA) is the preeminent source of information concerning timber. This is the first port of call for any serious study of timber construction in the UK. By assessing the literature published by TRADA it should be possible to gain an understanding of the latest research and development as well as industry trends in timber construction. TRADA work with local, regional, and central government agencies on timber research projects. They also work on behalf of private enterprise to develop and encourage the use of timber in the UK construction industry. Specialist timber study and research yields a vast resource of literature. For example TRADA engineers worked with The Institution of Structural Engineers to produce a manual for the design of timber structures Page, E (2008) and this forms the main guidance to engineers in developing timber structures under the new regulatory standard.

 

Examination of case studies

By looking at case studies written by academic experts from TRADA and by others featured in respected trade publications such as the Timber Trade Federation online there has been an attempt to understand what made these exemplary buildings more difficult to construct in timber. What was special, unique or challenging about these timber structures?

Issues are identified both by relevant discussion in the body of literature and also by the absence of discussion around certain issues. For example the case study of the Savill building hints at the importance of onsite carpentry skills and perhaps a lack of these skills is a significant inhibitor to projects being specified in timber on a more regular basis. This doesn't appear to be widely discussed in the literature and so this will be a useful question to pose in the interview stage of research. Similarly, where the price of timber is not specifically commented upon in the literature of the subject, though it is well known, anecdotally to be a factor in the choice of materials, I will seek to discuss this with people within the industry.


Questionnaire

Timber construction is a comparatively niche area within UK construction as a whole. For a variety of reasons, steel and brick masonry construction predominate in the UK and for this reason the pool of expertise and the resulting amount of literature coverage is smaller than with other forms construction. It may be exaggerating a little to say that the timber construction in the UK is a 'cottage industry' but in comparison with steel structural engineering that description begins to ring true. For this reason the number of people involved, as potential interviewee's, is fairly minimal.

Interview types can be placed on a linear scale of structure and control with one end of the scale representing interviews with a rigid formal structure. The opposite end of the scale represents unstructured interview, also known as in-depth interview.

This report includes a combination of both types of interview in an attempt to capture two different types of valuable data which should be complimentary to each other and provide a better overall view of the case for or against timber construction in the UK, for the type of building in question.

The strategy was to conduct an extended interview with key industry figures. Here the key findings from the literature review, the barriers and drivers towards timber construction were put forward and the interviewees were asked to give their view of the relevance of these factors and discuss examples of how this affects the industry from their point of view. The interviewees were also asked to put forward any other factors which their experience has shown to be relevant in inhibiting the use of timber for these building types. Several of the respondents spoke enthusiastically and in considerable depth about their view of timber construction in the UK and the systemic differences that exist between the industry here and in EU countries such as Germany. This conversational information has been selectively edited to form part of the results section preceding the tabulated questionnaire data.

These conversations yielded an appreciation that 9 key barriers might be significant in inhibiting the use of timber structures when competing against steel building types for non domestic single story buildings.

The second stage of questionnaire was a series of statements based on the 9 key barriers to timber construction, devised via a combination of literature review and extended interview. The respondents were asked to rank the statement with a score from one to ten, with one representing strong disagreement and ten complete agreement. This allowed the collection of quantitative data and a replication of the interview with multiple interviewees. The data produced in this manner is more representative of the view of the industry as a whole than the extended interview stage and is easier to analyse. The resulting data has been presented as a table showing the interview statements down the left hand column and the interviewees labelled A to L along the top. The score from each interviewee is tabulated to give a total score for each factor. These scores can then be easily compared to suggest which barriers are deemed most significant by the industry as a whole.

 

Selection of participants

The timber construction industry is a relatively small section of UK construction overall and so there is a limited number of contractors, engineers, architects and clients who are able to speak about the subject. Ideally a statistical analysis would be able to draw upon more than 12 interviewees but this represents almost 50% of those approached for interview which is a healthy response.

Selecting interviewees was done by seeking out the names of people most experienced in timber construction in the UK. Where Journal articles discuss contemporary timber projects they often mention the contractor or architect involved. I have contacted these companies and asked to speak to the people involved in the timber project in question. In some cases these contacts have been asked to recommend other significant figures that may also be relevant to the research. One example was Nick Boulton of the BRE who recommended Peter Steer as the most experienced timber engineer in the UK. In this method of establishing industry contacts it was possible to ensure that a variety of industry viewpoints were included in my research. The interviewees can be summarised by the following categories

  1. Academic experts in timber, from TRADA, The Napier school of timber engineering and the BRE
  2. Suppliers of timber products such as the MD of Lilleheden UK
  3. Clients and potential clients such as representatives of Adnams brewery and Global Procurement & Sustainability Director of Gazeley UK Ltd
  4. Timber construction engineers
  5. Timber construction contractors

 

Potential for onward study

This study could be taken further by a comparison with the views of people from the steel sector of non domestic construction, and by other parts of the construction industry. It might be helpful to find views from other perspectives to see if they can offer anything else to the reasons why timber hasn't taken up a bigger share of the market.

 

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