Timber at the heart of Scottish architecture – award winning projects profiled

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PERHAPS for as long as built structures have existed in Scotland, wood has formed part of the construction, Susan Mansfield writes.  It still does: 80% of new-build houses in Scotland today are timber framed. But, in recent years, contemporary architects have been discovering the many properties of wood: not only is it economical, easy to use, eco-friendly, and locally produced; it can also inspire new ideas and transform aesthetics.

The Best Use of Timber Awards, launched in 2012 as part of the RIAS Awards, and supported by the Forestry Commission Scotland and Wood for Good, aim to recognise innovation and imagination in the use of timber. Projects of all sizes are considered, and there are no limits put on whether the timber is locally grown or imported. Already, the Awards have celebrated buildings as diverse as a nursery, a cinema, a bird-watching hide and a variety of private homes.

Stylish bothy

The winning and shortlisted projects in the 2017 Timber Awards, which are currently the subject of an exhibition curated by Architecture and Design Scotland and running at the Lighthouse, are equally diverse, from a stylish mountain “bothy” to a pop-up pavillion inspired by origami. Andy Leitch, timber development policy advisor at the Forestry Commission Scotland said: “I’ve been involved in these awards for years, and I’ve been struck by the imagination that Scottish architects have; every year they come up with something new and different. We want to showcase the best work to inspire other architects, students and members of the public to think more about the potential timber has.”

The winning project, Culardoch Shieling, designed by Ben Addy of Moxon Architects, has been described as a contemporary take on the climbers’ howff or bothy, a private space for small gatherings or parties looking out across upper Glen Gairn in the Cairngorms, seven miles from the nearest road. Clad with untreated larch on the outside, and fitted internally with untreated locally grown spruce, it makes extensive use of wood: the only stone in the building is in the steps leading up to the door. The roof is covered with heather and plants, “source with a shovel from the immediately surrounding hillside”. Ben Addy said: “Due to remote location, the size of elements you take to the site, and how workable they are in the middle of nowhere, is important. No other material would have afforded the level of adaptability [we wanted] during construction in such a remote place.”

The building has been described as combining inspiration from traditional stone mountain bothys with the ideas of modernist architects such as Aalto and Le Corbusier. The judges said: “This building is recently completed, but somehow already it feels as if it has occupied this remote spot for years. This is a building which will get better with time.”

The Sheiling, nestling in to the hills visible only to passing hikers, contrasts with the Thistle Foundation’s Health and Wellbeing Centre in Craigmillar, Edinburgh, which aims to open its doors to as many people as possible. The charity, which works with a broad range of clients with disabilities and long-term health problems, needed to replace its existing hub, the Tudsbery Centre. In early discussions with architect Chris Dobson of 3dReid, the Foundation said they wanted to explore the potential of wood.

A welcoming place

Timber Awards 2017: Thistle Centre
Images: Cadzow Pelosi

Tilly Sheridan, Thistle Foundation’s facilities manager, said: “The sense of the building, the welcome and the warmth that it creates was one of the really key aspects – it embodies how we deliver our services. We often work with people who have spent a lot of time in medical settings, and might have conditions which made them nervous or anxious. As soon as they see the building, we want them to feel this is somewhere they can feel comfortable, at home. The timber has been a really key part of that.”

Chris Dobson said the interest in wood helped shape the architectural language of the building. “It is in an area where, historically, there have been anti-social problems, so we needed a plinth to the building which could withstand vandalism. From there we started to develop the concept of a solid base with a timber block sitting on top. We started to look at how it could be read internally and externally, as if it had been carved out of timber. We used timber as holistically and comprehensively as possible, make it as central as we could to the whole building.”

Timber Awards 2017: Comielaw steading
Comielaw steading – Konishi Gaffney Architects

Timber provided an innovative solution for architect Kieran Gaffney of Konishi Gaffney, working on the renovation of Comielaw steading, a traditional farm building on the Balcaskie estate in Fife’s East Neuk. While the steading itself is a listed building, an unlisted lean-to barn dating from the 1970s provided the opportunity for some imaginative thinking. The barn was replaced by a low-cost contemporary structure in steel and concrete, but was finished externally with overcladding in thick planks of Scottish larch, stained black with coal tar.

Kieran Gaffney said: “The timber was a key thing for us. Coal tar is a traditional finish used on piers and in wetlands to help make wood resistant to rot, so that spoke to the traditional use of the building, but enabled us to do a modern thing too. The planks are quite robust, muscular bits of timber, not polite cladding, but that seemed to suit that building.”

Sam Parsons, estate director at Balcaskie, is delighted with the result. “It would have been cheap and easy to plasterboard everything, give it a lick of paint and you’ve got a workshop. We wanted to do something a bit more special than re-roofing and putting in doors and windows, with a view that that would attract people who wanted to work in a special environment rather than a plasterboard box. The people who work there love it. They’ve all said that, when clients visit them, they see them in a more professional light. Being in a really special space helps them stand out from the competition.”

Timber Awards 2017: Pop Up Pavilion
Pop Up Pavillon – Image: Konishi Gaffney

Kieran Gaffney was also the architect on another of the shortlisted projects, a pop-up pavillion which was installed in central Edinburgh during 2016’s Festival of Architecture and Design. With a footprint of 5mx5mx5m and a budget of £23,000, he and his team had to think outside the box, and came up with a unique shape based on two back-to-back pyramids after make origami shapes in paper, then had it constructed on larch frames, using a plywood skin and cladding of Scottish larch. The interior is a striking white (and surprisingly spacious) exhibition area.

Kieran Gaffney said: “We only had a week on site to build it, and we did a lot of the building ourselves, so a lot of our choices were about ease of construction and a lightweight, low-skill material. We’re not craftsmen, but we could deal with the wood, and the panels could be constructed off-site and then assembled. The larch was grown in Scotland so the entire structure’s environmental footprint was quite small.”

Advocate for wood

Timber Awards 2017: Greenrigg
Greenrigg, Pete Cummings

Architect Pete Cummins, whose work on Greenrigg, a development of two buildings and a network of paths and cycle ways in Falkirk’s Callendar estate is also on the shortlist, says he has long been an advocate of wood. His aim was that, on the major building in the project, the Canada Wood Kitchen and Bar, “I would use as much wood as I possibly could”. And he did: from a large timber douglas fir frame fitted together using traditional jointing techniques, to wood-based insulation and exterior cladding of Siberian larch. Most of the wood is untreated, other than to make it fire resistant.

“I would definitely advise people to look at wood,” he said. “It has a lot of benefits. It’s a resource that’s readily available, it has low embodied energy, it really suits prefabrication, construction and assembly on-site. In terms of breathability of the walls and roof, it’s very good.”

Timber Awards 2017: Tin House, Rural Architecture
Tin House, Rural Architecture. Images: left – Nigel Rigden, right – David Barbour

Architect Gill Smith, from Skye-based Rural Design, is another wood advocate. She admited to being a little surprised to find her latest project, The Tinhouse, shortlisted for the Timber Awards, given that the building’s most striking feature is its use of corrugated metal. However, the Tinhouse, designed and built by Smith and her architect partner Alan Dickson on the Northwestern tip of Skye, also contains significant amounts of wood, both structurally and internally.

Smith said: “Really, it was done in that way to make it easy for Alan, who was doing most of the building, and getting trucks full of concrete down the hill to the site was really impractical, so we had to think on our feet. We also used timber inside to give the building a homogenous skin, and every bit of leftover wood was used for furniture, inside and out. Externally, give the site’s connections with nature and the landscape, it was a no-brainer to use as much natural material as possible.”

Timber, she said, has had a bad press at times. “It’s been used badly in the past, so it has sometimes got a bad name. You need to do your homework, but once you know how to construct it properly, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s such a versatile material, you can do so many things with it – structure or cladding or internal or make furniture – where would we be without it?”

It’s such a versatile material, you can do so many things with it – structure or cladding or internal or make furniture – where would we be without it? – Gill Smith, Rural Design

:: Best Use of Timber Awards 2017 is on Level 2 at The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, G1 3NU, until March 30.

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