Wood in a living space is always warm and inviting, and can have a rustic appeal. However, beyond aesthetics, timber can also be used to build large-scale structures such as bridges and multistorey apartments.
At the Malaysian Timber Council’s (MTC) international conference entitled “Wood Architecture – Art and Function” that was held late last year, timber experts from Europe and Britain shared timber’s potential in architecture.
Not only does timber offer a fresh change from glass and concrete structures, it is also hailed as a durable, flexible, and sustainable (when sourced from managed forests) building material. For example, curves in designs can be achieved using glulam (or glued laminated timber), and timber bridges are light yet strong.
In a study that compared aluminium, timber, steel, and concrete, only timber saved energy and stored carbon dioxide, according to Frank Miebach, executive director of German timber construction company Schaffitzel+Miebach, who was at the conference.
Wood species commonly used in construction in their countries include Scots pine, Norway spruce, larch, and accoya.
Also at the conference was British timber specialist and associate director of engineering consultancy Arup UK, Andrew Lawrence, who had high praise for using hardwood as a building material.
“Wood is easy to machine into complex shapes. The Centre Pompidou-Metz could not have been achieved economically in any other material,” he said.
“We are also beginning to see wood used in regular structures. For example, there are over 30 Tesco supermarkets in Britain which incorporate wood in their buildings,” he said.
Lawrence is a member of the Timber Eurocode Committee and noted for building, together with London-based architecture and design studio dRMM, the Endless Stairs, a reconfigurable architectural sculpture for the London Festival of Architecture in 2013, and the Centre Pompidou-Metz.
“In Europe, there are half a billion cubic metres of wood a year that can be harvested sustainably, so there is more than enough wood,” he said, adding that there are another half billion in North America.
He advocates using wood for buildings rather than for papermaking because timber buildings last 50 to 100 years. When buildings outlive their lifespan, he added, they can then be recycled to make things like paper pellets.
One common concern with using wood to build structures is whether it is more prone to catching fire.
“I think that mainly applies to lightweight timber buildings, and the fires usually happen during construction, before plasterboards are in place.
“My interest is in heavy wood like glulam or CLT (cross-laminated timber) which is hard to set fire to, and even if it burns, would burn very slowly,” he added. (Cross-laminated timber are pieces of wood glued at 90° angles.)
The longest bridge built by Schaffitzel+Miebach is the 117m box girder Ijsselstein bridge in The Netherlands, which was completed in 2006. Glulam beams form the box girder, while the railings are steel with a glulam handrail.
“Concrete timber composite, a new material used to build bridges, has various benefits including low construction height and high load handling,” added Miebach.
Bridges are built in various designs, lengths and functions.
In Brandenburg, Germany, there is a timber bridge built only for animals! The wildlife crossing spans 32m and features a soil-covered arch built with larch glulam and a cross-laminated timber ceiling. The structure is also made waterproof with layers of asphalt.
That aside, some amazing wood structures that have been built around the world include the Metropol Parasol, a popular landmark and tourist destination in Spain; Centre Pompidou-Metz museum in France; and the Kjøllsæter Bridge across the Rena River in Norway.
German architect Juergen Mayer-Hermann is behind the design of the iconic Metropol Parasol, an urban regeneration project in the Spanish city of Seville.
The 150m long, 75m wide and 28m high structure consists of six large timber parasols formed by a network of timber lattices that shade the Plaza de Encarnacion below.
Hovering like a giant cloud, the four-level structure houses an archaeological museum, a farmers market, an elevated plaza, bars and restaurants, a performance space, and a panorama terrace at the top of the parasols.
Akin to a huge marquee is Shigeru Ban’s Centre Pompidou-Metz, unique because of its 90m wide hexagon, woven-effect roof. (The two other architects involved in the project were Jean de Gastines and Philip Gumuchdjian).
This roof structure – inspired by a Chinese hat found in Paris by Ban – is covered with a white, waterproof membrane made from fibre glass and teflon (PTFE or PolyTetraFluoroEthylene).
The centre – dedicated to modern and contemporary art – is built around a central spire 77m high, alluding to the year (1977) that the original Centre Georges Pompidou first opened in Paris.
Meanwhile, the 158m glulam Kjøllsæter Bridge in Norway connects two big military training areas and was, therefore, designed for heavy military traffic, making it the world’s strongest vehicular timber bridge.
Military cannons have even fired shots from the bridge, demonstrating its sturdiness, shared speaker Rune Abrahamsen, designer of the bridge.
A structural engineer, Abrahamsen is a timber bridge specialist with architecture and engineering consultancy Sweco Norge AS. He is also behind the design of the TREET, a 14-storey timber apartment building in Bergen, Norway.
TREET or “The Tree” is one of the tallest completed timber buildings in the world with concrete slabs added to the building foundation to reduce swaying in windy conditions.
“Bridges and buildings have different loadings. Bridges are designed for traffic loads and accidental loads from crashing vehicles, while buildings are designed for live loads from persons. Bridges must be designed for 100 years’ of service life and are outdoor structures. Therefore, extra effort must be put into durability and maintenance issues compared to buildings,” said Abrahamsen, in comparing building bridges and multistorey buildings.
In Malaysia, the MTC is collaborating with the Putrajaya Corporation on the construction of a glulam pedestrian bridge as part of the Putrajaya City Trail project.
The 40m long bridge will be the first of its kind in Malaysia, and will connect Putrajaya’s Precinct 1 to Precinct 16. The 3m-wide bridge is estimated to be completed this August. MTC engaged Abrahamsen as a third party assessor on the engineering details of the bridge.
“The project shows that first, our timber can be used for such structures and, secondly, the design will also be a showcase for other similar structures in the future,” said MTC chief executive officer Datuk Dr Abdul Rahim Nik at the conference, adding that the actual installation of the bridge would take less than a week.
Two other pioneer projects using timber in the pipeline are the Prosperous Market and Fire Station, both in Semporna, Sabah.
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