Crafted to Complement

How much is there to the proposition of a 21st Arts & Craft? And what role are engineered timbers, with CLT as first among equals, playing?

A few years back, that preternaturally archetypal feature the gable returned, remade and remodelled in strange and alien fashion, appearing in the archetypally English town of Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The large if unprepossessing Tudorbethan house, sitting back from a tree lined suburban road, hardly hints at what lies on the other side of the building. Make your way along the tarmacked corridor to the left of the house though, and the scale of the grounds becomes apparent. Continue past a series of smaller adjunct additions to the mid-twentieth century one-time home, and here, to the side of an expansive playing field appears a structure built recently: a finely finessed series of three irregular diamond boxes, a zigzagging roofline, and below the diamond boxes, a thin, delicate glazed curtain. Peer inside, and the building - tethered to the gabled past as much as the present, is revealed; a swimming pool. In front of which, a simple gravel path leads down onto the garden's grass lawn, the diamond shapes dancing above the tapered concrete base.

Alfriston swimming pool – Photo Mark Haddon/DugganMorris

This is the Alfriston School Swimming Pool, completed in summer 2014 by one of London’s architectural names about town, Duggan Morris Architects. A swimming pool existed here before, but DugganMorris have transformed the site, doing so in a way which draws on and reflects the school’s history as exemplified by the immediate neighbouring buildings: the fusion of barn vernacular with an Arts & Crafts aesthetic. Beaconsfield, after all is in Buckinghamshire, one of the Shire counties. And throughout these counties, the influence of the turn of the 19th century Arts & Crafts movement is particularly noticeable. Large-ish estate houses - in this instance making up the main school buildings – are one very visible influence of the handed down after-the-fact Arts & Crafts sensibility, found across South East England’s Home Counties. And it is this building type, working out from the gabled roofline, which the architects took as their starting point. Through a series of moves in the architects design process, the studio took the neighbouring hall pitched roof, and began modelling three initially parallel roof faces, before reforming and deforming the geometries inside the CAD-CAM programme, to push and pull - after several further iterations - the roof into a concertina form, supported by an elaborate if straight-forward frame system. Onto these three duplicate frames - whitewood panel trusses, each different in shape and made up of individually cut CLT sheets - were craned and lifted, before the many angled roof was slotted into place. The result is quietly mesmerising. From inside, looking up from the swimming pool to the patterned leaves effect above one’s head complementing the calm blue of water below, is particularly striking. Outside, the paper-folded origami roof appears fused with the contemporary timber barn – an example of where you can go when a gable is leading you on.

Truss system model render and on site, plus the roof complete
Photos Mark Haddon/DugganMorris

Nine months earlier, under a fine blue-skied autumn day, wine glasses flowed at another building opening in Southern England - the Ditchling Arts + Crafts Museum. Like Alfriston School’s swimming pool, this was not a major urban project, rather an architectural exploration or re-imagining of our past in the present. And, like Alfriston a similar dynamic of remaking the Arts & Crafts in contemporary coinage, was at its heart. A key challenge here, being the integration of a set of old buildings, including a small Victorian village school and a considerably older timber-framed barn, with the project as empathetically as possible. Zinc skins, Sussex tiles and clapper board timber cladding combined to turn Adam Richards Architects transformation of the village museum’s old buildings into a highlight in 2013’s architectural calendar, while offering a re-appraisal of rural architecture in the process. In the various ‘write-ups’ however, the role of CLT in bridging the museum’s oak frame barn entrance and the entrance of the one-time school, at times seems overlooked. For example, before the visitor crosses the line into the old yet new school portion of the museum, complete with naked local flint and brick, the CLT, inside a new intermediary shed, frames one of the new museum’s highlights: the Wunder-Kammer. The transitioning space is almost entirely lined with CLT panels, containing and framing the giant display cabinet.

Ditchling Arts + Crafts CLT
Photo Adam Richards Architects
Detail of CLT structural support
Wunder-Kammer from outside – Ditchling Arts + Crafts

Adam Richards, the architect behind the Ditchling museum says they chose CLT for “a basket of reasons.”  A first aspect was looking for buildings and materials which respond to the museum standing on land which was once a farm, for which, claims Richards, “CLT made a lot of sense.” It also complemented the barns “semi-modular timber materials system which would have been built off site for farming buildings, and are quite adaptable.” Not unrelated is the Arts & Craft love of old vernacular design - and of ornament, “where it could be useful” - which informs the way the CLT walls have been left exposed, including a giant beam holding the partition wall into the school section of the museum. Richards: “In a way it was a quick win, it gave instant character to the building, and spoke to other aspects of the design.”

Arts & Crafts meets Expressionist Gothic?
Nicolas Pople Monocoque Chapel, Stroud

For the most part unremarked, Ditchling Arts + Crafts museum’s deployment of CLT within the vernacular language of the project underlines the material’s versatility. Both projects employ engineered timber within the broad palette of available materials. While historically the Arts & Craft movement may have loved timber and its primeval past, it was only one of a cross-section of other authentic materials; just look at Philip Webb’s Red House, William Morris’s red-brick Bexleyheath home, or Charles Rennie MacIntosh’s Glasgow School of Art essay in stone. Likewise Alfriston swimming pool project and Ditchling museum evoke the Arts & Crafts movement a century earlier, using CLT within a broader palette. Yet, despite CLT’s plasticity – drawing comparisons to concrete’s malleability - the obvious default comparison is with older timber building techniques and technologies, particularly timber frame, and whether the new factory produced material is replacing the old wood ways.

When taken together, Alfriston swimming pool and Ditchling Arts + Crafts museum, stand out as two early examples of a mostly unpublicised aspect to the CLT steam-roller revolution - off to the edges of modularity and prefabrication: the fruit of the normalisation of digital design and facilitation of customised one-off elements which are relatively insignificant cost in differences, enabling architects to consider more individual designs. This has meant that studio’s like DugganMorris, and a constellation of others, are able to specify complex geometrical detailing, which works with their much more individual design languages with little or no extra expense. A point also underlined by Nic Pople in his accompanying piece on designing a Monocoque Chapel in CLT. This is far from the current excitement surrounding modularity and pre-fabrication. Indeed it is a reaction against the lack of individual connection to the building process, as much as taking up, and seeing what comes of playing with fancy software.

Arts & Crafts by way of Norway - Roz Barr Architects design and renders for a new church in Valer, Norway, sitting within a CLT tower.

The Rose building under construction and complete
Photo's and below FeildenFowles

Similar sentiments regarding CLT’s advantages are expressed by a spectrum of architectural practices, each far from the modular revolution, and each identifiably associated with a more hands-on, if not Arts & Crafts, sensibility. To reference a few, the already noted Nicolas Pople Architects, alongside ex-Eric Parry office, Roz Barr Architects, and the young FeildenFowles Architects studio, all have projects on their books which explore the subject in contrasting, though related, ways.

Edmund Fowles, from FeildenFowles, acknowledges that as a practice they have very consciously been pursuing their interpretation of an early 21st century Arts & Crafts ethos, while readily integrating CLT, and engineered timber into their work. “We’re trying to take a more Arts & Crafts approach to our buildings. There’s an emphasis on the hand made and the human scale  - whether with brick tiles or moulds or CLT, and by making and using physical models, we can see how the CLT translates into physical buildings.”

Fowles, talking over the phone, and expanding on CLT’s advantages, and working with the panelled material, says: “It can be fantastic for articulating details, such as complex roof forms, like roof corners.” He cites their work at Ralph Allen Secondary school, near Bath, where CLT was used in both the Rose Building and the Lee Centre. Again, competitive costs played a significant part, reducing the need for surface finishes, and the reduced amount of timber required. For the Rose Building, the CLT in walls, roofs and staircases have been left exposed, single homogenous surfaces, integrated with long glulam beams that cantilever out over the external facade edges, to provide protection for the external first floor walkways. In the Lee Centre, CLT made up the core structural body of the building - though Fowles describes some of the detailing as ‘enigmatic’. And again, while the engineered timber was expressed within a broader palette of natural materials, this required some tricky timber carpentry. At first the contractor questioned the price of the detailing, until the CNC-cutting and delivery was explained and factored in and the issue became irrelevant.

Homerton Hall – Renders FeildenFowles

Fowles appears not to care for the ever-present modularity ubiquitous in many high streets creating “a more generic type of building,” architects failing, he thinks, to understand both “constraints and opportunities. You see so much modularity in the external workings of big buildings.” This said, both the Rose Building and Lee Centre can feel a world away from Feilden’s father’s FeildenClegg Bedales school Olivier performance theatre, where the pupils helped build parts of the theatre. For all this FeildenFowles may use some of the tools handed down from the Arts & Crafts era, not least model building, and have both first hand and full bodied experience of building, pre-requisites of a thorough going Arts & Crafts, it remains hard to reconcile a building that is partially a homage to the post World War II CLASP modular mass school programme, with the spirit of architect Ernest Gimson and Edward Barnsley, the master-craftsmen builders of several of the early 20th century Bedales buildings.

Potentially closer to this Arts & Crafts spirit, is a new project, Homerton Hall, within Homerton College, Cambridge, which the studio won during summer 2017. The building is an intriguing, not to say odd, fusion of traditional timber frame as seen through the eyes of the 21st century, with the results of the engineered timber revolution. Although CLT was at the heart of the earlier stages, and remain in some parts of the roof, much of the timberwork is now slated to be a mix of German birch hardwood LVL and indigenous Chestnut Glulam. Recognising the idiosyncrasy of the fusion, FeildenFowles have gone to town on the their PR description stating how Homerton will celebrate the integrity and inherent beauty of materials and craftsmanship, where ornamentation is a product of the natural beauty and imperfection of hand craftsmanship, embracing new methods of construction and engineering technologies of today; an Arts and Crafts building of the 21st Century.”

Arts & Crafts building as was - The Lupton Hall, Bedales
Photos Bedales School

Tremenheere Gallery in the sculpture park
Photo CarpenterOakCarpentry
How the Homerton Hall project plays out, may yet make waves regarding this Arts & Crafts inflected CLT and digital tools perspective; a component of the buildings and structures which continue to appeal to sections of the long gone Arts & Crafts sensibility.

As it is, architects see, act and operate in the world through very particular eyes and in noticeably different ways to those first-handers, who physically make, build, and sweat to raise the roofs, the green oak frames and other traditional timber-frame structures; carpenters. These and other, often, temperamental contrasts might well suggest scepticism regarding engineered timber, including CLT. It isn’t after all real, authentic wood. And that scepticism is present in the carpentry world. For some, CLT threatens the timber framing community, its efficiencies and versatility undermining the future of traditional oak framing.

Yet, talking to one of the pioneers of the heavy oak frame carpentry world, Carpenter Oak & Woodland (COW), it is also clear that the arrival of CLT is, at least partially welcome. Adam Milton, one of COW’s early pioneer generation sings the materials praises, after integrating panels into a recent West Country project. Milton - who heads COW’s Devon yard which, as Carpenter Oak, operated for many years as a separate company, its two wings recently re-united under a single managerial roof at the beginning of 2018 having reverted to their long-hand title – animatedly cites a 2016 project on the peninsula’s far Western edge, the Tremenheere Sculpture Garden Art Gallery building, just outside Penzance, Cornwall.

Tremenheere Gallery under construction – Photos CarpenterOakCornwall

Photo’s CarpenterOak Cornwall

“We’re very excited about CLT”, Milton says, again down another phone line, acknowledging that the carpentry team had not previously encountered the material. Tremenheere’s 1½ floor oak frame barn sits at the end of a car park entrance. “It’s used as a structural skin, in a similar way to Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), combining the CLT walls with the timber frame.” Designed by COW’s small Cornish outpost CarpenterOakCornwall and led by Tom Chubb, the 7 x 3 metre CLT panels were prepared and delivered by MetsaWood, going up in two weeks, after the oak frame was in place, and covering both vertical walls and the pitched roofs to the galleries apex. Externally clad in green larch from the West Country, Norsk Carpentry, also laid Warmcell recycled wood insulation between the panels and cladding.

The result is a very different sort of building from those produced by architects like FeildenFowles or Adam Richards. Raw, stripped down and spare of architectural complexity, the interior roof-space has been left exposed, with a pitched lantern window in the roof, lighting up the single gallery room below. For Milton, you get the sense that this is only the beginning, energised as he is by the complementary roles oak frame and CLT panels have played at Tremenheere. “We view it as a wrap for the building,” he notes, sounding like a man who is envisaging a long line of future projects emerging out of this first encounter with the material.

As chance would have it, COW’s principal early competitor in the world of timber framing, Hampshire’s Green Oak Carpentry, or GO, acronymically rivalling COW, also recently finished work on a comparable oak frame/CLT hybrid, the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum's new Gateway Buildings in Singleton, West Sussex.

Duck Pond Futures – Gateway buildings at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum
Photo Jim Stephenson/ABIR Architects
Photo Jim Stephenson

A considerably more complicated and larger project, the Gateway Centre is actually a series of single floor buildings primarily oriented around the museum’s water-mill and duck pond which, as its title suggests, acts as a gateway between the ‘outside’ – the  car park area, and the museum grounds. As a repository for around 50 historic, and primarily pre-industrial buildings drawn from across the South East England, both of the museum’s feet clearly stand firmly on the traditional building side of the boundary dividing past from present. Indeed, the museum’s impressive collection of buildings, tools, materials and other historical resources, plus its research and many courses, makes it’s a beacon for the kind of protection of history, memory, and knowledge of the past, not unlike that which fuelled the Arts & Crafts movement in the early twentieth century. So, to find new buildings here, which draw together timber futures reflected in CLT and timber-framing traditions’ is, at the least, thought provoking.

At the same time, the Weald & Downland museum is also home to an earlier experiment in fusing ancient with new, the Downland Gridshell, and the latter’s proximity to the new Gateway buildings, rubs some of the shine off the new project. Green Oak were also the carpentry company for the Gridshell project. In their acknowledgment of the older building, and even if the Gateway itself is a post millennial exercise in romantic modernism, the architects here - a relatively young local Sussex practice from Hove, Abir architects, - are following in the footsteps of one of main romantic modernists of the last decades, Edward Cullinan.

Main entrance rooms of the Gateway buildings
Photos Jim Stephenson/ABIR Architects

External landscaping by Nicholas Dexter Studio Ecologically Positive
Landscape Design – Photo ND studio
For Green Oak’s founding director, Andrew Holloway however, a 21st century Arts & Craft building culture applying engineered timber, is a self-evident contradiction. “I don’t think you can make the leap, because CLT is manufactured,” he says. For Holloway, the Arts & Crafts historic bond with physical making and unmediated materials is lost once machinery, compromising the timber, is part of the picture. A moment later, however, Holloway reverses, observing that “there’s enough for everything” when I press him further for his perspective on fusing pre-industrial materials with post-industrial technologies. While praising the portal frame design, Holloway isn’t effusive about the Gateway Project in the way COW’s Milton was about Tremenheere. All the same, with their melding of oak frame with CLT walls and roof, these single floor buildings provide other examples of the complementary structural roles that fusing these old and new building systems offers. Old and new are further emphasised, for instance in the 56,000 cleft chestnut shakes, from permaculture builder, Ben Law, uses a large amount of the roof cladding, while zinc and tile facades suggest the reach of Ditchling Arts + Crafts Museum influence is not far off. Opened in May 2017, the Gateway Project was well received, a Wood Award finalist, again underlining the in-roads CLT is making into this crafted end of contemporary building culture.

Holloway’s reservations about the manufacture of CLT, plays to the paradoxes inherent in drawing the past into the future. His complaint feels quasi-classical given how long questions about what constitutes authentic making have been at the heart of the Arts & Craft debate, reflected in writers as different and time distant as John Ruskin and Richard Sennett. Craft articulates connection to the past, in effect to what was. It reassures, and signals familiarity and continuity, compared to the shock of the new that is such a foundational ur-myth in ‘modern’ architecture. By integrating engineered timber and CLT into its stock of material options, the emergence of a 21st century Arts & Crafts inflected sustainable building culture, though small in scale, broadens the imaginative possibilities beyond purely modular pre-fabrication which looks like CLT’s mainstream destiny. Through experiments and happenstance hybrids such as fusing CLT with green oak framing and other heavy timber carpentry, the one crafted to complement the other, the vocabulary of the new 21st century timber architecture is expanded, rather than diminished.

Jim Stephenson/ABIR Architects