Tree of Possibilities

Hastings Pier – Photo dRMM

dRMM, the 'timber is way sexier' provocateurs, have made CLT synonymous with their studio image. Theirs is a non-standard practice using materials in non-standard ways. Right from their early 2000's take up of the latest member in the family of engineered timber, dRMM's CLT journey has also been a refreshingly idiosyncratic, non-standard story.

One spring day in 2001 a forty something architect walked into Construction Resources, only a short distance from the Tate Modern, and came upon a material which was to shape the future of his professional life. Construction Resources, though now long gone, was then a pioneer in the supply of sustainable building materials.

The architect was Alex de Rijke, who, among a small group of timber fixated peers, has done more than most to promote the cause of timber in the British and international architectural world. de Rijke was already one third of the up and coming dRMM practice, which was founded with partners, Sadie Morgan and Philip Marsh, six years earlier. More than a decade and a half later, dRMM are today one of the most feted British architectural practices. Their reputation has been further burnished when the Hastings ‘People’s’ Pier won the Stirling Award in 2017. The Pier follows a string of awards for other recent work, including the Oldham Maggies Centre – see accompanying feature here – and Trafalgar Place, also a Stirling finalist. They have maintained their presence and popularity, in the specialist media, with students, and among their professional peers. If you have heard the oft-repeated couer de cri, ‘timber is the new concrete’, that was de Rijke’s turn of phrase.

Kingsdale Phase II Under construction I – Photos dRMM
Kingsdale's deformed geodesic dome complete
and under construction – Photos dRMM

While hardly the only aspect to bring in the plaudits, their embrace of engineered timber, and particularly CLT (‘dRMM’s favourite sustainable material’ trumpets the website) has made dRMM, the young British practice - along with WaughThistleton - most fully identified with timber, and particularly with the modern engineered version of this – primarily - natural material, the point underscored by a long tail of CLT projects that continues to this day.

Under construction II
Under construction III

The project that originally set dRMM up as the London’s go-to engineered timber studio, was their radical two phase reworking of Kingsdale, a fifties secondary school in South East London’s leafy Dulwich. Already one of the rising stars of London’s turn of millennium architectural scene, Kingsdale School phase I provided a showcase for the increasing hype surrounding the studio. In a characteristically extraverted gesture the studio draped ETFE – first used in Britain at the Eden Biomes and still, in the early 2000’s, a charismatic light weight material - over the open quad of the old Lesley Martin era GLC school. In the process they also built a funky larch geodesic auditorium to re-populate the empty quarter, which, when it opened in 2004, triggered considerable excitement in the architectural media. Kingsdale phase II - a two-part new build sports hall and music centre joined at the hip by a shared entrance - opened in late 2006 With this project complete dRMM had finally realised their ambition; their first fully cross-laminated building, a material which the team had been exploring for nearly five years.

 Kingsdale phase II provided the first real opportunity to test, what in effect was their new direction. “It has been a period of research and construction, experimenting with the limits of CLT,” de Rijke said the first time I met him, during a visit to the school soon after the new building’s completion. I can recall climbing the stairs to look at the open sports hall, and being struck by the novelty of a stairwell openly encased in timber. Likewise, the CLT panels covering the sports halls internal walls pointed to something new. Here was a sizeable timber building, which didn’t need the usual timber-frame posts. These timber walls were structural walls, after all. And above, they were carrying a row of idiosyncratically designed glulam beams sitting in a distorted descending row, proof that the rooflines curvature and load bearing walls could carry their span and answering questions about what could be achieved from flat-packed panelling.

Five aside under the warped roof and CLT walls – Photo dRMM

There were various other advantages to CLT that became clear to me that day: advantages proclaimed ad infinitum by those involved; the speed and lightness compared to concrete, the similar characteristics of continuous structures, joints, transport and storage efficiency. That first time I met de Rijke at Kingsdale he told me he was “fairly convinced that it is the future of architecture. It’s obvious,” he continued, “there are no wet trades, it’s not toxic, or hazardous. I became convinced when I saw what could be achieved with CNC cutting and CAD-CAM modelling, and anyway, although people don’t say it, wood is so much sexier than steel.”

Music room – dRMM

A decade on the architecture and construction sectors are catching up on what de Rijke had realised so many years earlier, the comparative simplicity when working with CLT, plus all the other efficiencies that CLT offers. Looking back on that earlier time de Rijke acknowledges that with scant first hand CLT experience themselves, they were scrabbling to learn all through the project, and Kingsdale Phase II provided a fantastic opportunity to really get to know this material and other engineered timbers. Recalling Kingsdale, engineer, Michael Hadi, working in the principle office in London familiar with CLT, Techniker, recalls that the sports halls’ warped roof had been long discussed as an exciting challenge, though when it came to live building it was “quite a simple box.’  Hadi would go on to set up his own company, adding to the small number of engineers with engineered timber expertise During Phase I they’d already been introduced to Gordon Cowley, who was also  experiencing a new rush of interest in his specialist knowledge. Experienced British timber engineers, like Cowley, were like gold-dust in the early 2000’s, and the young studio enthusiastically lapped up this new knowledge, even if his solution for the deformed geodesic, his Cowley connector nodes, wasn’t to be as effective as they’d initially thought. Phase II brought in Hadi, and the UK outpost of the original cross-laminated timber manufacturers, KLH, overseen by ex-Construction Resources man, Karl Heinz Weiss, who had started up with a small corner of office space at Techniker. Weiss and Hadi continued to work on several further projects with dRMM.

BSF mainstreaming - Sheppard Robson's CLT Open Academy - Photo SheppardRobson Architects

The Kingsdale building was the first CLT school building in the UK. That provided the practice a definite professional cache, but more potentially significant was the wider impact. The Labour Government was investing in educational infrastructure, not least the big Building Schools for the Future programme. Kingsdale Phase II was a model and a reference for school building during the rest of the decade, precipitating its take up across the sector. Though clad in steel panelling for UK insurance reasons, this new structural timber material used for walls, floor and roofs, caught the imagination of a whole segment of architects, both left field, such as Sarah Wigglesworth, and mainstream, SheppardRobson. Both began to use CLT with a series of school projects, setting in motion larger next waves of CLT schools.

By then, the small but growing studio of dRMM had dived into CLT at the deep end. It hadn’t always been this way though.

dRMM's pre-CLT era Moshi Moshi restaurant in Brighton – Photo dRMM
Get naked – Photo dRMM
When the studio’s founding partners first set up in 1995, dRMM’s focus wasn’t specifically timber. The early emphasis was on a sideways application of industrial ‘off the shelf’ materials, imaginatively used and economically delivered. Indeed Off the Shelf was the title of a small sliver of a book, outlining de Rijke’s Unit 4 Architectural Association teaching. Published in 2001, the cover listed a catholic spectrum of materials, from air and aluminium to plastic, titanium and water, all integrated into this long ago era’s emerging industrial processes and technologies. Plywood, softwood, timber and tree’s made it onto the list - with de Rijke’s woody obsession earning him the moniker “King of Ply” among students - sustainability, ecology and the environment didn’t.  Michael Spooner, an AA and Unit 4 graduate, and one of dRMM’s earliest recruits remembers the course:“ Alex would get his students to go to the Building Centre, a few blocks away in Store St, to look through the catalogues and industry free magazines, and ask them ‘how can you adapt this, and use them in a different way’”? Kingsdale Phase II provided a crossover moment.

A mix of influences contributed to the new focus. One was the numerous environmental stories in the air in the early post millennial times. Circa 2002 and 2003 news of melting ice poles and global warming were daily headlines in the media. These, according to de Rijke, influenced the young studio’s collective mind. At the same time de Rijke’s discovery of CLT had made him positively evangelical about it. The two strands fused, with de Rijke at least believing that the time was right for a studio built around an engineered wood focus. Since this time he has always spoken of timber and sustainability in the same breath.

Timber is the New Concrete – a slogan which runs and runs….

De Rijke’s timber obsession began early. He blames his mother, a tree warden during his childhood. “Deep down” says Spooner, “Alex is an environmentalist.” This was reflected in a DIY ethos – echoing a punky past – which also helped with designing and building, with brother and sister, Flok House, for his mother. Just into Cornwall, on the Saltash side of the River Tamar, it is internally a paean to ply, including an all ply kitchen. By the time he came to build a subsequent home for his brother, Hugo, also in Devon (who teaches in a computer arts department at Plymouth University) he used the Swiss Steko system he’d discovered the Steko at Construction Resources some years before his consequential CLT visit.

Philip Marsh
Sadie Morgan
and the London Plan - dRMM

Though Morgan and Marsh signed onto this collective journey, it was primarily de Rijke’s passion that vaulted them onto the avant-timber track. Morgan and Marsh are both ex-students of de Rijke, Morgan from a time teaching at Kingston; Marsh, while de Rijke was running the AA’s Unit 4. Through the years each has been responsible for design work on many of the key projects, and today, both are committed to specialist areas. For her part, Morgan, gradually stepping back from active design and increasingly concentrated on the studio’s management, has in recent years risen up the ladder of governmental committees, and currently chairs the HS2 Design Panel while also the design advocate on the National Infrastructure Committee. Often in the media’s eye, Morgan has also ensured the studio’s gender employment equality. Both, however, haven’t proselytised on timber’s behalf in the way that de Rijke has done. It is a moot point, but if de Rijke hadn’t had this timber obsession it seems likely that the studio would have turned out differently.

Blackpool’s Chapel of Lurve by day…. and night - Photos dRMM

Public image as much as practice presentation has been critical in branding dRMM. From architecture and design to the office set-up – open, flat and big on gender parity - projecting playfulness, youth, and indeed, a sexier image than many of their more solid stolid peers, a rain forest macaw amidst a grey cityscape of pigeons. The cultivation of a savvy media identity befits architects who came of age through the 80’s when the crossover of design culture, advertising and presentational style was becoming fashionable. There’s an amused irony and lightness, the kind, which gives you the wink, in that one-time post-modern way, letting you know you’re in on a conceptual joke. That’s the feeling you get from some of dRMM’s buildings, such as Blackpool’s Tower of Love (which, from the schmaltzy title you kind of know is pronounced, Lurve….) or more recently, Hastings Pier  - see here for Unstructured 8’s feature.

Vorsprung durch Technik – Interior of one of the Swiss Grubenmann
brother's timber bridges – Photo Wikipedia

Colour is another of their tools, strategic though with a touch of jouissance, from the beginning exploiting the availability of customising façade choices in a swathe of head turning super-brightness, generally the right side of gaudy. At the heart of dRMM’s brand repository, though, the future is orange, a nod to De Rijke’s Dutch forbears - he likes to play up the Low Country side of his DNA – from design branding to the orange bikers jacket that’s long been part of his presentational kit.

Along with humour, intellectual nous and progressive politics make up an important part of the palette. A prototypical Cool Britannia practice – Tony Blair’s landslide victory happened within two years of dRMM setting up shop – and they were one of the practices included in the David Miliband period Department for Education and Skills (DFES) Exemplar Schools programme. Morgan’s childhood growing up with Socialist parents in a left leaning commune was reflected quite clearly in early versions of the dRMM story. Conversations about design issues often returned to the public sector and the wider public good. That focus has faded from view in recent years, replaced, to a degree, by the committee work with which Morgan is involved. Engaging and articulate, their occasional use of eighties theoryhead language has now pretty much disappeared, though that language was always used lightly. Not for them an 800 page volume on the cybernetics of parametric architecture. Rather, a direct track back to de Rijke’s Dutch connection, and the era of out there, Super-Dutch design, the likes of MVRDV pushing punky playfulness once upon a time in Rotterdam. If one see’s idealism – along with opportunism – in their committing to CLT, there’s also a seriousness of purpose masked by the bright colours, and entertainment. “Alex genuinely doesn’t want to do any project that he’s not proud of. He wants the work to be meaningful,” says Spooner. Others note de Rijke’s restlessness. “I was on a bus with Alex,” says an old friend of his, architect Nic Pople, “and he was taking in every moment of everything we were passing. He was actually drawing a series of ideas for a 'cabin' he had recently bought in France. I haven’t met anyone as focused as Alex.” Though the intensity and restless curiosity may not be immediately obvious, get into a conversation with de Rijke and likely as not, you may well find yourself heading down various lesser-known by-ways of timber structures history. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, (Baltic pine timber railway viaducts in Cornwall now demolished) and the Swiss Grubenmann brothers are favourites.

Big log studio – Photo dRMM

de Rijke, himself worked in Amsterdam’s Sjoerd Soeters office. His year there impressed on him the importance of beam calculations, not to mention structural engineering. Today he cites the experience as a key source of his interest in structures. “You needed to understand the structure, you couldn’t delegate the math to the engineers.” As we wind through the roster of CLT buildings, I’m not surprised that as de Rijke talks, his admiration for one after another engineer drops into the discussion.  He’s a believer in the twin track, quasi-interdisciplinary teaching approach of engineering and architecture together, to be found across the continent from Amsterdam to Zurich.

It’s amidst this continental backdrop that engineered timber has been added to the story, yet another surprising ingredient in this whirly gig of mixes. At the time of Kingsdale this mix was definitely something new on planet green, a planet not known for its sense of irony, nor playfulness, humour, or in-your-face colour zones. At dRMM though, its still very much part of the wallpaper. Arrive at their office a stone’s throw from London Bridge, and the first thing you encounter is a sizeable chunk of tree trunk hanging horizontally over the open office reception desk, hooked to the ceiling by, yes, orange straps. A statement of intent if ever there was one.

Kingsdale Sports hall and music room from outside – Photo dRMM

This then is the broader media and image smart backdrop to dRMM’s timber project. It’s a context which has rubbed off, not solely on the timber dimension of their work, but on the timber sector, drawing in, and opening up, both architects and construction interest in what was perceived as yesterday’s – and yester century’s - material. Understanding media helped build dRMM’s profile, while their timber savvy caught the imagination of a whole segment of young architects. “Alex is a good PR machine,” said Karl Heinz Weiss, the first director of KLH UK, at the time of Kingsdale, “and this has really helped so much.”

It’s not surprising that dRMM’s timber project inhabits a definite future-focused universe. There is no hint of any folksy backward looking timber-framing nostalgia. Un-ambivalently Post-Industrial, the future focus its vision recalls is the 80’s and 90’s, the founders’ formative period, fine-tuning their early ‘off the shelf’ approach for an industrial timber context. Something of the high tech prefabrication and modular systems of Rogers, Fosters or Grimshaw, are updated and reverse engineered for the early Internet age, recasting high tech in the heart of the timber industry and underlining the family of engineered timber’s potential when married to the computer facilitated revolution in timber engineering. Forest Industry 4.0 way before the fact.

The future brand is orange

How much and to what extent de Rijke believed in this revolution, he certainly played the part. Industrial forestry, still at the time an adversary of much of the activist green movement, whether for clear-cutting or for its mono-cultural quick growth approach, was in de Rijke’s book, now a valued partner in the sustainability mission. In this vision, industrial forestry and the timber sector have been re-invented as a part of the ongoing sustainability transformation. This is nothing new; architects generally, sustainable or otherwise, had shown next to no inclination to think about the limits - indeed the destructive dimension – of industrial forestry at all. What was arguably different, though, was de Rijke’s integration of industrial forestry into his sustainability agenda. Just as engineered timber has been a significant part of this new industrial revolution, now CLT was shaping up as a turning point in the engineered timber revolution.

4.0 comes to the forest
Circular Economy before the circular economy - Kalundborg, Denmark's
well-known example of Industrial ecology

In one of very few post timber essay-come-manifestos, the catalogue for Industry, a Norwegian exhibition shown in 2006, de Rijke sought to sketch this inclusive approach. Thematically, three young practices (the other two were Berlin BarkowLeibinger and Norway’s own Helen and Hard – see here for the in-depth Helen & Hard feature) were brought together to show how their work folded into the latest industrial processes, in dRMM’s case highlighting their CAD-CAM, CNC routing and prefabrication proto-manifesto. As a physical example, Industry also featured dRMM’s Naked; a mobile flat pack home physically embodying dRMM’s timber way. Naked, the idea went, could be dismantled within hours, moved and reassembled easily, wherever it was wanted next.

Not a human in sight: KLH's Styrian factory inside and out
Photo's Oliver Lowenstein

De Rijke’s short essay in the monograph accompanying Industry, revealed something else. Through stealth re-packaging Industrial ecology, the eighties and nineties avant-sustainable systems approach, the essay drew attention to how industry might actually imitate ecological processes to optimise energy use and materials re-use. It was a systems’ version of Biomimetic thinking, thirty years ahead of its time. In dRMM’s version, forests, their use for timber, and the factories manufacturing these new engineered timbers, created a virtuous circle which resulted in low or no carbon buildings - a new Industrial ecology. Visiting KLH’s CLT factory, in South East Austria, confirmed this closed loop system thinking in action, its residual waste wood burnt to heat and power the factory, while not beginning to touch on how very much further these proto-circular economy approaches might be taken. In the essay the source of Industrial ecology was also left unsaid, cut away from its original meaning, not so dissimilar to BioRegional’s branding re-invention of the eighties and nineties Bioregional movement for primarily commercial ends (BioRegional trademarked their name, all the time never mentioning the long and extensive history the term covered.) de Rijke was playing a similar game, while leaving a trail to past eco-research.

0047's Industry exhibition: dRMM's flat pack at the
back of the gallery space, Helen & Hard's oil flotsam
and jetsum stage left and in the foreground
BarkingerLeibow's installation

With or without Industrial ecology, dRMM were serving up a dramatically different take on sustainability to that found at the table in Britain circa the early 2000’s. Whether FeildenCleggBradley, Architype or Bill Dunster’s ZEDFactory, mixing up style, wit and colour,  the headline timber commitment seemed bold, new, and part of a generational and zeitgeist shift which the more doctrinaire of the sustainable building world found hard to comprehend. Compared to the earlier socially right-on generation of architectural collectives, focused on community housing and fitted out in denim jeans and donkey jackets, dRMM were the David Bowie or Roxy Music on the sustainable architecture block, bright, exotic and not averse to splashing some day-glo colours into your field of vision. It may have been passion driven, but it was at odds with the intense environmentalism of older generations. And also, if they were clearly thinking global, they were working globally – or at least aspiring to  - as well. Both individually and as a practice dRMM have displayed scant interest in the local, the provenance of materials, or, in comparison to the urban, in rural futures, not exactly surprising for a practice fascinated by industrial systems. Just as it’s difficult to imagine David Bowie in dungaree’s mucking out the stables, so conjuring the image of dRMM focused on a remote Welsh nature visitor centre commission - despite the forested sources of CLT - doesn’t compute. This was an urban practice, through and through. At times, the industrial provenance was presented in shiny wrapping. Their Olympics Stadium proposal was to arrive, ready for flat-pack transfer, ferried up the river Thames in a novel container shipping delivery.  Asked whether he’d still use timber if trees were bad for us and bad for nature, de Rijke laughs heartily, before responding with a conclusive ‘no’, adding that, “If my favourite material was producing more carbon than material I think I would be unable to function as an architect. It’s not just about being right-on and responsible. It’s also about just liking trees.”

Far away, across Londoncentric architectureland’s beating heart, Industrial ecology and future forests were neither here nor there. Kingsdale, however, was. It was a turning point: for dRMM, for CLT, and for engineered timber in Britain. They had produced the country’s first CLT school building, though also the long unbroken period of security the project had provided, had underwritten dRMM, enabling the small practice to grow and more fully establish itself. There was also the wider social dimension. Built for a school with a challenging educational record, Kingsdale underlined the social folded into the technical, and dRMM looked like just the sort of practice that balanced both, agile and with style. Adrian Gale, head of Plymouth Architecture School at the time, writing in Architecture Today, ended a rave review with the commendation that the building, “exhibits flawless attention in satisfying the needs of function, its coarse sophistication illuminated by wit.”

The MK40 Tower – Photo dRMM
Dura – Buckminster Fuller meets BSF
Along with WaughThistleton’s Murray Grove, Kingsdale Phase II announced the reach of the possible with the new-found timber material. The growth in CLT in Britain can be directly traced to the impact of these two mid-naughties buildings. It also had other surprising consequences. Introduced to Stavanger’s Helen & Hard for the Industry exhibition, the Norwegians saw de Rijke present the school at a 2004 London architectural conference. A few proselytising conversations later, the Norwegian pair were inspired to explore engineered timber more fully for the first time. They have never looked back.

It did not, however, bring the hoped for next big project. In place, the studio continued its partnership with KLH-UK, deepening its technical timber knowledge, and focusing primarily on smaller scale CLT one-offs; a reworking of Modern Art Oxford, the steepled city’s contemporary art centre, the MK40 tower in Milton Keynes standing beside the city’s MK Gallery art centre, a timber rerun of the mix of Brutalism, sixties Futurism of a Fullerene kind, and certain Post-Modernist strands, closer to Rem Koolhaas than Robert Venturi, occasional mirrors of de Rijke’s oft-made critique of some of his CLT architectural peers, that they were merely continuing Modernism through other, timber means, rather than uncovering genuine new languages.  At others, the futurism was only too explicit, such as the live version of their Dura DEFS Exemplar school project in Newcastle, which they waiting for to get the green light, or another long running project, Exeter Royal Academy for Deaf Education in the South West. Each envisioned large span lightweight shell-like timber roofs.  In Newcastle, the next geodesic step after the Kingsdale auditorium, the Exeter school featured a Frei Otto derived gridshell design. In time, the deaf school design evolved through several iterations.  The gridshell almost disappeared around a more conventional triangular block, different from the earlier designs, where, like Dura, a transparent, light and airy structure was to be supported by classrooms, administration and other parts of the schools’ programme, and all built from CLT.  This was not to happen, as by the end of 2008, the economic crash had changed conditions on the ground.

Children and teachers from the Exeter Royal
Academy for Deaf Education imagining their built
futures, and render of the academy when it still
included the timber gridshell - dRMM

Though these were disappointments, it is the third of dRMM’s experimental roofed projects, which de Rijke feels most strongly about. Asked directly about which of dRMM’s projects he believes is the most interesting and significant, out of their CLT and timber engineered projects over the sixteen plus years, de Rijke doesn’t hesitate: the Timber Stadium for the 2012 London Olympics.

Origami Olympics – all renders/illustrations dRMM
Handball in a CLT stadium

CLT at any scale was still new to Britain in the lead up to the Olympics, so a showcase stadium would have changed the conversation. “Nobody had done it at the time. It would have been a demonstration of what was possible at scale.” he comments now. ‘Would have been’ because the stadium never got anywhere near getting off the ground. The clients, Lendlease, and the Olympic Authority in charge of building the games’ infrastructure, baulked at both the timber dimension and ambition of the project. Indeed, by the time the Olympic buildings were completed, timber had been relegated to the margins, despite the efforts of the main timber lobby group, Wood for Gold. Neither the plot of housing, dRMM’s final built contribution to one of London’s largest builds in the last decade, nor the actual realised Handball stadia, eventually designed by Make Architects, used timber.

Renders and model of the Timber Stadium

Had the Timber Stadium been built it would have surely contributed to discussion about CLT’s potential a half dozen years prior to its current take-off. Designed for an audience of 6000, dRMM’s proposal was a condensation of ideas, some already tested at Kingsdale. The 100 metre covered space was to showcase the flexibility of CLT, with a cable truss roof structure which again optimised the CLT panels and ETFE combination. The stadium’s perimeter walls were an exercise in origami at massive scale, comprising 36 fluted CLT structural bays creating a bowl like shell, encircling the interior sports centre. Mike Hadi, who worked on the stadium, acknowledges that there were many hours put into the engineering. By the time it was resolved, however, the team had arrived at “a series of quite simple systems.” One of these systems, the structural bays comprised of folded plates, which with the geometry resolved, acted as struts holding up the stadiums roof. There were other novel aspects. dRMM particularly emphasised adaptability, including the Thames river shipping option. The stadium could go up quickly, and, underlining design for disassembly, come down, flat-pack form, equally quickly.

At the time de Rijke, was upset that Timber Stadium failed to win the Olympics bid, as many would be annoyed when a major project got so far, and then failed close to the last hurdle. It would have likely changed the trajectory of dRMM, who, de Rijke notes, “haven’t had the opportunity to build 100 metre stadiums. On the other hand it gave the studio,” looking to the bright side, “the confidence to build.”

The timber stadium's transport and construction strategy

Colour in a white out, left, and right, CLT in St Alban's Academy's main
external corridor, even if not as part of the structural design – Photos dRMM

As it was, by 2009, when the Olympic judges had nixed the timber stadium, dRMM was caught up in the fall-out from the economic crisis in the construction sector, and increasingly needed to pay attention to survival.  The potential of the education work also hadn’t panned out as hoped, although a major CLT school, St Albans Academy, part of Birmingham’s BSF Framework, was still under consideration, and another fruit of the Lendlease connection. Prior to the Academy, the practice worked on a CLT primary school, Four Dwellings, another Lendlease Birmingham contract. Completed in 2012 they then moved on to the Academy. Intensively worked on from 2007, to 2009, had it remained a CLT project, St Albans would have been a coda and endpoint to what Kingsdale began. The Academy school was designed strategically, says Spooner - who headed up the project team - to optimise the CLT budget in the eyes of Lendlease. But this wasn’t explained well enough internally.  The development team handed over the plans to their counterparts in delivery, and overnight, the timber disappeared. After over two years of work on timber, the head of delivery demanded steel, and there was nothing that dRMM could do about it.

It was these different if interconnected forces which fuelled the strategic move into large-scale, high end and high visibility housing, in Kings Cross, Elephant & Castle and in the Battersea Power Station mega development, over the next few years to keep the practice from sinking. All over the country practices were cutting staff, left right and centre. dRMM didn’t do that, but in September 2011, de Rijke also took on a new role, that of Dean of the Royal College of Arts its small post-graduate architecture school. In some ways a new start for de Rijke, he began instigating what were initially considered controversial reforms, over a five-year period. In effect, however, de Rijke’s new role also indicated that dRMM’s first chapter of CLT experimentation was over.


Heygate - Photo Wikipedia
City farm… kind of (not) Trafalgar Place's green spaces - dRMM
Housing came to dRMM’s rescue in the shape of one of London’s largest developments. The Elephant & Castle, neighbourhood, familiar for years to South Londoners as an especially complicated roundabout and traffic nightmare, was also well known as the site of the Heygate Estate, a post-war development and one of the largest housing projects in London when finally completed in 1974. At times celebrated for its Corbusian Brutalist aesthetic the Heygate’s monolithic grey blocks in the sky provided over 1250 homes, the vast majority socially rented flats. 3000 people lived in the Heygate, which was considered a housing success story in the beginning, but gradually this image was eclipsed by inner city problems.  By the turn of the century Heygate had become a byword for social breakdown, drugs and crime and the London authority responsible, Southwark, set out on a £1.5 billion regeneration programme.

A-R pulling punches
Over the last eighteen years the Heygate regeneration has been by turns controversial, a difficult problem, and incompetently handled. One of the most contested aspects, however, has been the replacement of social and affordable council housing by extensive privately funded redevelopment for private housing. And dRMM has been at the heart of this replacement.

The earlier Wansey St housing block, completed in 2006, is absent from their CLT list of projects. Garlanded with praise by the architectural media when completed, the three Wansey Street housing blocks were also a pilot demonstration project for Elephant & Castle regeneration, “a demonstration” in the words of the website “to local residents living in outmoded accommodation of what social housing could be.”

Fast forward a decade and dRMM’s Trafalgar Place flagship housing plots on the Heygate’s rebranded Elephant Park estate, is again being lauded by the architectural mainstream. Trafalgar Place was a finalist in the 2016 Stirling Awards, and winner of the British Home Awards ‘Development of the Year’ and the Mayor’s Award for Planning Excellence, London Planning Awards. Trafalgar Place was also, briefly, the largest CLT housing project in the world, when it was completed in 2015 and one of seventeen separate development plots on the Elephant Park site. Despite the parade of awards, Trafalgar Place doesn’t contain much in the way of affordable housing. In addition to the awards there have been some blistering critiques.  For instance, in the Architectural Review, Guy Mannes-Abbott accused the architectural establishment of rewarding one of their favourite studios for a high profile role in naked gentrification and social cleansing. This was one result of post-austerity dRMM going mainstream, their CLT reputation being deployed on upmarket private sector housing. The radical social agenda explicit at Kingsdale, with a population similar to Heygate, there supported with a radical school, had all but disappeared. Trafalgar Place symbolised the way of – almost - all architectural flesh, the triumph of the technical over the ideals of the social.  Across various parts of the timber industry Trafalgar Place was lauded as a next step in bringing CLT into the mainstream. But of the four linear blocks only one is actually CLT. Four floors in height, of the total 235 homes, 30, one and two bedroom flats are in this block, which uses 750m3 of CLT, resulting in 560 carbon tonnes of carbon stored. Seen as an impressive record, the press releases span the story of what was a rather modest piece of sequestration, as a major achievement for large-scale sustainable building. Rehearsed repeatedly, a narrative of technical achievement became the focus of Trafalgar Place’s sustainability, the social backdrop and circumstances disappearing off page. Yet, out of this project, Lendlease, the Australian, and Elephant Park’s, giant developers, have begun signing up to CLT, with half a dozen initial buildings, including several Australian projects in Sydney and other parts of New South Wales. One time Construction Resources and KLH-UK man, Karl Heinz Weiss had moved to Australia and was heading up the corporate behemoth’s budding CLT department.  With that kind of history, the fact that De Rijke has given talks in the Antipodes, including to Australian Government figures, making engineered timber’s case, is less of a surprise.

Arguments can be made pro and con. Mainstreaming advocates view pushing CLT into the global corporate sector as critical, and although de Rijke has considerable powers of persuasion, his and dRMM’s efforts in taking CLT to those in power who need convincing, is likely a thankless and exhausting task. Still, like nearly every architectural practice, getting into the corporate sector has been a core business aim; Lendlease have become one of the studio’s biggest, indeed a ‘very important,’ client.

Trafalgar Place's single CLT block – dRMM get Lendlease to go CLT,
but not in Britain – render and photo dRMM

Lendlease publicity pushing the CLT line

Even so, with these post-Grenfell days in mind, I’ve found it difficult not to view Trafalgar Place through a social lens, my mind repeatedly wandering back to comparing dRMM’s earlier fusion of technological and social progress with what’s now, much more recently, on show in South London. This time round, the fusion feels as if it has been conflated into something ringing hollow.

There again, and as laudable counter-balance, this is the practice which co-developed the Hastings Pier with a community organisation, an instance of working in the public domain: social sustainability at its most effective.


WorkStack WoodBlock – model as sculpture - dRMM
I did not broach the social issues directly the last time I met de Rijke. We talked around high rise, de Rijke remarking at one point that, “city making is more important than tall buildings.” He wasn’t interested in following me into a – Jan Gehl inspired – sociological critique of high rise living, timber or otherwise, arguing that designed well, with large apartments and terraces, there wasn’t really a problem. But, then I wasn’t expecting him to do so. I have yet to come across an architect who will depart from the professions’ groupthink loyalty to building tall.

What is clear is that while up-market housing puts food on the table for dRMM’s forty plus architectural team, and de Rijke is happy enough to do this work, it isn’t what gets him out of bed in the morning.

Closer, it seems, to his heart, is the series of hardwood CLT experiments, which has culminated in the first hardwood CLT building, Maggies Oldham – for in depth piece see here. Kickstarted by de Rijke’s meeting with David Venables, director of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) at a timber conference in Haarlem, Holland, back in the autumn of 2010, Venables – who had not previously come across CLT – was persuaded to fund initial research on the potential of new uses in the abundant low grade tulipwood, which grows prolifically throughout much of the Eastern half of the US. The result is a  series of hardwood CLT projects discussed by one of those centrally involved, Arup’s Andrew Laurence in his piece. After around eighteen months of initial research dRMM, Arup’s and AHEC began developing a first showcase, the Endless Staircase, an Escher-like stairway to nowhere, which sat in front of Tate Modern over the summer of 2014.

Endless Stair – Manufacturing the stairway to nowhere
Photos dRMM, except middle Thomas Etchells

Endless in the afternoon – Photo dRMM

The potential must be there, as AHEC have continued with the sponsorship, and two further buildings, first Alison Brook’s Smile Pavilion, and then this year, Maggies Oldham, a delicate and lovingly wrought piece of work have arrived.

In the aftermath of the welter of attention Maggies OIdham has delivered for hardwood CLT, the next chapter in dRMM’s experiments in CLT is fully underway.

Meanwhile old school softwood CLT projects continue within the studio.

Sky TV's fitness gym's CLT slab and glulam experiment – Photo dRMM
Charlton WorkStack as it may look - dRMM

Crossover learning from the hardwood CLT is also happening. For instance, work on the Endless Stair project, and particularly vibration issues, were used on the Sky Television Health and Fitness gym (2015.) Here dRMM worked closely with Adrian Campbell, then part of Arup’s timber engineer team, to arrive at an all timber, though hybrid glulam and CLT structural system. Used together, bifurcated glulam posts hold relatively shallow, flat floor adapted CLT beams to create the gym’s two level wide and hollow spaces, demonstrating spans of 6 to 7.4 metres. CLT also lines the fitness centre’s edge walls, along with the floors.

The project de Rijke appears most interested in at present is Charlton Workstack, a five storey set of units, stacked, as its title suggests, one on top of the other, and bringing added drama and more pragmatically, reducing its footprint presence on the small compact site. Workstack boldly cantilevers 6.5 metres out over the open public space to its west. The fourteen studios provide 1500 plus sq metres of workspace, responding to, according to de Rijke, a local need for both manufacturing and smaller making space in the South East London borough of Greenwich.

Saving space – WorkStack renders - dRMM

With its vertical cantilevering, the 21 metre building has required quite extensive engineering research aimed at getting the most out of the panel system’s stiffness, with, according to Campbell, ”the shear properties flowing through the non-ductile material.” The CLT’s performance capacities are being pushed both regarding load bearing capacity transferring through the building, though also, with surfaces left expressed and visible, on the plate and connector design, as well as fire risk and safety performance issues. All this r&d has seen dRMM, Campbell and Arup, working with Graz TU and Edinburgh University’s engineering department. Workstack is trying to minimise redundancy, and get the best out of CLT’s structural advantages. The west facing design optimises solar gain, while the corbelling, also provides shading for the lower units. Workstack is currently slated to be completed by 2019. The cantilevering design is actually not entirely new, refining and developing as it does, both an earlier – this time three storey – cantilever experiment, an unbuilt art gallery design for the Milton Keynes’s art centre, MK, as well as the Endless Stair. What remains striking, as Campbell talks me through the engineering challenges, is how, despite fifteen years of CLT research, it is clear that regarding engineering the material, it remains early days, and will do for some time to come.

Workstack continues dRMM’s singular and idiosyncratic CLT trajectory, from Kingsdale, a music and sports complex, through to an unbuilt Origami handball stadium, and then, another door opening up, hardwood CLT in the shape of Endless Stair and Maggie’s Oldham. There are also Trafalgar Place, various artists’ studios, and art related projects, as well as the main education building on a 21st century, ‘People’s Pier’. Looking at the shape and form this roll-call of projects constitute, what remains is how singular and individual it is, and so unlike any comparable outlines that the pillars of current normal architecture, the AHMM’s, StantonWilliam’s, or HawkinsBrown’s, represent. It’s a path, which doesn’t follow the conventional rules of architecture, reflecting the studio’s own quirks and eccentricities. It also sits askance of the current exponential CLT rush, with its attendant enthusiasm for dumbing down and normalising as quickly as possible the ways the material has already been used by experimenters such as dRMM, and begs the question of - what comes next? de Rijke says he’d love to do a whole hospital, or for that matter, a major rail station. Definitely and winningly non-standard and not-normal, CLT is the main connective thread holding the form of dRMM’s arc of projects together this far. Think on this though. Telescope into the future, a scenario where CLT is long mainstreamed and far from the avant-edges of sustainability. There are new 22nd century edgy and experimental renewable eco-materials to explore. How likely is it that CLT would still be on dRMM’s agenda, or alternatively, what’s the probability that they would take up the path of adventure? Go guess the call de Rijke and dRMM would make.

Side on Hastings Pavilion – Photo dRMM