WaughThistleton move on

Long at the forefront of CLT in Britain, WaughThistleton are increasingly looking at integrating the material into a broader suite of timber pre-fab options. In this regard, their latest Lewes Road, Brighton student housing project, is a precursor of things to come.

A few weeks before the end of 2017, the most recent of Waugh Thistleton's timber housing projects was handed over. Though none of the fanfare that accompanied their previous Dalston Lane project was evident, the building is another marker in how the studio's approach to timber design is developing.

The £3.8 million project – 106 Lewes Road, a five storey student accommodation block in Brighton, shows Waugh Thistleton, moving on from purely CLT focused projects, to designs which utilise material in combination with other timber systems; in this instance, prefabricated timber panels which make for a better match, structurally, economically, efficiency-wise in their use of wood. In this sense, the five storey student block is akin to another of the practice’s new ventures, the Vitsoe Headquarters in Leamington Spa where glulam and Baubuche laminated veneer lumber have been specified. Not only are these Waugh Thistleton’s first post all-CTL projects, but 119 Lewes Road is also the first of the Studio’s completed housing projects outside London.

Set at the eastern end of an elliptical traffic island immediately next to a BP garage, 106 Lewes Road sits on a tight 350 metre footprint; a factor making the project logistically challenging. Careful planning, sequencing and co-ordination was required for the delivery of materials - including the CLT and wall panels, both sourced from Austria. With 48 rooms, the developer led design and build project - coming in at £2800 m² - is part of a package of student accommodation, together with two other blocks near the site. Brighton is known as an exciting, fun study choice for many, with nearly 26000 students estimated to live within Brighton and Hove’s joint city limits, so a degree of extra effort has gone into maintaining the quality of the project. The block provides a landmark of sorts, situated at the end of a long straight section of the university corridor road, between the city centre and the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex’s main campuses. Only a stone’s throw from Brighton’s largest regeneration project: Brighton University’s £300 million Preston Barracks development - it has been master-planned by Studio Egret West a few hundred metres east along the Road; and the student block needs to be seen in the context of the wider planning aim of creating a north eastern ‘academic’ corridor and gateway to the city. Approaching from this end of the road, the eastern face’s elliptical curving façade draws the eye, although once the curve ends rather suddenly - cut by the demands of the small site, much of the spatial drama dissolves. And the half hinted prospect of a kind of coliseum on the traffic island, remains radically truncated and incomplete.

Egret West University of Brighton Barracks development along the Lewes Road

The curving façade has meant that those student rooms following the curve round the facade, require non-standard room sizes; being larger and irregular, compared to the majority of standard 16 m rooms on the other side of the access corridors where the more conventional orthogonal block begins. However, these irregular shapes seem to have impacted only slightly on the prefabrication of many of the internal elements, from bath pods to some of the window detailing. 170 CLT m³ has been used primarily as floor plates above a ground floor concrete slab – as well as around the lift core - but all the vertical corridor walls use a SIP-like system from Austria, Dein. At five storeys and 18 metres high, the building didn’t need CLT for the load-bearing levels required. The Dein panels, which are manufactured individually, depending on design specifics, are lighter and integrate prefabricated windows, further reducing costs. Build taller and floor safety and regulatory constraints then kick in, needing stronger load bearing structural materials, with CLT coming into its own. As a result, all in all, significantly less timber has been used than if Lewes Road had been wholly CLT.

Dein wall panels

Even if these efficiencies make for smarter use of relevant and appropriate engineered timber materials, unfortunately you would not actually be aware of its existence within the structure of the building - unless you knew anyway. WaughThistleton attribute this characteristic to risk averse insurers; and while project architect, Ed Whitehead is adamant that they try as best they can to persuade all their clients to use timber, the brutal fact is, that despite their claims of standing at the forefront of the CLT and engineered timber revolution, so far no building – bar Andrew Waugh’s own home, Whitmore Road, and the Vitsoe HQ – reveal what they have to do with timber. When the subject surfaces in conversation, Waugh seems to agree, rhetorically at least; but it would be good to see this cycle broken and find at least a first housing project where a few of the qualities with which timber is associated: warmth, calming peace, and various tacit qualities –are really in evidence.

In this as in other projects, brick is one of WaughThistleton’s favoured ways of making timber disappear behind a building facade. Here in the Lewes Road, a Belgian brick, BEAClay has been specified; first fired a light greyey-red, before undergoing a second firing, this time a whitening process. Chosen to reference Brighton’s regency period, the brickwork lends an air of sober authority to the building, while also making it stand out amidst its road junction surroundings.

Inside, a colour combination of desert yellow, red and blue colour coding, is used in the ground floor foyer, adjacent common room and in the stairwell up to the floor corridor entrance doors. Beside ground floor foyer entrance is the relatively spacious 3.8m double height common room and a washing machine ante-room. This former includes three Regletti U-profile glazing units providing – on the sunny day I visited - an attractive light. Despite the continuous and very close traffic, the room was surprisingly quiet. Ascending the stairwell, after the somewhat numbingly anonymous corridors, on the fourth floor roof there is terrace to sit out on – (if the terrace isn’t locked off and inaccessible to students which it is so far). Here the bricks have been built out into an open colonnaded pergola, which introduces a moment of drama.  Hopefully, thin stainless steel cables attached to the top of the pergola, should enable a mixture of Clematis montana, Hedera colchica 'Sulphur Heart’ and Lonicera peliclymenum to grow up from planters – introducing some greenery into the project. And  Bird Brick Houses - bricks with openings for nesting, have been integrated into the external walls. Another example of the effort to draw the natural world into the building – although whether the natural world will come is another matter.

Although there are few obvious traditional green features - no PV’s, no heat pumps, or other operational technology, this building is targeting BREAM Excellent: the Excellent pre-assessment rating attained by way of the green roof, acoustic and noise reduction and low U values. By meeting this standard through these strategies, along with its offsite construction, 106 Lewes Road is a precursor to WaughThistleton’s next wave of prefabricated and more fully modularised housing to come, large or small. Indeed, it may well be their first post all-CLT housing project, although one has to say immediately, not the last.