Material roots and branches

Jonas Lencer from dRMM follows up his presentation with a short reflection on his take on the day’s Root & Branch theme.

Over two consecutive Saturday’s in late September and early October 2018 Fourth Door co-hosted two cross-disciplinary symposia, Building with Water & Root & Branch.

The first of these symposia twosome, Building with Water (in association with MakingLewes) happened on September 29th in Lewes, while on the following weekend Saturday Root & Branch was held at Waterloo Oasis City Farm on October 5th, home of our co-hosts Feilden Fowles Architects.

Walking the Endless Stair, Jonas Lencer on the ground, walking vertically – Photo dRMM

'Root and Branch’ is a fitting title for the exploration of timber as a building material.

Material is not only matter used to manifest our designs and architectural ideas in the physical world, but an essential part of the process. This process of conception and making connects us with materials and it is important that we understand their origin and destiny.

Connecting forests and the timber they produce with digital design and making processes will revolutionize the way buildings are made.

Wood is one of the few materials which is truly renewable and the only one which is carbon negative. Its use enables us to move away from a construction industry which impacts negatively on our environment and us as humans.
Timber provides us both, a sustainable way of building and a better and healthier life.

I love wood having grown up in the north of Germany with a grandfather who was a forester.’

The understanding of sustainability is fundamental for growing trees. Generations live within the forest and look after it for the coming generations with trees planted to be harvested two or three generations later. Cultivating, cutting (to make buildings or furniture) and replanting trees is the life cycle of the forest. Growing up in North Germany with my grandfather, I have always worried that the stories he told me when we worked in the forests together were tales of the past.  I learnt to understand the forest and timber as a material - how to fell trees, cut boards and beams, dry them and join them together and erect traditional timber framed structures. Experiences and understandings that have shaped my love of timber and a lot of my work at dRMM.

Russian BlockHouse interior
– photo via Jonas Lencer/dRMM

My introduction to pre-fabricated solid timber construction was during my studies whilst working as a carpenter. I was part of an international team working alongside the artist Professor Igor Sacharow-Ross to erect a Russian Blockhouse in Cologne. Pre-fabricated in the Ural and transported to Cologne for re-erection, the house provided a syntopian space for artists in residence and local children to meet and work.

Other than that, timber did not feature in my architectural studies until I met Alex de Rijke at dRMM and began to understand the development timber had made as a material. Finally, I was able to connect my work as an architect with my childhood experiences.

Since studying to become an architect I have never understood the distance between an architect and a builder in construction. The implied need for specialists translating designs into material and the builder on-site being completely cut off from the design development prevents iterative innovation.  I believe construction is a holistic process where material, design and making form a trinity and influence each other.

‘Furniture making reflects this holistic process where the material, design and making come together to create beautiful pieces.’

‘Table Turned’ was designed and crafted for the Wish-List project by the London Design Festival and is made of laminated tulipwood. Alex worked with the designers Barnby & Day and the makers at Benchmark to create a unique table which has a remarkable presence due to its solid nature and haptic quality.

Manufacturing Table Turned – Photo Barnaby & Day



Working in timber on an architectural level requires a similar understanding of both the material and the methods of how things are made. Digital design and manufacture has started to breakdown the barriers between the designer and the maker in timber construction.

Naked House was a very early study project by dRMM which tested the power of digital design. The project was constructed entirely from cross-laminated timber panels, with even the furniture created from the window and door cut outs from the wall panels. Through mass customisation it is easy to imagine how digital design can empower the owner of the house to shape and influence the design process.

‘Real collaboration between people is the prerequisite for creating outstanding timber buildings.’

As part of the 2014 London Design Festival Alex and I developed Endless Stair in collaboration with Andrew Lawrence from Arup and David Venables from American Hardwood Export Council.  The M.C. Escher inspired design, defying our cognitive experience of space through false perspective, confronted us with the limitations of digital design. The development of the design could only be represented and understood through model and film.

The invention of hardwood cross-laminated timber from American Tulipwood made Endless Stair possible. The superior strength of the timber allowed us to create an installation to be experienced without access restrictions whilst having a furniture-like quality with small sections of laminated wood.

Considering timber construction as the development of prototypical systems showcases the possibilities brought by linking design and manufacturing. It allowed the precise translation of the design into prefabricated flights which join in endless variations. The development of a three dimensional kit of parts with flights being used in any possible orientation, and joined without any special steel parts, took half a year before being installed in front of Tate Modern. Re-using the flights and arranging them in a new composition in Milan made ‘Scale Infinite’ in 15 min.

Endless Stair at Milan Design Festival – Photo dRMM

Developing prefabricated building elements which can be re-assembled is one of the great opportunities presented by mass engineered timber.

Mass Engineered Timber and Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA)

Photo dRMM

In response to an increased need for quality, speed and sustainability at dRMM we are not only concerned with what we build but how we build in the early stages of the design process. The rise of mass engineered timber coincides with the introduction of three-dimensional digital design and Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the construction industry. This technology allows designers to communicate directly with the machine making timber elements via using computer software (CAD/CAM).

The separation of architect and engineer, and of designer and maker, in construction was always a problem in the industry and does not help resolve issues arising from increasingly complex design processes. The need for specialists to translate designs into material, and the builder on-site being cut off from the design development, prevents iterative innovation. Real collaboration between consultants, manufacturers and contractors is required from the inception of the building concept onwards.

The advantage of designing with manufacturing and assembly in mind, is that this divide is broken down in the early selection of the structural system as designer and builder work together.


The true understanding of the manufacturing and assembly process of mass engineered timber is a pre-requisite so the material is used efficiently and at best allows the material to inform the architecture. This enables the re-introduction of a more integrated design and construction process where material, design and making influence each other.

Mass engineered timber seems to be the obvious choice to make building components in a renewable material – and one that is not just limited to flat-pack building systems. Components can be made with high accuracy and lend themselves to modular construction. Making these building components customisable using digital design and manufacture is a way to avoid the uniformity and the issue of one-size-fits-all, a feature of mass-produced buildings of the past, opening up infinite new design possibilities.

Making healthy architecture in timber

The Maggie’s Centre in Oldham is the first permanent structure made from hardwood cross-laminated timber. The interior, of the simple volume, raised above a garden is defined by a birch tree growing through an opening and the exposed tulipwood structure. The tulipwood transforms the space - digitally designed and manufactured the entire building feels like a piece of furniture. The structure is the surface, and the material is inherently healthy.

People making and people using it enjoy the proven health benefits from timber. Wooden buildings reduce the heart rate and their warm touch gives comfort. The pre-manufactured timber elements make construction safe and more enjoyable. Those who have poured or drilled into concrete before will appreciate the value of timber construction which is dry and smells great.

The timber and the tree make an architecture of hope and remind us of the comforting nature of wood.


Maggies Oldham with the table Turned in the foreground - Photo dRMM