The 2015 tour group in Switzerland

Embracing timber as a material for major projects has been a challenge when there are so few Australian examples to use for reference. Looking overseas, however, has given designers, project managers, engineers and builders inspiration to really push the low-carbon envelope, according to Andrew Dunn, chief executive of the Timber Development Association.

Among past tour groups has been Jonathan Evans from leading architects Tzannes and Jodie Drysdale from TSA Management, who both say the Milano Tour last year inspired deeper understanding and creative applications for timber.

This year, the experience will again be open to Australian designers and consultants with WoodSolutions hosting its fourth overseas tour for design professionals starting in late August

Dunn says the tour has been organised in response to requests from Australian practitioners attending the World Timber Engineering Conference being held this year in Vienna, with the tour starting in Vienna on 28 August and finishing in Zurich on 3 September.

Dunn says he has already received interest from people across the building supply chain who want to see first-hand how timber is being used in Austria and Switzerland. Dunn says one of the motivations in organising the tours is that Australian practitioners currently do not see enough massive timber construction on home turf to feel comfortable with designing and building with it. Developers can also be wary of a material they don’t have familiarity with.

“There are not enough examples in Australia [yet] to touch and feel, a common request by design professionals” Dunn says.

The tours are an opportunity to look at the supply chain for delivering these types of buildings and for participants to talk to like-minded people.

Developments on the itinerary range from attached housing to high-rises, large exhibition centres, office buildings, apartment buildings and schools, both completed and under construction.

“In Austria, wood is almost the first choice [for construction],” Dunn says.

A first-hand view for Tzannes’ Jonathan Evans

Jonathan Evans

According to Jonathan Evans, design and timber technology director at leading architectural practice Tzannes, the Milano 2015 tour deepened his familiarity with timber materials and their complete lifecycle in ways that have benefitted subsequent projects.

Evans was already looking into engineered timbers before the tour. He wanted to become familiar and intimate with Glulam and CLT products, he says, and the first thing he did when he received his first samples was “take them into a workshop where I cut, drilled, routed, spliced, stained, beat, inlayed, smelt and felt the wood to learn all of its inherent characteristics”.

“It is a beautiful material to work with, following thousands of years of associated craftsmanship,” he says.

“As an architect I like to have an intimate knowledge of the materials that I use, so for me the biggest gain [from the tour] was from seeing the timber progress from its woodland source, to the harvesting and then the processing into engineered timber products.”

Evans says each step of the tour last year gave him the realisation of how sustainably managed each stage of the processing was.

“The trees were recognised as a vital legacy for future generations which needed to be maintained as a strong vital ecology, rather than a monoculture which is regularly cleared and denuded,” he says.

He saw how the factory processing collected all of the offcuts for board manufacture and sawdust for biomass energy production, and the manufacture of construction products that can fully utilise the high value of a piece of timber the size of a paperback book when finger jointed and glued into a mass piece of engineered structural wood.

Another benefit was seeing how modern computer-enabled machine processes can emulate the craftsman tradition.

“It was great to witness the computer controlled high tech machinery employed to finish each piece and prepare for site delivery.”

A bespoke fabrication plant the tour visited for instance was equipped with five axis CNC cutters mounted both above and below the timber blanks that “could carve out any form imaginable”.

The construction site visits across Switzerland and Austria were also valuable, he says. The tour saw how the sequencing of delivery and installation was carefully orchestrated to minimise crane time and maximise the advantages of prefabrication.

“Knowledge of detailing of joints, brackets and connections to hasten construction and deliver efficiency on site is something that I brought back with me and am implementing in an ever growing number of engineered timber buildings that we have in design and construction at Tzannes,” Evans says.

Among new work in timber for Tzannes is an all-timber multi-storey commercial office development, the first of its kind in Australia. There is also an increasing number of projects looking to do what he calls “timber top” buildings in the Sydney CBD – adding some stories of mass timber commercial space above an existing four or five level masonry and concrete building.

The multi-residential sector is also providing possible new projects, particularly from developers who are sustainability-minded and want to use mass timber so the green credentials of the building can form a part of the project marketing, Evans says.

Project managers are very interested in timber

Another member of the Milano 2015 tour was project director for project managers TSA Management, Jodie Drysdale, who says one of the major positives for her of the tour was the access to the construction sites and the processing and manufacturing plants.

“As an individual, you wouldn’t get the same level of access,” she says.

Drysdale says meeting the Europeans from the projects and plants, and also meeting other Australians from different aspects of the construction sector, was also a plus.

The contacts and networking was one aspect, she says, but also the diversity meant gaining a wider picture about the benefits and challenges of timber construction.

“When we were presented to by one of the fabrication plants or builders, everyone asked different questions depending on their area of involvement [in the process],” Drysdale says.

“So you get a holistic response. Everyone is looking at different sorts of advantages and considering the disadvantages in different ways.”

The nature of the buildings the tour saw and the diversity of applications for timber also had an impact.

The Tamedia building

Drysdale says the Tamedia building in Switzerland was particularly striking.

“It is a simple structure, but finished so well,” she says.

There were other insights.

In the Tamedia building, for example, workers told the group they enjoy turning up to work, and felt it’s “a great environment”, Drysdale says.

Likewise residents at a social housing project in Milan, commented on a sense of wellbeing and of pride from living in that environment. Drysdale says the tour group noticed the building was very well-maintained, and free of graffiti.

Drysdale says that since the tour she is on the lookout for opportunities to use timber in projects.

In Europe, the business case is well established. The costs are comparatively cheaper, partly from program savings. Work can progress without back-propping, and the follow-on trades can get on-site faster.

There is also a safety advantage in avoiding concrete and steel lifts, and an environmental advantage.

“This is something clients are looking for now,” Drysdale says.

“And aesthetically the structures are incredible.”

Tour will provide multiple opportunities

According to Andrew Dunn the tour will also provide opportunities for talks from contractors, builders and designers during the site visits.

He says intended outcomes of the experience include enough comfort to develop timber designs, and first-hand knowledge about the ways and methodologies the structures are built and the design detailing involved.

The groups also get to see how the materials are fabricated, which adds to the understanding of detailing.

There is also the opportunity to make links with other Australians in the supply chain that can be valuable for future projects.

For some firms, the value of their initial tour was so great, different staff have been sent on subsequent tours.

Dunn says that as well as seeing cross laminated timber plants and projects, the materials aspect will include glulam, laminated veneered lumber, timber frames and other timber applications.

“You can’t favour one over the other as each timber product has a range of uses,” he says.

While Australia has a while to wait until there is locally produced CLT, other mass timbers such as glulam and LVL are already produced here, as are prefabricated frame solutions. So participants can take home experience that can be applied to projects using locally-produced products, which de-risks the proposition, Dunn says.

It’s not just residential buildings that will be on show. Other structures include an exhibition hall with 90 metre spans and a cable car structure on top of a mountain in Switzerland. The tour group will stay in two wooden hotels, so people can “live and feel the wood”.

In Austria, the group will find itself in “Sound of Music” territory, Dunn says, surrounded by fantastic vistas, where anything from a bus shelter, the local petrol stations, small supermarkets, even silos, are made of wood.

  • Further details of the WoodSolutions 2016 Study Tour can be found here or email Andrew Dunn.