Faculty of Engineering, Architecture and Information Technology Dean Professor Simon Bigg, Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Leanne Donaldson and Civil Engineering head Professor Jose Torero look through the facility.

The University of Queensland has teamed up with Arup, Lendlease, Hyne Timber and the state government to create a research centre tasked with bringing the tall timber construction revolution up north.

The Centre for Future Timber Structures was opened on Tuesday by Queensland forestry minister Leanne Donaldson, and will research timber innovations for sustainable construction in the medium-rise tall buildings market.

Professor Jose Torero, the centre’s director, said the centre would house a new Australian Research Council-funded Industrial Transformation Hub, the mission of which would be to engineer new timber building products, including carbon-fibre reinforced products.

“The findings will help deliver tall timber buildings and transform the timber industry in Queensland,” he said.

Researchers from Centre for Future Timber Structures in the Advanced Engineering Building
Researchers from Centre for Future Timber Structures in the Advanced Engineering Building

Ms Donaldson said that while many Queenslanders lived in timber buildings, it was rarely used for tall buildings.

“The centre will focus on engineering solutions that address the current barriers to the use of structural timber in tall buildings,” she said, which included “poor understanding of how fire risk can be minimised”.

“The team assembled at the centre includes product manufacturers, fire safety engineers and structural engineers who will work together to ensure Queensland leads the world in the increasingly competitive tall timber engineering market,” Ms Donaldson said.

“Researchers are already working closely with Queensland Fire and Emergency Service to ensure the inherent fire safety of timber products and construction.”

She said increased acceptance of timber in medium- and high-rise buildings would be of great benefit to the Queensland forest industries, which was why the project had attracted “so much interest and good will”.

The $1 million in funding provided by the government has been matched by UQ, with an additional $1.5 million from the Australian Research Council.

New techniques to boost timber performance

“This is all about advanced innovation,” Ms Donaldson said. “The centre is developing products using techniques from the aerospace industry to greatly improve the strength of timber products and work is under way on the use of robotic construction to dramatically increase construction speed, reduce weight and cut waste on site.”

A demonstration showing the fire-safe properties of wood
A demonstration showing the fire-safe properties of wood

UQ’s Dr Angus Law, who specialises in structural fire engineering, told The Fifth Estate the aerospace industry techniques included the creation of high-performance composite materials, for example adding carbon fibres to timber.

He said carbon fibres could be used to supplement the properties of timber, “massively” boosting performance. This opened the door to very thin but very strong materials.

Dr Joe Gattas, a lecturer in UQ’s School of Civil Engineering, who specialises in origami design techniques, told The Fifth Estate that digital fabrication techniques using machines like CNC routers would lead to improved control and efficiencies in timber construction.

Robotic construction was the next step, and would involve the assembly of components, first off-site, but in the future could involve the onsite use of robots to construct buildings.

He said onsite construction had happened in small ways already, including in Switzerland, where an autonomous robot was developed that could lay bricks in pre-programmed structures.

“[Onsite robotic construction] is in the pipeline. There’s certainly a lot of interest.”

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  1. Though the innovation using composite timber for medium to tall buildings is a great idea using robotics for production assembly and in the future for on-site building can only add to the already long queue of unemployed people.