Alex Mowat explains why Mowat & Company recently joined Woodland Heritage.
The following is an extract from the 25th Anniversary edition of the Woodland Heritage magazine, published in April 2019
The world around us is getting increasingly complex every day. Everything is demanded faster and better. There are multiple organisations working and promoting a huge range of causes and opinions. Every industry and profession is becoming increasingly specialised. The consequence is that we don’t always see the wider picture. All this applies to the timber cycle; woodland management, silviculture, design, construction, joinery, furniture making and product retailing is no different.
My work as an architect at Mowat & Company operates in this context of specialisation. We design with timber in many ways including structures, building components, finishes, furniture and restoration. The result of this specialisation is that we are sometimes not exposed to other disciplines, that should be integral and right next to us in our thought process.
We joined Woodland Heritage recently to help us address this. By connecting with others we hope to better understand our part in the chain, to extend our knowledge and improve the quality of our work. We are conscious that beyond these immediate connections there lie many other long term opportunities for nature and society that can be unlocked, some of them hidden from our immediate view and may well be longer than our individual lifetimes. We hope that through our membership we can connect with those that grow and supply fine timber, manufacture and construct and ultimately sell our designs.
Our experience when designing for our clients has taught us that such links can bring direct benefits. I want to share 3 examples of this where collaboration helped us work in timber at different scales and with different tree species.
1: Holt Door Handles
During many travels across Northern Europe, I observed the Nordic tradition of using timber for many everyday items. I was inspired by the beautiful aesthetic and smoothness that develops over time the more wooden items are used. On my return home, I set about designing a range of timber door handles that could be used in commercial environments.
Pages of sketch books were filled, CAD models were built to visualise the shapes, plastic rapid prototypes were 3D printed and I even consulted academic professors. However, the break-through happened when I spent time “on the tools” in a joinery workshop with Ross Norgate of Young & Norgate. We made a plywood jig, we set up a tabletop router, we tested different materials including bamboo, beech, oak, sapele and iroko. In a few hours we had simplified the design to use one single router bit to reduce manufacturing time (not the complexity of the 4 separate bits I had unwittingly sketched). I left with some full sized prototypes, lots of new knowledge and a huge grin. I knew that I had something that was going to work.
My next link up had to be with a professional marketing and distribution team. I arranged to meet with Allgood, a company I had admired since my first days as an architect for their fantastic British modernist ironmongery. At the first meeting I had hardly finished unwrapping the prototypes when their sales director whipped out a screwdriver and fixed one of them to a sample door. He called a few colleagues from upstairs, they pushed and pulled the door, nodded to each other and turned to me and said “yes we will do it!” In April 2015 we launched the first commercial timber handles onto the market. We used the name Holt after the English place name that is the traditional place name for a wood. (e.g Northolt means North wood).
The oak range now includes pull and lever door handles, house numbers, a coat hook, grabrails, a toilet brush and toilet roll holders. The range has been specified for buildings as diverse as Tate Modern, a Buddhist retreat, the University of Winchester’s historic Winton Chapel and award-winning social housing in Croydon. When the handles were installed at Maggie’s Cancer centre in Oldham, we discovered a hidden benefit of having timber door handles. After chemotherapy people often find it painful to touch hot or cold items including metal door handles. Wooden handles and grabrails are warm to the touch and thus are much more comfortable for the patients.
2: Falmouth School – Cross Laminated Timber Extension
As part of an educational programme called “joined up design for schools” we received a brief from pupils at Falmouth School to re-configure and extend their design technology studios and workshops. They wanted a new building that would inspire future students and demonstrate sustainable construction. The school governors and the council estates department wanted it to be built from start to finish in the short Easter holidays.
We listened to these requirements and wondered how all this was going to be possible. We had read about a relatively new technique of factory-made Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) panels that was commercially available in Austria but had not yet reached mainstream UK construction. We prepared some initial designs to use flat transportable CLT panels in a folded arrangement to achieve the required spans and stiffness to generate huge north-light windows for the new design studio. We hoped this would be both practical and inspirational for the future pupils. We worked closely with Austrian firm KLH Massivholz GmbH to cut the panels, transport them from Austria via Falmouth Docks and assemble them on site in 3 days to the amazement of the pupils, governors and the council. I won’t lie…we were all amazed too!
The sustainability targets were met with this new timber technology. The CLT volume is 67m3, this timber volume removed approximately 53.6 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. The transport consumed 4.3 tonnes of emitted CO2. Offsetting the CO2 transport emissions had a ‘net gain’ of 49.3 tonnes of CO2 removed from the atmosphere (that is equivalent to 123,250 miles of car driving). These are statistics that are unthinkable with either steel or concrete structures.
The resulting building has achieved the desired inspirational effect. One of the pupils was inspired to study engineering and recently graduated from Cambridge University. The building was recognised with an International Green Apple Award for the Built Environment, a RIBA Award for Architecture, the LABC South West Award for Best Education Building and was the Winner of the Wood Awards Off-site Construction Award.
3: Berry Bros. & Rudd - Oak Day
For the last 5 years we have been working closely with Berry Bros. & Rudd, London’s oldest wine & spirits merchant. We have re-developed their shop interiors, offices, cellars as well as restoring some of their fabric of their fabulously wonky Grade II* listed buildings in central London with oak panelling, beams, shelves, racking, desks and chairs.
Oak is intrinsically linked with the production of both wine & spirits. Oak barrels are used for maturing whisky, sherry, port and fine wines with the oak tannins giving so much of the flavour. It does not stop there: once matured the bottles are sealed with corks harvested from the bark of Quercus suber oak trees.
Whilst working on these projects our team were keen to learn more about oak, specifically why it has such longevity appropriate to this 400 year old company. Following an inspirational talk by Charley Brentnall of Carpenter Oak we set off to their workshop for a hands-on day learning the techniques of manufacturing and assembling green oak architectural frames. Our studio manager wielded an alarmingly oversized chainsaw morticer to make the mortices, our architects measured up and cut huge tenons and drilled the offset holes, two of us got busy cleaving the oak tapering pegs to hold it all together. Thanks to the great team at Carpenter Oak we left with a huge respect and admiration for green oak construction. Thankfully we also left with all our fingers and toes intact.
Connecting with the carpenters, sharing their knowledge and tools brought us a deeper understanding and empathy with how oak is used in construction. Having drummed up our enthusiasm we are now looking for the opportunity to put this knowledge into practice by designing a green oak framed building. Hopefully one that will have a life of hundreds of years, like many ancient cathedral roofs.
These are just 3 examples of the direct benefits that we have received from connecting to other people and disciplines working with timber. As new members of Woodland Heritage we hope to make similar connections and deepen our understanding of timber. I am especially excited to be attending the Woodland to Workshop course in May and to meet more people at the field weekend in June. Our instinct is that there are hidden unexpected benefits to be gained. Benefits that I can’t even describe or imagine today.
Our longer-term hope for our membership of Woodland Heritage is that we can explore the wider benefits of “tree farming” beyond our industry. Tree farming helps atmospheric CO2 levels, provides anti-flooding measures, as well as providing biodiversity and creating calm recreational places in our crowded busy world. As a member of Woodland Heritage we hope we can help more people see woodlands as “tree farms” that are an active, changing, beautiful, inspiring, profitable and essential part of Great Britain.