Print page print this page

Using local timber in architecture


 Piers Head And Shoulders
Piers Taylor is an architect and academic, familiar to many as co presenter of programmes such as the BBC's The World's Most Extraordinary Homes.
He established Invisible Studio as an alternative model of architectural practice; has   pioneered a number of educational programmes including the Studio in the Woods and helped found the Design and Make masters programme at the Architectural Association's Hooke Park Campus.
Invisible Studio’s own studio was constructed entirely by ‘unskilled’ labour and exclusively used timber grown on site in its construction.  It has recently completed two buildings for Westonbirt, the UK’s National Arboretum which incorporated training programmes for volunteers and students, and used the largest single length timbers in the UK in their construction, which were also grown on site. 

In Part One of his blog, award winning architect and university tutor Piers Taylor looked at how he had become increasingly aware of a divisive split between ‘thinking’ and ‘making’ in architecture and how building his own home from timber in his own wood had been a watershed moment. Here he discusses how he looks to inspire innovative uses of home grown timber in architecture.

“The same year that I built my house from the timber in my own small wood near Bath, a group of us started something we called ‘Studio in the Woods’. We didn’t ‘set it up’ – I’m suspicious of things that are ‘set up’ or premeditated too much – Studio in the Woods just evolved out of friendships with other architects, and casual conversations about how it could be fun to organise a workshop with students in the woods around my house. Trusting we’d be agile enough to catch things as they happened, we just threw the cards up in the air to see where they landed.

Tmcroof Westonbirteif 230718 Wn 
 The Tree Management Centre at Westonbirt uses 20 metre long hand hewn Corsican Pine structural members in complete lengths in its roof  – as well as Oak, Spruce, Larch and Douglas Fir

Where they landed – or what came out of the first weekend of Studio in the Woods 10 years ago – set the pattern for subsequent years. We’d test ambitious ideas quickly, at 1:1, using timber felled and milled on site. For me, the giddy and heady freedom that came with being able to work directly, with materials to hand and with the chaos and surprise of inventing on the hoof was amazing.

This way of working allows the richness of discovery, conversation and contingency to be incorporated in real time into the architecture. The anthropologist Tim Ingold calls this ‘a way of knowing from the inside – a correspondence between mindful attention and lively materials conducted by skilled hands at the [material’s] edge’.

This is a way of working that I’ve been moving towards for 15 years now. Underpinning this move towards a different way of working is a fascination in using full scale making as a method of testing ideas, and using the process of consolidation or accumulation as a design tool. Rather than refining a prototype and then unveiling something perfectly formed and defect free, I am interested in allowing a prototype to be continuously modified and adapted so that it is allowed to become the ‘final’ piece, with modifications and mistakes made manifest. 

Studio in the Woods provided me with this new model of working – one where new architectural forms and relationships could be discovered, rather than merely willed. One of the big questions many architects have is – if we don’t merely want to use precedent or deterministic processes, how do we discover architectural form? For me, allowing construction, material exploration and full scale making in real time went some way to answering this.

What emerged from my work with Studio in the Woods was an invitation from London’s Architectural Association to get involved with establishing a new program for students in a 400 acre woodland in rural Dorset, which had been bequeathed to them by the furniture designer John Makepeace. He had established the woodland as a research facility which examined how low grade forest thinnings could be used in construction. Several seminal structures had been built there including Frei Otto’s building that used young waste wood in the construction of a lightly skinned big workshop.


Pierstaylor Explaning Westonbirtfeaturers Eif Crfsbrianmartin
Piers Taylor talking innovative uses of local timber at Westonbirt with RFS President Andrew Woods and William Theed

The AA’s idea was to set up a new masters programme where, over 16 months, architecture students would design and construct their own campus using timber sourced from the Hooke woodland. The first building that came out of the program was a complex and unusual big span workshop that used juvenile larch between 12 and 18 years old. My role developed from tutor into executive architect, and, with the engineers Atelier 1 and carpenter extraordinaire Charley Brentnall, we developed a system of using standard 300mm house-builders fixings to connect the timbers – a low tech, low skill method that allowed students and volunteers to assemble the building alongside Brentnall’s skilled team.  

What followed was a series of buildings and structures forming the campus using almost exclusively materials sourced from the woodland at Hooke, with teams formed from a combination of those who were conventionally skilled alongside those who were unskilled in construction.

Alongside this, the world of timber has become more and more fascinating to me. We’ve recently bought – with our neighbours – the 100 acre woodland around the house, which we manage alongside practice and family life and built our studio in it with timber from the woodland, using friends, neighbours and bodgers in its construction, and almost no drawings.

The studio that I work from was an exercise in harnessing the resourcefulness that many of my rural neighbours have. Few had any formal construction knowledge, and certainly none had ever built a building before. Free from the baggage of ‘correct’ ways of doing things, all brought an extraordinary sensibility to the project. The building was an exercise in frugality that is typical of many traditional rural buildings – we simply used local materials and resources to shape the project. In an era where most architecture is defined by its extravagance the studio was an attempt to do the most with the least.

Working in this vein, we have now just finished delivering two buildings for Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, that forms their Tree Management Centre using a similar method, but with a completely different scale. The buildings are the first that the arboretum have built using their own timber – and use 20 metre long hand hewn Corsican Pine structural members in complete lengths – as well as Oak, Spruce, Larch and Douglas Fir. Many volunteers have worked on the project alongside skilled carpenters, and the Carpenter’s Fellowship have used the buildings as vehicles for up-skilling their trainees.

Living in a woodland, working with timber in this manner and embracing the glorious properties of green timber felled on site as part of a wider management plan, architecture for me has shifted immeasurably away from the idea of a lone designer, working on a static object of singular beauty. Design becomes a forum that allow the unexpected to emerge. The architectural academic Jeremy Till, who is highly critical of much contemporary practice describes this way of working as a ‘crucible for exchange between a mix of professionals, amateurs, dreamers and pragmatists’ with the architect an ‘open-minded listener and fleet-footed interpreter, collaborating in the realization of other people’s unpolished visions’. For me now, it is among these amateurs, dreamers, pragmatists, bodgers and - perhaps most importantly, trees - that I thrive, in the knowledge that all of my own work will, one day, revert to the woodland matter from where it came.”