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Centre for Digital Built Britain

 

The use of prefabricated engineered timber construction methods, including digital design and off-site manufacturing, at scale to build much-needed new schools in the UK will improve construction productivity, performance and be more cost effective than conventional methods. Engineered timber buildings can be efficiently and sustainably operated and maintained, as well as being pleasant facilities  for those working and learning in them.   

Prefabricated construction is increasingly acknowledged to result in faster project delivery, reduced cost, higher quality assurance, reduced exposure of building materials to adverse weather conditions, reduced waste, and improved worker safety and comfort. Researchers from the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge are working to unlock the potential of prefabricated engineered timber construction methods to help meet the demand for new primary and secondary school buildings in the UK on-time, on-budget, and within sustainability targets.  

Big picture 

In June 2020 the UK government announced a £1 billion investment in new school construction and £560 million for school repairs and upgrades as part of a package of proposals intended to stimulate the post-COVID-19 economy1. Rebuilding projects must be greener to meet the government’s net zero target and will focus on modern construction methods to create highly skilled jobs and boost the construction sector. Every part of the UK needs to build more schools to meet increasing numbers of pupils and local authorities are under mounting financial strain2. Additional considerations emerge from the UK government’s Construction 2025 strategy which targets a 50 per cent reduction of emissions, a 33 per cent reduction in costs, and a 50 per cent improvement in the speed of new construction3 

Establishing new sustainable applications for renewable, energy-efficient and plant-based natural materials in the built environment brings opportunity to improve building quality and mitigate the human impact on climate change. 

The project 

Researchers at the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge are identifying the opportunities and challenges of engineered timber construction in the UK based on the experience of industry participants and analysis of existing engineered timber school buildings. Analysis brings focus to three themes: the construction process; the legal framework defining the contractual relationships between the different stakeholders involved; and the environmental performance of engineered timber as a construction material.  

Aiming to unlock the potential of timber for use in off-site manufactured large-scale school buildings the project, which drives transforming timber construction through digital design and manufacturingwill:  

  • develop timber building procurement models that leverage the vertical nature of the timber industry and novel contractual frameworks appropriate for prefabricated engineered timber projects  

  • define digital workflows that are available to a wide range of architects, engineers and contractors which are compatible with engineered timber, robotic cutting, and off-site manufacture but onsite assembly  

  • design school building components that fit into those workflows and are engaging to architects  

  • show the policy and pragmatic advantages of modular, large-scale timber through evidence-based papers and research-based designs.  

Researchers will build an extension to an existing school building using prefabricated engineered timber construction methods as a demonstrator project. The school is located in Cambridge UK and construction is planned for 2021/2.  


M. H. Ramage, H. Burridge, M. Busse-Wicher, G. Fereday, T. Reynolds, D. U. Shah,490G. Wu, L. Yu, P. Fleming, D. Densley-Tingley, J. Allwood, P. Dupree, P. Linden,OScherman, The wood from the trees: The use of timber in construction, Renewableand Sustainable Energy Reviews 68 (2017) 333–359 

 

Need to know 

  • Buildings built primarily using timber could potentially act as a global ‘carbon sink’, safely storing atmospheric carbon for the lifespan of buildings (50-60 years)  

  • Classrooms with exposed timber have been shown to result in reduced heart rate and perceived levels of stress in students compared to classrooms where other materials are used  

  • It takes four hours to grow a 300-metre tall timber tower in the sustainable forests of Europe  

Innovation 

The project adopts a multi-scalar approach to the use of engineered timber as a construction material. It aims to assess the benefits and the whole life cycle of engineered timber products, ranging from forest management and carbon sequestration to supply chains and policies. Combined with the development of novel design methodologies, aligned with the principles of design for disassembly and modern methods of construction, this holistic approach aims to reduce the emissions of the construction industry in line with UK sustainability targets. 

Challenges

The UK needs more school buildings to meet the rise in numbers of the school-age population. The School Places Challenge report (2019) states: ‘There will be 385,031 more school-age pupils in the UK by 2021/22, which equates to 12,835 additional primary and secondary school classrooms, the equivalent of 640 new schools’4The construction sector is taking steps towards digital transformation, but new innovations, methods and frameworks are required at scale to build more for less, while meeting government sustainability targets to support the transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and delivering improved economic and social value.      

Timeline 

Strategies and policies for the reduction of emissions from the construction industry, in line with UK zero carbon emission targetshave been promoted to policymakers and local authorities through collaboration with government representatives and active engagement in preparation for COP26 in November 2021Researchers are participating in high-impact events and conferences, including Digital Construction Week and London Climate Action Week. The publication of papers aims to engage the academic community and initiate additional innovative collaborations and research on this topic. Future work includes the construction of aengineered timber school extension, a demonstrator project to test and validate our proposal.  

Industry impact of this research

The automation and off-site manufacturing embedded in the processing of engineered timber building systems could help to ensure the delivery of a high volume of primary and secondary school buildings is timely and efficientThis project presents evidence-based insights for the development of prefabricated engineered timber construction strategies which could contribute to efficiently delivering the required number of new schools within sustainability targets.  

“It is vital for UK construction to take part in research – there is no doubt that new thinking is required to meet our carbon reduction targets at the same time as modernising our industry. Michael’s team and his project are addressing this challenge and the insight our business is gaining through collaboration is invaluable.”

Simon Smith, Director, Smith and Wallwork 

Wider benefits 

Building schools using prefabricated engineered timber construction methods brings opportunity for the procurement of these structures to stimulate the growth of tertiary engineered timber processing businesses in the UK. These new businesses could provide long-term employment and, if distributed regionally, contribute to the creation of employment opportunities to support a ‘levelling up’ of prosperity across the UK. 

Automation of the construction of prefabricated engineered timber ensures a time efficient construction process. The tight assembly process can be accommodated within school holidays to minimise disruptions to the school programmeThe process of constructing buildings using timber has also been demonstrated to have lower associated greenhouse gas emissions than would be produced using conventional construction materials, such as steel and concrete.  

At the end of a structure’s life, timber elements may be reused, recycled, or burned as biomass fuel. When combined with sustainable management of forests (replanting, active management), constructing buildings using prefabricated engineered timber could facilitate the transfer of significant volumes of atmospheric carbon into the built environment for long-term storage in a cost-effective manner. This approach also secures a source of building materials that can be grown and harvested sustainably. 

Collaborators 

  • Department for Education 
  • Cambridge City Council 
  • Smith and Wallwork 

Meet the research team 

“This project is an exciting opportunity for academic research to engage wtih the government on the development of guidance and policy concerning the effective, sustainable, and economical design and contruction of engineered timber schools in the UK. 

Dr Aurimas Bukauskas

 

 

“This project presents a unique opportunity to use engineered timber in an innovative way, in line with advanced fabrication and construction methods, to design low-energy, healthy schools for our future.”  

Dr Antiopi Koronaki

 

 

 

Lead: Dr Michael Ramage, Director, Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge 

Team: Dr Aurimas BukauskasDr Antiopi Koronaki  and Dr Aftab JaliaResearch Associates, Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge; Dr Darshil Shah, Lecturer in Materials, Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge 

Engage  

If you would like to know more about this project, see natmat.group.cam.ac.uk and @CamNatMat and email natmat@aha.cam.ac.uk 

Visit the project page for this research here.

Listen to the team on BBC Sounds - 39 Ways to Save the Planet - (broadcast 5 Jan) - complete with sounds of cutting cross-laminated timber which his project is researching.
 
Read/Watch: Koronaki, A. (ed) 2020. Towards carbon free construction: Cultivating and manufacturing our homes. Centre for Natural Material Innovation, University of Cambridge. Cambridge, United Kindom.

 

Header photo courtesy of Dr Aurimas Bukauskas