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A Timber Counterpoint

Eight years ago, in a project workshop for the Melbourne School of Design the discussion turned to the roof structure needed to span across the central design hall. The JWA team made the unconventional suggestion to use timber rather than steel or concrete. Any initial scepticism in the room dissipated quickly. Enthusiasm amongst the project team grew around pushing the boundaries of timber construction at that time. The result is an extraordinary spatial experience.

The sensory qualities of timber make for a frequent conversation topic in JWA’s studios. Visually, its grain and colour convey a natural complexity. The milled board, its surface, section and joints, encourages touch. Acoustically, it stretches reverberation time. Solid timber brings with it an undeniable aroma. Timber immediately engages the senses. In fact, research suggests, at least anecdotally, that these qualities can alleviate one’s experience of stress, which makes it highly appealing for the design of hospitals, workplaces, and learning environments.

JWA’s interest in timber has been long-running and extensive. Our own research has delved into the debate around provenance and the relative advantages of recycled timber or wood sourced from a managed forest or a plantation. It has extended to the way timber sequesters carbon whereas the manufacture of concrete and steel releases carbon into the atmosphere. This has driven the advancement of timber technologies for larger structures, particularly in Europe but now also in Australia. It also coincides with an evolution of the construction industry toward prefabrication of modular elements off site that are then assembled on site, a process that timber is very suited to.

These many aesthetic, experiential, and sustainable qualities of timber and its suitability for prefabrication are synthesised into architectural ideas that come to define many of our projects.

The houses we have designed over many years experiment with the making immersive timber shells, either outer or inner. One of our first completed houses, the Balnarring House, is clad with rough sawn cedar that weathers grey and contrasts with the dressed, coated cedar windows – creating a pleasing contrast between the raw and the refined. The Fairhaven House wraps its interior with Blackbutt boards, making an eyrie above a coastal hillside. At the Shearer’s Quarters the Macrocarpa boards milled from fallen windbreak trees spiral around the interior of the galvanised iron ‘shed’. Tasmanian Oak is the sole material of the internal lining of Captain Kelly’s Cottage, morphing into boards, dowels, frames and battens.

At a larger scale, in commercial projects we have used solid timber battens (at Westfield Sydney Centre) or notched boards (at the Urban Workshop) to impact the senses within arrival foyers. They are a counterpoint to the commonplace material palette of the city with its cool, flat or reflective surfaces – glass, aluminium and concrete.

Melbourne School of Design experimented with large span timber structures across its central design hall. The knotty softwood appearance of the laminated veneer lumber (LVL) box beams is revealed at the upper levels of the hall, showing students of architecture and building the substance of the structure holding up the roof. From below, a timber veneer is seen that folds down the sides of the suspended studio, scaling down the expression of timber elements from large beam to fine grain ornament. Between the box beams are timber coffers that shield the interior from the glare of northern sun, whilst admitting southern diffuse light. The spectrum of this light as it is reflected through the coffers becomes warmer and draws people to this space from all parts of the Melbourne University campus.

Another popular interior for students is the Learning and Teaching Building at Monash University. Here, the top floor of the four-storey building is treated like a timber attic, with a sawtooth timber trussed roof system and a dramatic occupied timber stair that connects with ground floor. As part of an internal landscape of learning experiences the escarpment stair, as it has become known, shifts from bleacher seating to lounge terraces to study booths as you ascend the steps. With the timber sawtooth above and timber window mullions along its edge, the effect is all encompassing and immersive.

About to start construction, the new Ballarat GovHub will accommodate 1000 staff within the Civic Hall precinct of this regional Victorian city. Our desire was to create an office building that felt appropriate to the civic realm of its site, and that was not simply a diagram of commercial parameters. The mid-rise gabled form of the building is a hybrid – part office, part house; partly public, partly private. In this case, a full timber horizontal and vertical structure will set a new benchmark for the use of large-scale timber structures in Australia.

We have been both participants in the recent evolution of timber structures, and advocates for its use through our experimentation and idea making. Our fascination with material craft, means we are constantly marrying our ideas with new forms of digital technology and fabrication processes. It is this strong desire to craft material which is an underlying principle of all our work. This desire is realised in our manipulation of timber and our exploration of its inherent qualities; and it draws people to the spaces that we create.

Stefan Mee

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