TDUK’s members know about timber construction. But only one of them can lay claim to have delivered the UK’s first ever CLT project. That is Eurban, who have been creating engineered timber buildings for over 20 years.
In 2004, Eurban provided what’s thought to be the UK’s first cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction: a copper-clad building within Caldicott School in Buckinghamshire. It’s one of several firsts they have been responsible for during their two decades of existence as a multidisciplinary practice.
Pioneers of UK CLT
“We formed Eurban to deliver CLT structures when few had heard of it or knew how to do it,” recalls Jonathan Fovargue, Founding Director. “We had to work hard to pioneer use of it, as a new and unfamiliar material.”
He had been working with cross-laminated timber since the late 1990s, with various manufacturers in central Europe. Now they are a business with nearly 40 members of staff, employing architects, engineers and technicians. They design, manufacture and install engineered timber structures – predominantly CLT, but also glulam, LVL (laminated veneer lumber), DLT (dowel laminated timber) and hybrid structures. They’ve worked on over 400 buildings, ranging from single-family homes to eight-storey residential blocks and many educational buildings.
Education, education, education
“Today, I’d say about 70% of the work we deliver is in the education sector,” Jonathan explains. “We’ve done all manner of educational buildings – universities, technical colleges – but predominantly primary and secondary schools.”
While education has been a constant ever since their first project, over the last few years it has dominated their workload. This is partly, Jonathan believes, due to the residential housing sector’s loss of appetite for timber buildings since 2018’s ban on combustible materials in residential buildings over 18 metres. But it is also testimony to the progressive, forward-thinking attitude of the education sector.
“The Department for Education, schools estates and local authorities have long recognized the value of timber,” he asserts. “If you have a net-zero agenda then the materials you use are becoming more and more important. The Department for Education is a very good client. It understands that embodied carbon is a big part of getting to net zero. It knows that timber is part of the solution.”
A school needs to open by the start of term
It’s the method of delivery as much as the material that makes timber such a favourite with the education sector, Jonathan has found. The timber structures in Eurban’s projects are typically put up in an impressively short timespan.
“Programme is key. They want to be open for the start of term – that’s not a date that can move! At the same time they’re very interested in high quality buildings. Whereas the residential sector may be less invested in that, as they are going to be selling them off.”
He clearly finds working for education-sector clients very satisfying.
“If you don’t understand how to deliver a timber building, as a main contractor you are at a disadvantage now in education. They appreciate how performance, programme, MMC and sustainability all intersect. The contractors on the local authority’s framework also acknowledge that that is what their client wants – so they’re willing to work towards that.”
Northstowe Education Campus, Cambridge
Jonathan singles out one recent education project in particular. Eurban were the timber engineers and specialist installers for three new school buildings in Cambridgeshire – a secondary school, a Special Educational Needs (SEN) facility and an energy centre. They were designed by architects Frank Shaw, while Kier Eastern were the contractors.
The assembly of the mass timber superstructure was modelled and pre-planned down to the last bracket and screw. This was crucial to the DfMA process (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) that was necessary to meet a very tight programme.
The Northstowe project demonstrated the benefits of 4D BIM: the introduction of time into Building Information Modelling, wherein the 3D model becomes a ‘virtual twin’ of the building. Eurban mapped out the deliveries, crane lifts and phased handovers of the CLT structures over time. This enabled Kier to firm up their programme for follow-on trades, ensuring the efficient site progress. 4D BIM also helped to identify and address any sequencing issues or risks early on.
“We’re very BIM-oriented,” Jonathan volunteers. “We’ve invested a lot in the DFMA process. It’s a whole delivery methodology which can radically shorten the construction programme.”
Exciting projects overseas
Another aspect of Eurban’s portfolio is its projects overseas. It has carried out projects in Africa, Asia and Europe and opened an office in Switzerland in 2017.
“Central Europe is not a new market but it is a growing market,” Jonathan enthuses. “France seems to be leading the way at the moment – having changed their legislation recently to progress low-carbon technologies including timber.”
Asia’s biggest timber building
Recently, Eurban worked on what it is being hailed as Asia’s largest mass timber building: Nanyang Technological University’s business school, also known as the Gaia Building, in Singapore.
Designed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, it was completed in May 2023 and opens in August. While it is only 6-storeys high, it is 220-metres long and has a floorspace of 43,500m2. It uses around 14,000 cubic metres of timber.
“NTU Singapore has a 2050 net zero ambition for its estate,” he explains. “As it so often is, the sustainability aspect is client-led. Even in the corporate sector, the ESG agendas are increasingly firm. It is the client’s voice that’s strongest in requiring sustainability.”
The UK has previously led the way in the timber sector, Jonathan observes. So it is well placed to support the appetite for timber construction in the rest of the world.
“Developers from Lagos, Nigeria, are keen to build sustainable buildings there. They look around and recognize that the UK has a lot of talent. The UK may not be manufacturers of the materials but that doesn’t matter – we have the expertise.”
Respect for timber expertise
Jonathan remarks that it’s becoming much more common for subcontractors to be brought into the project at an earlier project stage.
“Quite often we’re involved at Stage 2 or 3,” he says. “At that point there’s an opportunity to optimize layouts, to make materials and systems or components efficient for manufacture and assembly. But those opportunities are gone by Stage 4. That’s always been understood but not always adopted. Fortunately, contractors are increasingly seeing the value in partnership and opportunity.”
Over the past decade, Jonathan has seen a sea-change in attitudes towards timber, and he is very optimistic about the sector’s future.
“It used to be that subcontractors would only propose what they were used to – what was the cheapest. But the decision-making has changed. Timber is often the number-one choice. In many cases, you’d have to have good reason not to.”
This article is taken from issue 4 of Designing Timber magazine.