Finding paradise in a timber office building

Your first timber project can be a daunting experience. Why did Bywater Properties take the timber route for Paradise SE11 – a 6-storey South London office space?


Theo Michell, Co-Founder, Bywater Properties

“We acquired the site in 2018 and received planning in early 2020,” explains Theo Michell, co-founder of Bywater Properties. “The name ‘Paradise’ comes from its location, overlooking Old Paradise Gardens, but was also a kind of provocation to the design team. What would paradise mean in the context of an office building?”

The question prompted considerations about happy workspaces and healthy buildings, not forgetting the important matter of the building’s carbon footprint. All of which led Bywater to look at timber frame.

Several years later, Paradise SE11 is onsite and well underway. A six-storey office building, its mass timber structure will comprise some 63,250 square feet. It will open its doors in Autumn 2024.

 

So why timber?

“We knew from the start that if we committed to a timber building there might be obstacles along the way,” Theo recalls. “It isn’t as well established a material as masonry, steel and concrete. But we sensed that the wind was beginning to change in timber’s favour – and a small, entrepreneurial business like ours can perhaps afford to take risks in a way that a large developer can’t.”

What ultimately pushed Bywater towards timber was the need to stand out from the crowd.

“The site is one block south of the river Thames in a stretch of Lambeth that’s not a core office location – so we couldn’t just deliver a good quality, but standard ‘vanilla’ office building. We needed to give people a positive reason to choose to be there.”

Doing something different

Indicative CGI of the Cat A office that Paradise will house

Their gut feeling – that they needed to create something noteworthy – proved correct.

The leasing agents thought they would be unlikely to receive any pre-let discussions until 12 months before practical completion, typical for a London building of this scale. That wasn’t the case with this building – there were enquiries before it had even gone onsite, all driven by the timber and carbon story.

Timber is also a material very much in sympathy with the site. Very few London office buildings directly border a park, without a road or any other barrier in-between. On one side of the designed building, office windows will look directly out into a tree canopy.

Tenants understand the carbon conversation

Many of these potential tenants were keen to hear about the building’s low embodied carbon credentials. Any concerns that people would feel bamboozled by carbon talk were blown out of the water.

“The occupier market is well informed about embodied and operational carbon and keen to understand more,” Theo tells us.

“They know that their occupational decisions can make a significant impact in achieve corporate ambitions and it’s hard to see how you’ll achieve some of those those targets without engaging with timber.”

Keeping count of carbon

The building is predicted to come in beneath both RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge and LETI’s 2030 targets, with an anticipated embodied carbon of 413kg CO2e/m2. The timber used to build Paradise comes from sustainable forests and will have removed some 1,884 tonnes of carbon from the environment while growing to maturity.

Theo admits that, at the start of the project, he was relatively naïve in how to go about carbon analysis. But he learned a great deal from the project’s architects, Feilden Clegg Bradley, and the structural engineers, Webb Yates.

“The project changed our thinking about how we approach the development process. We will now bring in sustainability consultants very early and set the architects’ brief in terms of key targets.”


An exciting new partnership

One consequence of the Paradise project for Bywater has been a new business relationship. Bywater were looking for an investor for Paradise’s delivery phase and, helped by Knight Frank, they have agreed a partnership with Sumitomo Forestry.

Sumitomo is a major Japanese logging, processing and construction company, who own some 40,500 hectares of forest in Japan. They decided not just to invest in an individual project but agreed to buy a 50% stake in  Bywater.

“Paradise was evidently a project that fit their ethos. They are now our long-term partners,” Theo states. “Globally, the majority of their construction projects are residential – they delivered around 25,000 residential units last year. But they are increasing the amount of timber-frame offices they provide. It’s a big opportunity for us, and it means that everything we look at from now on will be through a timber lens, as it were, both office and residential.”


Insurance

When completed, the building will sit in harmony with Old Paradise Gardens in Vauxhall, London; all images © Bywater Properties

It’s perhaps inevitable that the word “insurance” would crop up. Insurance, Theo reveals, was a constant consideration from the start.

“Some people, at preplanning stage, told us Paradise would be uninsurable which, of course, spooked us considerably. But our insurance broker always said that wouldn’t the case.”

He benefited from the sensible advice to contact insurers early on.

“You need to involve insurers in the process as soon as possible and take them on journey. Don’t carry out your design work without consulting them – you can’t expect to leave it until you’re close to practical completion.”

The pricing of insurance for timber buildings, on the other hand, is relatively untested. He believes that, through Bywater’s efforts to engage early and consistently, the cost of insuring the building fell considerably. And he
believes that, across the industry, the insurance cost gap for timber buildings is narrowing relative to those of other materials.

Fire safety

Another challenge was the building’s fire safety and whether it would pass the fire test. The building’s CLT contains a fire retardant coating, and the building also contains a sprinkler system. “We weren’t certain it would need a fire test,” he recalls. “The test is a big, significant binary moment – the building either passes or it doesn’t.”

The design team were always confident it would pass, and pass it did. He reflects that compromising the all-timber superstructure might bypass the need for a test. You might decide to go for a hybrid option: a steel frame and CLT slab design, for example, for which some test data exists that might be sufficient. But, as he points out, if everyone took the most risk-averse option, there would never be any innovation.

“There’s a trade-off between certainty and risk. But we’re glad we took the route we did. A glulam frame and CLT slabs gave us the strong embodied carbon reductions we wanted to achieve.”

This article is taken from issue 4 of Designing Timber magazine