Pioneers of homegrown glulam: Buckland Timber

UK glulam

Many people are unaware that glulam manufacture exists in the UK. They think that glulam has to be imported from overseas. But there are some suppliers. When Robin Nicholson set up Buckland Timber in 2013, it was precisely to make glulam using locally grown wood…

“We quickly realized that it was hard to make money from it!” Robin wryly recalls. “Ten years ago, people’s understanding was totally different to now. But in the last few years, things have really changed.”

Because Robin is a trained structural engineer, Buckland Timber had more than one string to its bow. He’d always anticipated that Buckland would not just be manufacturing UK glulam: it would also be designing structures, fabricating them and installing them. Straightaway, the designing and manufacturing side – timber frames – really took off. So while local glulam may not have played such a large part in Buckland’s early days, the design and manufacturing side quickly led to a thriving, expanding business.

“We increased our design and fabrication capabilities, expanding from timber frames into canopies,” Robin recalls. “We brought in some carpenters and learned how to design joints.”

Other engineers were brought onboard, including Keith O Ceallaigh, who is now Buckland’s Technical Manager. They now have 6 designers working in-house, with 8 staff working on fabrication in the in-house factory. The installation work is mainly outsourced, although they have used some regulars for so long they are practically part of the team.

Oat Errish Farm

Oat Errish Farm sits in the Blackdown Hills in Devon. It takes its inspiration from an ammonite shell. Image courtesy of Buckland Timber.

Playing to their strengths

Buckland provide design, technical, structural and engineering services for home, commercial and industrial-sized projects – “everything from a beam and column to a bridge,” as their website puts it.

“The projects where we really show our strengths are the complex jobs, where the design and fabrication really need to be close together,” Robin suggests.

“It’s there that we can add the most value: we go in knowing that the design is not wholly resolved, and that our expertise can realise the design from a developed architectural concept to something that can be installed onsite.”

They have installed their glulam throughout the UK, supplying much of it as prefabricated structures, with all of the joinery work completed within their workshop. Building parts are supplied in kit form – all of the columns, trusses and bracing members are numbered and marked; then collated on-site and installed in a predetermined sequence.

“We carry out a lot of feasability studies too,” points out Keith O Ceallaigh, Buckland’s Technical Manager. “With all of our current jobs, we were involved very early on in one way or another.”

“Looking back, we kept taking on projects of increasing complexity. It took us a while to realise that we could do these projects that not many others could.”

A clutch of cathedrals

The Portico at the north entrance to St Paul's Cathedral.

The Portico at the north entrance to St Paul’s Cathedral

Buckland have designed and installed across a wide range of typologies. Over the last few years, they have, unusually, carried out a number of projects in cathedrals. They provided specialist structural timber design for a new portico structure at St Paul’s Cathedral; they worked on a Welcome and Learning Centre for St Albans Cathedral; and another significant cathedral project is currently onsite in York.

As well as other heritage projects, such as the award-winning Clifford’s Tower, they carry out commercial, leisure, educational and housing work. Private housing is a mainstay – they carry out a lot of high-end house extensions in engineered timber. This is a big market for Buckland.

A Grand Design in the countryside

Oat Errish House was one private housing project that grabbed a lot of attention when it was featured on TV’s Grand Designs. A new build family home within the Blackdown Hills in Devon, it was a ‘Paragraph 80’ project – one that meets the challenging, exceptional criteria demanded of new isolated rural houses by paragraph 80 of the NPPF.

Taking its original inspiration from an ammonite shell, the house spirals onto the landscape over two levels and combines natural materials with cutting edge technology. The clients visited Buckland’s factory well in advance of the project’s start. Buckland provided initial structural advice on the scheme and costings that informed further detailed design, before going on to design and manufacture the glulam framework. Curved ribs frame this experimental house, made from British-grown larch. The structural beams and purlins were prepared off-site, sanded and varnished as part of the final interior finish.

Reinventing a 1930s bungalow

The house extension at Dalewood is another domestic project that Robin has fond memories of. The project transforms a 1930s bungalow into a light, spacious and barrier-free home for a family in which two children both suffer from a genetic disorder, meaning that the childrens’ accessibility needs will dramatically change over time.

Exterior photo of the Dalewood house extension, with timber roof engineered by Buckland Timber

Exterior photo of the Dalewood house extension, with a latticed timber roof engineered by Buckland Timber.

Its complex, interwoven glulam roof structure not only provides a visually dynamic piece of architectural design, but provides structural integrity needed for a huge five-metre cantilever. The structural engineers for Dalewood were fellow TDUK members Engenuiti.

The roof structure changes in mass across the footprint of this project, making the structure appear constant, but curving rather than diminishing. The larger intersecting roof beams were inter-spliced with bracing struts.

The project is composed of over 150 different bespoke beams. Each element of the Siberian larch structure was selected and finished by hand. Due to the changing depth of each beam, no two elements were the same size or shape.

Drawing 704 triangles: as bespoke as it gets!

For the Boiler House Cafe at Royal Holloway University, Buckland faced a technically challenging project within a restrictive site with difficult access. 704 acoustic ceiling triangles were used for the roof: all manufactured, supplied and installed by Buckland. But each triangle was individual and, to make the pattern work, unique hole-spacing patterns had to be set out for each one.

“It was crazily bespoke,” Keith remembers. “It was a double-curved roof, so each triangle had to be different in order for them to look the same. Each was individually drawn for the CNC machine to get the outlines right. So each one had its own part number and had to be installed in the right order.”

That’s a measure of the kind of extreme attention to detail and customization possibility that Buckland can offer. The striking results they achieve are due to their agile setup.

“Our factory is small but flexible,” Robin points out. “We can change our setup in a day to do, say, a 26m long bridge beam and split it into three little curves. Then put it back to straight for the next day.”

A surge in interest in UK glulam

Copper Beeches - a timber framed riding arena

Copper Beeches – an award-winning timber framed riding arena

In recent years, their locally grown glulam manufacture has come more to the fore.

“The UK Hardwoods Storage building was a great project in terms of boosting UK glulam’s profile,” enthuses Robin. “They’re a local sawmill, and we got to know them well.”

Commissioned by Tom Bedford, managing director of UK Hardwoods, the 32 x 18m insulated glulam shed is used to store kiln-dried timber milled by UK Hardwoods at their North Devon sawmill site. You can read an in-depth Case Study about the building on the TDUK website – and watch a webinar about it on the TDUK YouTube channel.

“UK Hardwoods are very keen to promote locally sourced timber, and at a cost that isn’t a huge premium.”
Buckland used UK Hardwoods’ own timber for their glulam. At the time, Buckland were mostly using imported timber in their projects, and this project proved to be somewhat of a turning point.

“So now we have a local supplier – UK Hardwoods – producing the larch, oak and ash, dried to the specs we need to manufacture glulam,” he reveals. “And the project brought a lot of interest back into homegrown timber.”

Even without legislation pushing it, the desire to use local, sustainable materials is increasingly noticeable in clients. Buckland have now received Grown In Britain certification (in addition to their FSC and PEFC certification), assuring any customers that their product really is a local one.

“The demand has clearly changed for the better. People understand the economics and urgency of sustainability now”

Use it or lose it!

Robin points out that there is a virtuous circle in using UK timber. “We currently only have a fledgling supply chain to supply us with homegrown timber. Granted, it is less efficient than overseas because the volumes are smaller. But that’s why it has to be supported.”
There’s a self-reinforcing aspect to this. It’s a case of use it or lose it.

The Boiler House Cafe at Royal Holloway

“If someone has land on which trees could be planted, they will only do so if they can be confident of selling the wood when the time is right. There are two main incentivizing points for homegrown timber: one is the embodied carbon saved by its transport, and another is the development of a UK supply chain. We need to build up an efficient UK supply chain for the future of timber construction.”

What are the timbers used for UK glulam?

“Sitka spruce is still the main timber used for glulam generally, but the issue with this is that German, Austrian and some Scandinavian spruce already has a highly efficient established supply chain,” Robin notes. “Arguably it’s not really economical to try to compete with that: ultimately it’s about getting timber into buildings instead of higher carbon materials.”

“But when it comes to larch, oak, ash and Douglas fir, then the UK can compete at a price close to what you’d pay to import. It’s best to focus on what we can do at a competitive market price. Ash, oak and larch are the big three, although we are doing some spruce.”

*This article is taken from issue 5 of Designing Timber magazine