Teaching the future of timber

With the next Timber TED 1 course starting on 18 September, TDUK is looking at how the courses help to upskill the next generation of built environment professionals in the use of timber, meets some of the people involved in teaching the course, and hears from former students.

The Timber Technology, Engineering and Design (Timber TED) programme was the brainchild of a group of timber and educational organisations who were determined to raise the profile of timber, and make sure more people understood how to design and build with this construction material.

The courses are delivered by the New Model Institute for Technology & Engineering (NMITE), working in partnership with Edinburgh Napier University (ENU) and Timber Development UK (TDUK).

Designed to provide a comprehensive understanding of timber design and to support the practical development of vital timber skills, Timber TED is open to all built environment professionals, including architects, engineers, project managers, merchants, manufacturers, suppliers and designers.

One of the unique benefits of Timber TED is that it brings students together to form multi-disciplinary teams, often giving them their first experience of working with people from right across the built environment industry. Together, their varied backgrounds help everyone learn new skills and experiences that will inform their careers going forward, effecting a transformational change that extends well beyond the course itself.

Tabitha Binding (pictured left)

Tabitha Binding, Head of Education at TDUK, explains: “As we transition to using more timber to decarbonise construction we need our design, engineering, construction and supply teams to work together to choose the right species, right products and the right details.

“Timber is the ultimate sustainable material if it lasts longer in use than it took to grow. For this to happen we need all involved to speak the same language and work collectively and collaboratively. The TED courses begin this journey by bringing associations, academics, professionals and businesses together to upskill and reskill our current and future timber professionals.”

Timber TED 1 uses a mixture of online and in-person teaching over 12 weeks. For nine weeks the students work remotely, then come together for three short, three-day residential weeks in Hereford.

Split into three modules, Timber TED1 covers design, materials and sustainability. By the end of the course, students will design and build a structure using timber, having gained a full understanding how that structure has been informed by the concepts of sustainability and the characteristics of timber as a structural and low-carbon material.

Then, students who have previously joined the Timber TED1 course, or who have significant experience in the timber industry, can also sign up for the Timber TED2 course, which will extend their timber knowledge even further in the areas of design, construction, technology and manufacture. The first Timber TED2 course is currently underway, with another due to be run in May 2024.


Reaching across the globe

Steve Bertasso, Assistant Professor at NMITE, is now the course leader overseeing the teaching of Timber TED, having crossed the pond from Utah to join NMITE in May this year. Although he is new to Timber TED, Steve has been involved in higher education for more than 12 years, and at his last employer was involved in researching global construction programs, which is where he first heard of NMITE and Timber TED.

Steve explains: “Of the 400+ programs I looked at, I felt that NMITE was by far the most forward thinking and the institution that’s most considering the way new technology needs to be part of the built environment.

“Most construction programs focus on the way we’ve done things, instead of the way we need to do things in the future. All our teaching at NMITE is very focused on how to build sustainably, and how we do it in a way that hasn’t been done before.

“Timber TED really focuses on the learner’s experience with timber, and how we as an industry upskill and reskill to prepare our future leaders in the construction industry for the direction that we’re headed.”

Steve believes Timber TED is a great way for the industry to understand the place that timber could have in the industry, as well as understanding “how timber can change the way we design buildings, the way we use them, and of course, the way we build them”.

Highlights from Timber TED1

Highlights from the Timber TED1 course

NMITE works with its partners, ENU and TDUK, to bring a lot of the industry experience to its teaching, bringing in guest speakers to participate in the learning process, and taking students on site visits so that they can experience different parts of the industry first hand.

“We’ve had a great response so far from the industry organisations and companies who have got involved,” Steve says. “There’s usually a great deal of enthusiasm when they hear what we’re doing and they want to get involved and work with our students.”

Steve hopes that getting more students to attend Timber TED will, over time, help timber be used more often in construction projects, by demystifying the material and helping them understand how it can be used to its full potential, both in terms of design and sustainability.

He says: “I hope we’ll see more timber used, and also at the same time less wood fibre actually being needed to build the structures. I think within the built environment a lot of the changes are driven by consumer demand, and part of the discussions we’re having with our students is how we begin to influence consumer demands to allow this to happen. If we can prove to consumers that we can achieve what they’re looking for using timber, but at a lower cost of entry or a lower long-term maintenance cost, that’s where we could really start to change the tide.”

One of the students who has already taken advantage of the Timber TED1 course is Oscar Williams, a design engineer from Whitby Wood. He said: “TED1 was a great opportunity to take a closer look at timber as a medium for construction, from a biological level to a hands-on carpenter’s perspective. It has brought me closer to the material, both physically and from a structural perspective.”

Another former student Gerard Clarke, Technical Sales and Marketing Manager at manufacturer Fast House, said: “What an enjoyable way to future proof my skillset in the concepts of sustainability and timber construction. This unique course has made me appreciate the sustainable built environment and the principles of sustainable timber design in construction. I have enjoyed networking with other professionals and feel lucky to be part of a community of knowledge in helping timber transform the built environment.”

For anyone interested in signing up for Timber TED1, the next course begins on 18 September.

Promoting hands-on teaching

For students like Oscar, a key USP of the Timber TED 1 and TED 2 courses is that they get hands-on with timber during their time attending NMITE’s Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT) in Hereford. There, students can learn practical skills around timber, which gives them a much better understanding of the material.

Ben Shirley is a Teaching Fellow (Architectural Practice) at NMITE. He is responsible for overseeing the CATT facility, and for making sure the students have everything they need while on site.

He says: “I always say there is no substitute for hands-on learning and getting to be one-to-one with the material, and our students tell us that it is one of the highlights of the course. You can go and do a timber CPD in a classroom in London, but you’re not building or making anything, and it just doesn’t give you the same experience as when you’re using timber. You understand things much better when you have a 3D model in front of you, rather than just looking at a screen.”

Ben has a background in carpentry and architecture, having started his working life at a joinery business before studying for an architecture degree in his late 20s. He has been working at NMITE ever since the CATT facility was created, and together with the rest of the team they are constantly adding new equipment and features to give their students a better experience.

Ben explains: “CATT is a multidisciplinary space, so as well as Timber TED it’s also used as a conference venue, and is currently playing host to the Department for Education’s GenZero classroom. We’re also looking at expanding it further to allow for research and development on timber products and components – it’s a really flexible space.”

Ben is a firm believer in the way the Timber TED courses can help upskill industry professionals, no matter what their previous experience.

He says: “Our hope is that they return to their workplaces and start using more timber in their own projects. CATT is a space where industry and academia meet, and that’s always where really exciting things happen.”

The tools and materials used by students during the Timber TED course have up until now been purchased by NMITE, but the team is now looking to the timber industry and hoping to form partnerships with suppliers who could donate materials to the students.

Any TDUK member who might be able to support Timber TED can contact Tabitha on tbinding@timberdevelopment.uk, or Ben on ben.shirley@nmite.ac.uk

More information about Timber TED is available online at https://nmite.ac.uk/Courses/Short-Courses