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Timber is good, but competitive materials are fighting back

Timber is a sustainable weapon for a non-carbon future, but competitive materials are also fighting back, the Frame Australia Timber Offsite Construction conference was told this week. The major projects director and timber expertise leader at Aurecon, Ralph Belperio, said that the other industries were not sitting on their hands. Source: Philip Hopkins for Timberbiz

“Concrete and steel are also looking to a zero-carbon future. We have an advantage – wood is the only truly sustainable material, but we should not lose sight of the fact other industries will not sit back and watch it happen,” he told the hundreds of delegates at the conference, held at Crown Casino in Melbourne.

Mr Belperio said the emergence of mass engineered timber offered the opportunity to disrupt an existing industry norm.

“But it will not land in our lap. If we are inactive, other materials and technologies will come to the fore and timber will be left behind again,” he said.

Aurecon has shown the way by moving into the landmark timber building at 25 King Street in Brisbane – a nine-storey CLT and glulam structure over two floors of concrete – that it had built itself.

“Working in this environment is better for our staff. We want to be seen as leaders in the industry and part of that is to ensure staff are looked after,” he said.

Having been resident for six months, and travelling between Brisbane and Adelaide.

“I literally did not want to go home,” he said. “The building makes you feel so good when you are in the building.”

Because of the building’s proximity to a major tunnel, “the lightness of timber is an enabler” compared to heavier alternatives, giving timber a competitive advantage.

Mr Belperio said it was a simple building, more easily allowing the installation of services. “The hero is the timber; you are drawn to the timber structure. It really negates the need for flashy architecture,” he said.

Being essentially a rectangular box with a glass façade simplified much of the surfacing requirements, allowing pre-fabrication and codified design.

“We flipped traditional design on its head; usually, we design pieces of plant then the reticulation, but because of the need to prefabricate, we designed the reticulation first and the large pieces of plant last,” he said.

Co-ordination took place while the elements were built off site ready for delivery.

Mr Belperio said a 100-millimetre raised floor enabled the company to reticulate electronic data and communications, with the flexibility to change in the future.

“It allows you to rebuild a flat floor over the CLT …. This helps in a design sense. The top surface of the CLT, as it sees the weather, does get a little bit of damage and (the flat floor) negates the need to do anything to it,” he said.

“The raised floor also provides acoustic separation between the floors – a good solution for buildings of this type.”

Aurecon had another timber project in Singapore – a seven storey structure which when completed, was believed to be the largest CLT building by floor area in the world at 40,000 square metres – “a massive undertaking”.

“Clearly timber is the hero on this project. But we are not timber zealots. We must engineer the right solutions for projects, depending on climate and local requirements,” he said.

The cores were in concrete, as Singapore required non-combustible materials to be used.

Mr Belperio emphasised that Aurecon was pushing ahead looking at ways to advance and promote engineered wood. The company last month held an industry workshop with collaborative partners from the University of Technology Sydney.

“We pulled together some industry minds, to look at what we can do to drive this – Lendlease, X-Lam, industry representatives and us,” he said.

Apart from UTS timber experts, there were people from the Business School with expertise in robotics.

“It’s a true collaboration between academics, industry and the designers, fielding ideas, including a discussion around automation in timber construction,” he said.

“It’s a good product that we can build quickly, but what can we do to get further efficiencies, to make it more compelling. Look at what now works and what needs to change, and integrate that with new technology.”

Mr Belperio said education was crucial not just for the public, but for the people who do the work – trades and designers.

“We should further standardise designs so we can put them together more easily and into construction,” he said, creating standardised systems as was done in the automotive industry.

“Tessla made patents open to drive competition forward,” he said.

Future actions included the industry working group and research projects into robotics and timber.

Mr Belperio said Aurecon aimed to break down the stereotype of an engineer being good at science and maths, but maybe lacking in social skills. The company was trying to encourage people to think about work in different ways so that it did not become basic work that could be done by machines.

“We invest in people thorough a Design Academy,” he said – a program by subscription that takes 20 people a year from a company with 7000 staff globally.

“Technical mastery is taken for granted, but we train in the softer skills to become better consultants, emphasising collaboration, story-telling, art.

“We are looking to build softer skills in our people, we can be better problem finders – find the problems and develop solutions in unconventional ways.”

Mr Belperio said more research was required to stay ahead of the competition and go ahead.

“Design professionals in the built environment must continue to learn and adapt in a changing world,” he said.