Lead judge of the Wood Awards building panel and a Principal at Hopkins Architects, Jim Greaves reflects on how the Wood Awards have changed over the years and the qualities he is looking out for among upcoming entries.
WA: Why did you first want to become a Wood Awards judge?
JG: My interest in wood was sparked by my involvement in projects like Emmanuel College in Cambridge, completed in 1995. This project had immersed me into the world of wood, exploring its structural performance, response to moisture and grain-related characteristics. The intricacies of this material fascinated me. Later, working on the Haberdashers’ Hall, with its diagrid roof, novel connections and timber panelling, I rather fell in love with the material.
When I was asked to become a Wood Awards judge in 2005, I thought, ‘why would anyone turn down the opportunity to see the best use of wood in construction every year?’
WA: How have entries changed over the period you have been a judge?
JG: There have been numerous changes during my involvement with the Wood Awards. Over the past eighteen years, the construction industry has undergone a remarkable transformation.
There is now a much greater awareness of environmental performance, leading us to bring in Neil Smith from Max Fordham as a judge. Having his expertise on the panel, along with formalising the entry forms and the data we gather, will support us to make comparative assessments between projects.
Reuse and adaptation of existing buildings are also increasingly common, whereas previously, unless it was a listed building, the modus operandi tended to be to knock it down and start again. To recognise this positive change, we have introduced the Reuse & Restoration building category this year.
Another development in the industry is the use of advanced design techniques such as parametric modelling, and the sophisticated engineering analysis that goes with it. Buro Happold has been at the forefront here, with their Savill Garden and Weald and Downland grid shells.
WA: What changes do you anticipate seeing in design over the coming years?
JG: It is self-evident that the industry is grappling with some hefty issues post Grenfell and the introduction of new fire safety legislation. Wood, because it is combustible, has been affected and there is now a whole education process needed so people properly understand the material.
The Building Safety Act’s requirements for comprehensive auditing will lead to better safety and understanding, and large-scale testing of prototypes will inform us and gradually instil confidence back into the industry.
Although there are currently a lot of headwinds for timber, there is also a strong imperative to move through this, because if we are going to achieve net zero by 2050, we need to use wood in construction.
All of this will have an impact on this year’s Wood Awards. We will likely see fewer projects, and a different balance of project types – but I am interested to see what 2023/24 brings.
WA: What can designers learn from previous winning projects?
JG: The industry has been shaken up, and architects and designers are now grappling with how to use wood in the current context. Previous winning projects didn’t have the same set of issues – wood was a burgeoning construction material being embraced wholeheartedly because of its sustainable and environmental benefits. Current designers can look to these previous wood buildings and be inspired by their craft, but they also need to be informed by new understandings and requirements.
On the other hand, exciting opportunities in wood are always opening up – for example, its ability to span ever greater distances. It’s a material of continuous change and innovation. Looking ahead, we can only wonder how different this world will be in ten years’ time.
WA: What are the qualities you will be looking out for in Wood Award projects?
JG: The emerging field of biophilic design interests me: a growing area of expertise that focuses on the undeniable appeal of natural materials like wood.
René Dubos, the scientist-cum-humanist philosopher, said, ‘With our knowledge and sense of responsibility, we can create new environments that are ecologically sound, aesthetically pleasing and economically friendly.’ He’s quite right, and when you think about this applied to the construction industry, wood aligns perfectly with all those parameters.
I’m looking forward to seeing the industry’s responses to current challenges and how these issues and aspirations get pulled together. Even before the climate crisis was on everyone’s lips, we were designing beautiful buildings with wood, and there’s no reason why we can’t continue to do so.
Balancing all these considerations is a complex task, but achieving an aesthetically pleasing, economically friendly, and ecologically sound building is a true triumph – and if you manage to do this, you win the Gold Award!
Find out more about Jim here.