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  • "Learn to design and build in timber!"

"Learn to design and build in timber!"

We recently had the chance to speak to Laura Batty, Senior Technical Research Engineer at Heyne Tillett Steel (HTS). We discussed her role at the London-based engineering firm, what motivated her to become involved in building more sustainably and her latest venture as a member of of the UK Green Building Council Future Leader’s programme.

Image of Laura Batty from HTSHow did you come to work as a Senior Technical Research Engineer at HTS? 

"From almost my first day as a structural engineer I realised I enjoyed the science and technical aspects of my job more than the site-based problem solving, logistics and procedures. Even before I started working, during my masters’ degree, I sought a thesis supervisor who was working in materials science and I worked in a lab that was outside my discipline. I spent a few months investigating spider silk behaviour with computer models of the proteins, which, whilst not relevant to my future day job, gave me a grounding in the skills required to move from being a structural engineer working on building design, to the more nebulous world of “technical research”.

When the position of Senior Technical Research Engineer came up at HTS in 2019 I immediately jumped on it, because it seemed to be a great mix between two worlds. If I wanted to be a full-time researcher I would have stayed in academia – but it’s important to me for my work to have a practical aspect. Working for an engineering consultancy means I can actually incorporate findings, research and new ideas into projects. It feels like the best of both worlds.

I’ve only been in my research role for a year, but in that time my work has covered a lot of different subjects. They are mainly sustainability-related as this is a priority for the practice as well as what I am passionate about. I have worked on advanced timber design, embodied carbon, circular economy, software, understanding material efficiencies, always approaching it from the lens of “how do I make this useful to the engineers I work with and how can they take this forward into their projects”

I am also a part of the Timber Focus Group, which has been around for a few years already. Every few weeks we come together and share what we have learnt on the general subject of timber design and construction. It covers a broad range of subjects, including the technical design aspects, project politics and other issues that come up when building in timber. It’s a really valuable forum at HTS as it consolidates the institutional knowledge and experience from across the practice, meaning that every time we start on a timber project at HTS it’s building on the back of over 10 years’ worth of experience. It also gives a more formal platform and forum for engineers to investigate, learn and then teach."

How did you become interested in building with more sustainable materials?

I have always been interested in sustainability, however it is only recently that I have been able to understand the full scope and impact an engineer can have on reducing carbon emissions. As structural engineers, we each specify about 1000 tonnes of carbon per year – so a tiny reduction on each project adds up to enormous amounts, much more than personal carbon footprints ever could. Whilst this is a huge responsibility it is also an opportunity.

We will always need to build buildings, however the materials and processes we choose to build with are within our control. Sustainable materials for me are naturally derived, grown, biological materials. They have amazing properties, and it is fascinating to see how they are made with minimal energy and no waste. Over recent years there has been a rise in the development of products made from biological materials, and the challenge is how to further adapt and use them on a much larger scale within our current construction practices.  This is a challenge that faces many disciplines, not just structural engineering.

You’ve recently been selected to join the UK Green Building Council Future Leader’s programme. Can you tell me about the programme and the projects you’re working on there?

I was delighted to be chosen to join the UKGBC future leader’s programme which started in January this year. We are learning about the process of innovation, leadership, big ideas and developing and refining concepts all related to the sustainability of the built environment. We’ve also been lucky enough to hear from amazing guest speakers who have been really inspiring. The programme enables us to put into practice everything we are learning, and we are currently working in small teams to develop innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing the world today, such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

Why do you think this programme is important to the industry?

The UKGBC has set itself a big mission - to radically improve the sustainability of the built environment – and they are approaching it by giving as many people as possible the tools and the knowledge to help achieve this. It is a mission that requires actions rather than words and for it to succeed people need to be championing sustainability in their own offices, disciplines, schools, councils and communities. The UKGBC has several leadership programmes aimed at disseminating these tools and educating professionals at all different stages of their careers, which I think is a clever approach and I am really enjoying being part of it.

image of fire testing at HTS

What do you think are the main challenges that the built environment needs to address with regards to climate change over the next five years?

I think the main challenges we are facing are an entrenched industry and supply chain, a siloed design profession and financial/real estate systems and project timelines that are incompatible with the kinds of changes we need to implement. We currently don’t have the systems or laws in place to encourage new production and procurement models. We need to urgently start addressing the operational energy efficiency of our existing building stock, and vastly reduce the amount of demolition and new construction. Whilst these are not glamorous or aspirational ideas which don’t attract the same levels of interest from the general population, I believe they urgently need addressed and are gaining importance as our industry becomes more aware.

How can we accelerate change? 

In terms of the built environment (only a part of the climate change challenge, albeit a significant one) we can accelerate change by restricting the demolition of existing buildings, and stop constructing inefficient new buildings which in a few years’ time need to be completely retrofitted for zero emissions.

We also need to support innovative bio-based materials by using them more extensively in projects, such as building in timber, and prioritise reusing elements instead of recycling them. From the government/legislative side, regulating embodied carbon, proper funding for retrofitting of existing homes, and a carbon price that reflects the real cost of carbon to act as genuine incentive to reduce carbon emissions. And as designers/users we need humility, we need to learn from mistakes, adapt quickly and celebrate the beauty of the retrofitted, refurbished, existing, temporary structures that will characterise our built environment.

From your perspective, what are the main barriers to designing and constructing more sustainable buildings?

I think there is a lack of industry experience in constructing sustainable buildings and a reluctance to be the first or to take the risk. Sustainable, regenerative, net-zero design is often not the driving factor for the majority of building projects – and understandably, it can be difficult to implement  non-traditional materials and sustainable practices on such a scale.  

Barriers that we come across often can be drawbacks to the programme and the (perception of) increased cost. Sometimes it is a regulatory and warranty issue, such as fire for timber or reused elements that have come from another site and no longer under warranty. It can also be a perception of increased complexity, or a lack of understanding. I think we as engineers have an important role to play in translating sustainable innovations to practical application!

What role do you think timber has in helping the UK to meet its net zero targets for 2050?

Engineered timber displaces other more carbon-intensive construction materials, helping to reduce our dependence on concrete and steel, as well as actually storing carbon within our buildings and cities. It might encourage afforestation (although this must be done in a way that does not damage biodiversity). It makes buildings more appealing and healthier. It would be good to see local engineered timber industries develop in the UK, allowing us to use local timber species in a regenerative way, which would also provide new opportunities for workers displaced from other more polluting industries.   

With COP26 coming up later in the year, do you think the UK should be doing more on the world stage in terms of sustainable design?  And if so, what steps should the UK take?

The UK has ambitious laws in place already: by 2050, we will be a net zero emissions country. However, there is currently no mechanism for how this will be implemented (and the forecasts are showing the UK is on track to miss its own targets).

There has been an emerging focus in the press on delivering healthy and sustainable buildings, and we now need quiet and sustained action to help deliver our promises. The UK needs to account for all its carbon footprint in the UK and overseas and regulate all industries that can’t be electrified.

We have a lot of solutions and we need to see an increase in policy and regulation in order to implement them.

And finally, what advice would you give to engineers specifically when it comes to building with timber?  What are the main challenges they face and what would be the key things you would want engineers to know more about when it comes to specifying timber as a building material?

An understanding of the material’s properties is key. Wood is a biological material, with properties that vary by direction and with time. Short and long-term effects must be designed for. Connections can govern the size of a member so they must be considered during member sizing. Timber elements will generally be larger or deeper than their equivalents in steel or reinforced concrete.

Early engagement with the project team and experts on fire, acoustics and vibration is important, more so than with traditional construction materials. Get an experienced fire consultant on board for any medium to large building. Consider the effect of fire on connections. Moisture must be properly managed, especially during construction. Having an experienced cost consultant helps, as timber tends to come at a premium but normally delivers programme savings and overall building weight reduction so the cost should reflect these benefits. Look into circular economy principles like designing for maximum longevity (for timber this means durability must be well addressed) and also if possible, use reversible fixings such as screws so the timber elements could potentially be reused in the future.

And finally I’d say learn to design and build in timber! It will have a big role to help the construction industry and the built environment transition to net zero, and we need all the timber experts we can get!

You can learn more about Heyne Tillett Steel on their website, hear more about the organisation's ethos in this blog or view some of their work on our case studies page: Gramophone Works, Republic at East India Dock 

Image Credit of Laura Batty: Agnese Savito

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