"High Rise" Cross Laminated Timber v Light Steel Frame

Leaving your passport on the office photocopier is not something that someone who has done this for a living and a hobby for 40 years does. So a frantic phone call home and 2 ½ hours later the offending document was handed, relay like through the car window with 10 minutes to spare before check in closed.


Returning to the airport for the flight back to the UK I considered: “does it bode well for the future that after three days, the client and I are not speaking to one another?”


Mentally rummaging through the carnage, which may or may not have been exacerbated by the Vodka fuelled lunches that were a daily inevitability, there was a question asked by the client that I couldn’t answer. Frustrating in itself when you are trying to impress the man with your expertise, but it started a thought process; “tell me, what high rise projects are being built in Light Steel Frame at the moment in the UK?”


None came to mind. I could convey to him the success that had finally been achieved in the US with the topping out of the first 32 storey Pacific Park building in Brooklyn, but in the UK?


Light Steel Frame has been the focus of many successful construction projects across the globe over the past few years and the gradual but growing acceptance of this form of offsite has been blazing a trail for the consideration of other technologies.


Selling the overall benefits of using offsite is no longer the huge challenge that it used to be: Faster, greener, better quality, the list goes on and the truth is that the more projects there are the more evidence of success there is.


In my work with the MPBA, a lot of stories come across my desk about UK LSF manufacturers and their work in supplying schools and hospitals, but for some time now nothing that you could describe as “high rise”(above 6 stories). Nothing wrong with that I guess, so long as the industry flourishes we should all be happy, right?


Starting to think about other things that I have been involved with recently in Latvia and the Czech Republic, I posed: is the challenge of “high rise” being addressed by Cross Laminated Timber more than LSF these days?


The 9 storey Forte apartments in Melbourne, Australia. Under construction, the 18 storey University of British Columbia, Point Grey Campus and the 10 storey Dalston Lane project in Hackney, London. All high profile CLT based projects, (OK some concrete but bear with me), but why did they choose CLT over LSF?


Now don’t get me wrong, I have no axe to grind, my career started 38 years ago working for a timber frame manufacturer, but what is it that drove those decisions?


“Which is the best offsite solution” – my answer is always that it depends on the project. What works best for one will certainly not necessarily be right for another, but in case it seems to be about a specific element of the construction market.


Obviously they are fundamentally different technologies, wood and steel. There are differences in that LSF is usually supplied as a volumetric modular solution and CLT as a panellised solution. Having said that……………..


 “Bathroom pods, clearly a volumetric modular solution, have been around for many years now, usually manufactured in light steel frame or concrete, so it was exciting to see that In the UK, Glulam Solutions Ltd., recently landed the initial CLT bathroom "wet-boxes", prefabricated floor, wall, facade and ceiling panels for the very first Marriott Moxy Hotel built in the UK, at Aberdeen Airport. Hopefully the first of many, GSL hope to complete the installation of 200 bedrooms in approx. 10 weeks.


The industry grapevine has thrown up a number of stories recently of projects that are looking into the use of Modularised CLT (full scale rooms, not just bathrooms) and although I am not aware of any that have yet come to fruition, in answer to the question originally posed “Does CLT have the potential to become a Volumetric Modular building solution?”, I for one think yes and we are not that far away.”


Extract taken from B Mears presentation to University of Volyne May 2016


My suspicion is that there is a certain amount of entrepreneurship at work here. Why did we do it in CLT? Because it was there! We do so like to be the first, the fastest or the best.


Maybe it’s just that with experience the industry is beginning to identify that each technology is better suited to a certain area of the market?


Always good to get something out of an overseas trip……………. Na Zdorovie!


Bob Mears. CEO bmpr Offsite Consultancy Services Ltd