29/04/2021 - 08:00

Untapped potential drives timber resurgence

29/04/2021 - 08:00

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Timber is making a comeback as technology and local capabilities boost its appeal.

Untapped potential drives timber resurgence
Jarrod Waring (left) and Padraic Mellett at Offsite’s Kewdale factory. Photos: David Henry

Timber is making a comeback as technology and local capabilities boost its appeal.

Clay bricks, concrete, and steel may be the dominant materials used on Western Australian building sites, but a worldwide push for sustainability is tilting the landscape in a more environmentally friendly direction.

In response, local developers are seeking out timber in ever-greater numbers.

Timber may have taken a back seat in residential and commercial building sectors in recent decades, but John O’Donnell says its resurgence is well under way.

Late last year, a consortium, including Mr O’Donnell, made a $2 million play for the assets of Victoria-based Timberbuilt: a timber engineering, prefabrication and installation business specialising in laminated veneer lumber (LVL), hardwood, softwood, glued laminated timber, sawn timber and structural plywood.

Major Timberbuilt projects include the award-winning Pingelly Recreation and Cultural Centre, designed by iredale pedersen hook architects and Advanced Timber Concepts Studio, which features 350 cubic metres of sawn timber.

Mr O’Donnell now operates Timberbuilt as a co-director alongside his existing Perth-based architectural planning business, Kilmore Group.

John O'Donell has relocated Timberbuilt HQ to Kwinana Beach. 

Mr O’Donnell is pushing ahead with his plans to service the burgeoning interest in sustainable construction by relocating Timberbuilt and personnel to Perth.

“Having the capabilities here will advance the appeal and appetite for timber construction in WA,” Mr O’Donnell told Business News.

“We had a lot of eastern states guys tendering for timber projects in WA who were maybe not that interested because they’ve got enough market [over there]. So that would inflate the price.

“And traditionally, a lot of challenges were associated with logistics ... so there was a gap in the market here.”

Technological capabilities had been another major barrier hindering the take-up of timber on a commercial scale, he said, but the increase in production of mass-timber products, including LVL and cross-laminated timber, had started to progress projects.

“There’s a great opportunity in WA to be the leader in this sector,” Mr O’Donnell said.

“Advancements in tech make timber a re-emerging industry.”

Among those advances are improvements in precision manufacturing, 3D modelling software, and joinery machines, such as the German-made Hundegger K2 CNC, located at Timberbuilt’s new headquarters in Kwinana Beach.

The joinery machine processes large- section, long-length engineered timber to the complex intricate detail generally required for commercial-scale buildings.

Finding skilled people within WA was a challenge, Mr O’Donnell said, but the business had started talks with Curtin University in relation to its graduate program.

“We prefabricate LVL componentry, we convert it from LVL beams and make it into structural componentry ... columns, rafters, all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes,” Mr O’Donnell said.

“So, we’ll be concentrating on the commercial market.

“We’re pretty enthusiastic about the interest we’ve got so far.”

Timberbuilt was recently awarded a community centre project in Ravensthorpe, featuring 140 cubic metres of timber.

“We’re also talking to some of the big property owners in the CBD about some of their developments and the benefits of timber,” Mr O’Donnell said.

“For example, if you wanted to increase floor area but don’t want to demolish the building, there’s potential to add a few storeys because it’s lightweight construction.”

This is one of the key advantages outlined by professional services firm Arup in its ‘Rethinking Timber Buildings’ report, as a result of the increasing pressures of urban densification.

Given densification involves building taller, adding levels to existing buildings is made more feasible with timber’s lighter weight, which is beneficial for sites restricted by load bearing limits (such as above tunnel networks).

Other timberlightweight construction benefits include speed of delivery, reduced costs, better thermal performance, and a more environmentally friendly profile than other materials.

Padraic Mellett, founder and director of Offsite, says speed has been a key selling point for his WA-based business, which designs, manufactures and installs low-carbon homes, townhouses and apartments.

Offsite uses a combination of timber and timber-hybrid products, including a timber-cement floor it has engineered to solve typical ‘bounce’ associated with timber floors.

As a result of combining lightweight and modern methods of construction, the business can erect a two-storey townhouse in two to three days at below double-brick pricing.

Mr Mellett said it could also deliver commercial buildings and multi-storey apartments in half the time of conventional builds, at no cost premium.

“The main competitive advantage is speed,” Mr Mellett told Business News.

“Getting from start to lock-up in a number of days means the critical path to the next trades is a lot shorter; you can get the plumber and the electrician in the day after.

“It’s also beneficial for neighbours; there’s less noise, not having to deal with jackhammers and brickies, quick saws and concrete pumps for months on end.”

Mr Mellett said timber had been in the spotlight recently thanks to the boost in residential building activity from government housing stimulus measures, which had put pressure on labour and supervisors.

Lightweight construction typically required less tradesmen on site, with the bulk of a structure’s assembly supervised and completed in a factory setting, which helped minimise safety risks.

Less wastage was another key advantage, Mr Mellett said, as a result of the prefabrication process being in a controlled factory environment, where Offsite recycled timber off-cuts into future projects, rather than sending them to landfill.

Other key environmental benefits noted in Arup’s ‘Rethinking Timber Buildings’ report include how timber is less carbon intensive to manufacture, transport and install than steel and concrete structures.

And with sustainable tree planting programs, Mr Mellett said timber production additionally helped to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Arup’s report estimates a tree absorbs about two tonnes of carbon dioxide to create one tonne of its own (dry) mass.

“Offsite closed panel timber frame also increases the energy efficiency of a home because of its inherent air tightness; the tighter you build a house, the less impact on temperature inside,” Mr Mellett said.

Recent Offsite projects include property group Stockland’s Calleya Estate, a residential development in Treeby.

Offsite chief executive Jarrod Waring said there had been a shift during the past year from one-off enquiries to instead working with developers and major builders on long-term strategies.

Mr Mellett said the company had also received interest for aged care and childcare projects and planned to target the student housing market in the future.

Timber education, he said, was key to generating more developer interest.

Arup’s report notes that while timber’s fire safety performance was one of industry’s main concerns, certain timber treatments could mitigate the risks.

“I came from Ireland where we went from one per cent timber in 1990 to probably 70-80 per cent timber; Scotland is up to about 93 per cent and those [markets] were similar to WA, a double-brick market [now] converted,” Mr Mellett said.

“Previously there was a lot of timber framing in WA; go to Victoria Park or Fremantle, there’s lots of jarrah buildings from the ’30s to ’60s.”

Projects

Last month, building services group ICS Australia started construction on a Fremantle bar made almost entirely from locally grown timber.

Located at 21 Beach Street in East Fremantle, the 120-capacity venue will feature 18 cubic metres of sustainable timber, using LVL from Neerabup-based manufacturer Wesbeam.

The Jetty Bar and Eats project. 

ICS managing director Craig Peterson said the timber framework was erected in just one day, with the site previously home to a similar timber-style building.

Mr Peterson said he had built with timber for 30 years but had noticed a shift in market acceptance during the past 12 months.

“There’s been a move to mass-timber structures globally,” he said.

“Timber is being used in hotels, skyscrapers – affectionately known as ‘plyscrapers’ – and in commercial buildings, incorporated as part of biophilic design, design that reflects aspects of nature.”

Mr Peterson said more timber plants were being established across Australia, with that increased availability of product opening developer doors.

“You’re starting to see a lot of daycare centres done completely with timber and very quickly, and with

the housing stimulus because of the shortage of bricklayers,” he said.

“The opportunity is there for timber to play a much larger role ... [particularly] in commercial buildings.”

Also planned for Fremantle is the state’s first mass timber-framed office development, hArbour.

Located on the corner of Josephson and High streets, hArbour is being developed by Yolk Property Group in partnership with Harris Jenkins Architects.

Construction on the six-storey building is expected to start in July, comprising 2,200 square metres of office space, and 133sqm for a hospitality/retail offering.

Yolk director Pete Adams said the project (with a construction cost of $7.5 million) planned to incorporate 650 cubic metres of timber, storing approximately 650 tonnes of carbon.

Mr Adams said hArbour, Yolk’s first timber project, was driven by factors including speed of construction and architectural aesthetics.

“We are constantly looking at global trends that we can apply here in WA; hArbour’s interior exposed timber elements are inspired by the global trend towards the use of cross laminate timber in construction,” he said.

“Choices in building materials are becoming increasingly relevant for tenants – particularly for A-grade commercial space – and tenants are attracted to unique spaces which have good design and character.”

Mr Adams said businesses had become more aware of the importance of establishing work environments that supported employee wellbeing, due to the associated benefits including staff retention, improved productivity and fewer sick days.

“The use of timber in construction, along with the incorporation of indoor natural elements like stone, wood, water features, plants and natural light, are strongly associated with increased employee wellbeing, productivity and satisfaction,” he said.

In Perth’s CBD, there are plans for another timber office to get under way this year.

GDI Property Group’s proposal for a 13-storey, $40 million timber- steel hybrid office recently received planning approval.

GDI managing director Steve Gillard said the project, located adjacent to the group’s existing Westralia Square development, would be a model for future city centre development, reviving an under-utilised part of an existing, highly developed area of the CBD.

On the fringe of Perth city, ADC_ (previously named Australian Development Capital) has long-term plans for a timber hotel in Northbridge.

The group is progressing stage one, which involves the refurbishment and repositioning of the existing heritage buildings on the corner of Newcastle and Beaufort streets, with a date for the construction of the hotel component not yet set.

Down the road, at 379 Beaufort Street, Serneke Australia has proposed an $8 million, 20-apartment timber building to be named BOHO (Beaufort House).

Offsite has already been awarded the contract to prefabricate the timber wall panels, which Serneke Australia managing director Andrew Abercromby said would be framed and clad in the factory, fully insulated and delivered to site with double-glazed windows already installed.

By integrating timber, Mr Abercromby said this would result in 80 per cent lower ongoing energy costs for the life of the building.

“What’s starting to change in the marketplace is there is now a lot of sustainable, energy-efficient technologies becoming enablers; they’re enabling projects that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” he said.

“And that’s a really significant economic driver for what moves people towards these sorts of projects.”

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