Dalston Lane: The World's Largest Cross-Laminated Timber Building

©. Waugh Thistleton

Dalston Lane is currently the world's largest building constructed with Cross-laminated timber (CLT), the fancy new building material that is having its moment. There are so many reasons to love the stuff; it looks beautiful, it stores carbon, it is made from a renewable resource.

construction photo

© Waugh Thistleton

Who would have thought that the reasons CLT pioneers Waugh Thistleton used the stuff was that it was cheap and fast. But it's true; the first CLT tower, Murray Grove, only got approved by the developer when they could prove that it would cost less overall than a standard building. They buried the stuff in drywall because who would want to live in a wood tower?

Anthony Thistleton

Anthony Thistleton/ Photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Anthony Thistleton, speaking in Toronto at the Wood Solutions Fair, explained that the reasons for using CLT are prosaic: it is a lot lighter, a fifth the weight of a concrete frame, so it doesn't need deep pile foundations, which would have been problematic with a new Crossrail subway line going underneath. It goes up a lot faster, and in real estate development, time is money. Because the CLT has a bit of insulation value, it needs less additional insulation. Because the CLT buildings have more wall and less column, there is less infill framing. So that overall, the cost often ends up being less than building with concrete.

All those other green benefits, the storing of carbon, the saving of 600 heavy trucks running through London, the renewable resource? Nice to have too, but the real story here is that you can build a better building for cheap.

Dalston Lane brick

© Waugh Thistleton

Thistleton said he wasn't thrilled about cladding the building in brick, necessary to fit in with the neighbourhood; he thinks it's inappropriate to put such a heavy cladding on such a light building. I don't agree; architects have been putting brick facades on wood frame buildings for centuries, and it does fit in with the neighbourhood. I love how they photograph the building from in front of an old brick wall with old mattresses and junk; it is now part of the urban fabric. "The building’s intricate brickwork references both the surrounding Victorian and Edwardian housing and the craftsmanship-like detailing of the local warehouses."

The brick also gives it a bit of weight; Thistleton notes that a problem with such a light building isn't holding it up, but holding it down. Wind loads become more important.

Lloyd and Andrew

Lloyd Alter and Andrew Waugh in Dalston Lane/CC BY 2.0

I visited Dalston Lane with Anthony Thistleton's partner, Andrew Waugh, in September. He explained that this was a reason that the building was designed to be almost castle-like, low buildings built around courtyards, spread out instead of tall.

Dalston Lane Plan

© Waugh Thistleton

This is perhaps the real significance of Dalston Lane- the form of the building is in fact a reflection of the qualities of the building material, the CLT. It is a dense urban form that fits in with surrounding Victorian and Edwardian buildings not just because of the brick, but because that is how they built buildings then- out of wood with brick cladding, lower and around courtyards. It is the built form that defines great European cities. It is a form that hits what I call the Goldilocks density,

...dense enough to support vibrant main streets with retail and services for local needs, but not too high that people can't take the stairs in a pinch. Dense enough to support bike and transit infrastructure, but not so dense to need subways and huge underground parking garages. Dense enough to build a sense of community, but not so dense as to have everyone slip into anonymity.

Lloyd Alter/ courtyard at Dalston Lane/CC BY 2.0

Neither Thistleton or Waugh have much time for the super-tall wood towers that architects are competing to build, and prefer to build mid-rise. I think they are right, that it is a better typology for CLT and wood construction. That's why I have previously said that it's time to bring back the Euroloaf. This is what wood buildings want to be.