Flatpack Wooden Wonder Built for London Design Festival

view of installation

Waugh Thistleton build a pile of American Tulipwood CLT cubes in the Sackler Court at the V&A.;

Waugh Thistleton Architects have been working with Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) for longer than just about anyone outside of Austria, where the stuff was invented. When they built their first timber tower in London they had to hide the stuff; their client was afraid that people wouldn't want to live in a wooden building.

Now, a decade later, nobody is hiding anything, and Waugh Thistleton is building MULTIPLY in the Sackler Courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the London Design Festival.

view from street

© Waugh Thistleton Architects

“The main ambition of this project is to publicly debate how environmental challenges can be addressed through innovative, affordable construction,” says Andrew Waugh, co-founder of Waugh Thistleton. “We are at a crisis point in terms of both housing and CO2 emissions and we believe that building in a versatile, sustainable material such as tulipwood is an important way of addressing these issues.”

Most CLT is made from softwoods, but according to the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), collaborators in the project along with ARUP, tulipwood is "one of the most abundant and consequently the most sustainable American hardwoods." According to the American Hardwood website:

Tulipwood is under-utilised from a forestry perspective. The creation of larger markets for this timber would reduce pressure on other less abundant commercial hardwood species and enhance financial returns from sustainable management of diverse semi-natural forests. The volume of tulipwood standing in U.S. hardwood forests expands by 19 million m3 every year. It takes only 5 minutes for the 320 cubic meters of tulipwood logs harvested to manufacture MultiPly to be replaced by new growth in the U.S. forest.

Andrew Waugh explains in an interview that there are benefits to working with hardwood:

AHEC approached us and said here’s this material which is still really in its infancy and we’d like you to explore what it can do. Tulipwood is both a beautiful timber and as a hardwood its strength to weight is greater than spruce, which is commonly used for CLT, meaning you can do more with less.
tulipwood in pile

© Petr Krejci Photography

This wood has done a bit of traveling, from the USA to Scotland, where it was made into panels.

Finger jointed wood

© Petr Krejci Photography

Little pieces can be made into bigger pieces with these beautiful finger joints.

Layup of wood

© Petr Krejci Photography

The boards are laid up by hand in the bed of a giant vacuum press.

Guing up wood

© Petr Krejci Photography

Then this big gluing machine lays neat even beads of glue.

Giant router cuts out edges

© Petr Krejci Photography

The wood is then cut around the edges with a giant router...

corner detail

© Petr Krejci Photography

...and held together with a beautiful detail instead of the usual metal brackets, because it is a work of art where the connections will be exposed. This is more like fine furniture than a building.

The panels and modules had to be of a scale that they could be carried on trollies through the main entrance archway, with just a small crane used to lift them into place. The components and panel joints also had to be made ultra-precisely so that assembly, using just steel connectors and a hand ratchet, would be fast and accurate.
Modules ready for shipping

© Petr Krejci Photography

Modules are ready for shipping.

Fun in the square

© Forbes Massie

Meanwhile, set up at the V&A;, there will be two weeks of fun.

During the day, the 9-metre high American tulipwood installation promises to be fun and playful. The labyrinthine spaces will lead visitors through a series of stairs, corridors and open spaces, inviting them to explore the potential of wood in architecture. In the evenings, with subtle lighting, the pavilion will become a quiet and contemplative space, allowing visitors to reflect on the beauty of its natural material. “The structure will lead people on a merry dance up and down staircases and across bridges exploring space and light,” says Waugh.
first use of CLT

CLT as used in Waugh Thistleton's first timber tower/ Lloyd Alter at the V&A; plywood show/CC BY 2.0

CLT was originally developed as a way to get higher value out of Austrian wood. In twenty years it has spread around the world, putting wood to use in ways that were never thought possible. When Waugh Thistleton first used it, they had to convince their client that it could do the job, and then buried it under flooring and behind drywall, as in this sample seen at the plywood show in the V&A; last year. They took their responsibility seriously. Waugh says, "Our actions impact on the community at large, so we must understand the context buildings sit in. That process today also increasingly has to take into account questions of climate change and the environment. If it doesn’t, architects simply aren’t doing their job."

Now it has pride of place in the courtyard of the V&A.; What a long and interesting journey from there to here.