New Wooden Office Building by Waugh Thistleton Is Absolutely 'LVLy'

A different kind of mass timber is thinner and stronger.

LVL Beam and Column
LVL Beam and Column.

The Office Group

The Black and White Building is a future office structure in London's Shoreditch neighborhood that started construction this summer under the helm of Waugh Thistleton Architects’ founding director Andrew Waugh. Upon completion in winter 2022, the building is slated to be the tallest engineered timber office building in central London.

While touring the wood construction, Waugh spoke to the Financial Times about the building's unique scent: “It’ll change every season, depending on temperature and humidity. Every spring, every autumn, you get a little refresher of what the building is made of.”

Andrew Waugh in front of CLT building
Andrew Waugh in front of a CLT building.

Lloyd Alter

Waugh is known for his wonderful wood buildings, which are mostly made of cross-laminated timber (CLT), which was invented in Austria in the '90s and is now used all over the world. The Black and White Building's structure is made from laminated veneer lumber (LVL), which is truly lovely (LVLy) stuff built up from much thinner layers of wood. The floor decking is CLT.

LVL is used like glulam, the first modern mass timber that was often used for columns and beams. But compared to lumber, it is stronger, straighter, and more uniform, and LVL takes greater stress than glulam.

Waugh used it previously in the Vitsoe Headquarters and told Treehugger then that "this high performance engineered hardwood permits beams and columns to have smaller cross sections than softwood glulam, thereby offering greater elegance to the timber structure." (See most of the different types of mass timber here.)

Structure under construction
The Black and White Building under construction.

The Office Group

Waugh used it again on the Black and White Building for developer The Office Group for similar reasons. "We designed a structure using LVL due to its strength," Waugh tells Treehugger. "LVL is one of the strongest, wood-based construction materials relative to its density. This allows us to design a significantly smaller cross-sections for beams and columns than softwood whilst maintaining a high-quality surface finish from a raw material sourced from sustainable, managed forests."

detail of joinery

The Office Group

High-quality surface finishes indeed. This is a smooth, solid, beautiful wood, and the connections— held together by 13,000 screws—are gorgeous. It has compressive strength like concrete with 66% less weight, and the column cross-sections are the same as they would be in concrete.

long spans between tiny beams

The Office Group

It's supporting slabs of CLT, and the beams do not look nearly as big or as deep as those we showed recently in William McDonough's Apex Plaza building. You can see here the really long span of CLT slab between what looks like surprisingly petite beams and columns.

Floor under construction

The Office Group

Here is a view of a floor under construction. There is raised access flooring below and exposed mechanical services above. Lots of wood everywhere—even the curtain wall system has its own wood framing.

Exterior rendering

Forbes Massie

Waugh and his firm, Waugh Thistleton, are among the most experienced firms in the world when it comes to wood and work in it almost exclusively. Though, they are also masters of rammed Earth.

Waugh Thistleton's First Timber Tower
Waugh Thistleton's first timber tower.

Lloyd Alter

Waugh Thistleton did its first timber tower to get serious international notice after convincing the developer that the building could be cheaper and go up faster. They had to cover all the wood because the owner of the rental building didn't think people would be comfortable with it. Now, every architect wants to show as much of the wood as they can. The reasons are obvious: The Black and White Building looks better in its raw state than most concrete buildings do when finished. It just glows.

The mass timber movement may have had its big reveal in London, but the Grenfell disaster of 2017 caused a big reaction against combustible materials, even though the Grenfell fire was caused by burning plastic, not wood. The laws in the United Kingdom were changed to ban combustibles in the exterior walls of buildings above 11 meters (36 feet). This has recently been revised to 18 meters ( 60 feet) but whatever the height, it put a real chill on wood construction.

We wrote at the time that "many housing developers are running away screaming at the idea of using CLT anywhere on high-rise projects." As Waugh tells the Financial Times, and as we have noted many times in the past, mass timber, originally solid wood, has been used for centuries and building codes recognize that it chars rather than burns and that the char doesn't burn. Instead, it protects the wood.

There are very good reasons to use wood: Unlike steel or concrete, which release huge amounts of upfront carbon emissions in their manufacture, wood has a much lower carbon footprint, before you even consider the time value of carbon. How much lower is a matter of dispute and study right now, but even the least generous analyses conclude that it is better.

I have been wrestling with this for years and still believe that "when you read all the pros and the cons, and even if wood and the industry are not quite perfect, there is simply no comparison in the upfront carbon emissions of the manufacture of mass timber compared to other materials; and that for the life of the material (which can be a very long time), it is storing carbon, about a ton of carbon for every cubic meter of wood."

And that's before you even consider that construction is much faster, less disruptive, and you have far fewer trucks running around town, blocking the bike lanes and squishing cyclists.

Constructing the Black and White Building

The Office Group

Back at the Financial Times, the headline asks the question: Is London's future wooden? Many, including this author, believe the answer is yes. We should be building out of sunshine or materials that we grow. It's all there in the Black and White Building.