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White gold
Autumn 2008
Published:  01 December, 2008

White Design has blazed a trail in modern, timber-based eco-construction and founder Craig White is now a leading advocate for the use of wood in 2012 Olympics developments. David Castle reports

There’s a leading organic store near White Design’s Bristol office where staff can pick up a healthy, planet-friendly lunch. White Design people think, breathe and eat sustainability.

Now in its 10th year, the architectural practice and consultancy, specialises in the “design of context sensitive, low carbon and low environmental impact buildings, both cost effectively and to the highest design quality”.

It’s a philosophy that co-founder Craig White is passionate about. “Sustainability underpins, overarches and threads through everything we do,” he said. “We recycle everything, we have an electric Smart Car, compost all our food and even publish our carbon footprint every year.”

In fact, each member of staff’s individual carbon footprint is published in an internal league table, making it a competitive affair (and White himself confesses that, despite a super-efficient Audi A2, a busy travel schedule means, he always ends up bottom).

For him, timber is a vital part of the material mix, although he stresses White Design always looks for the best combination of materials to deliver a sustainable outcome.

“We’re not pedantic that it must be timber, but it plays a big part in the architecture we’re working on now; it has done in the past; and it will do in the future,” said White.

The arguments for timber, he says, are well established. “Timber is a very sophisticated material, it's evolved over hundreds of millions of years, so it's been field tested for a long time It also has qualities that other materials don't have: people do not relate to steel and concrete in the same way as they relate to timber.”

White and Linda Farrow launched White Design in 1998 and its first development, the Velux building, laid down the template. So, despite sporting a concrete ground and first floor, it uses timber structures where they're most beneficial, delivering a hybrid structure that ticks all the boxes in terms of sustainability, but also eye-catching aesthetics.

This approach has carried through to White Design’s most recent work. The practice is currently working on a project to design a new primary school for Dartington Primary School near Totnes.

The existing school has a vibrant environment and it is obvious to any visitor that, despite the poor physical condition of the buildings, the energy and quality of learning is outstanding. The challenge for White Design is to understand and transpose this into a new school on a nearby green field.

The building fabric is to be entirely timber-based and will represent a major ‘carbon bank’ when totting up the school’s environmental performance.

“We also intend to use the buildings as a learning tool by providing visible outputs for children to engage with,” said White. “These will be in the form of exposed structural timber with ‘peek-a-boo’ construction windows, energy generation and consumption display meters in the classrooms and clear rainwater storage ‘fat pipes’ behind the toilets.”

The buildings will use cross-ply laminated engineered timber panels, and tap into the expertise in using this material of specialist Eurban Construction. “The reason we’re using this is because, in pure design and engineering terms, it outperforms anything,” said White. “It comes pre-fabricated, and the fact that it’s made from timber means it’s very flexible and adaptable – and will deliver a fabulous outcome.”

It’s this kind of innovative thinking that has helped elevate the practice to its current status in the sustainable construction sector. It has also led to White himself chairing the Wood for Gold timber industry lobbying initiative which is pressing for as much timber as possible to be used in the hundreds of developments that will comprise the London 2012 Olympics.

A graduate of the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff, and the Architectural Association, London, White honed his craft working at Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects and helped design the BRE’s award-winning Environmental Building office development.

Now, beside heading up White Design, he divides his time between various educational roles, a position on the board at timber research body TRADA, and his Wood for Gold responsibilities, which sees him meeting regularly with Tier 1 Olympics contractors to extol the performance and environmental qualities of timber, particularly in terms of chain of custody.

He would not be drawn on whether he felt the Games would deliver an iconic, sustainable building. He maintains that Wood for Gold never said it necessarily wanted a ‘complete timber frame solution’ for any of the arenas. However, he said that timber will figure in some of the principal structures that these will be “fabulous” examples of what you can do with it.

Wood for Gold’s work is also about correcting misconceptions about timber, such as those that might have stymied its use in Olympic site landscaping.

“Some of the landscape designers said not to use wood because it burns more easily and instead use recycled plastic,” said White. “We immediately stepped in and said that's not the case; we went to the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and said it couldn’t exclude any one material [on these grounds] – and it followed our advice. It might not be an example of an iconic building but it’s an example of how we’re dealing with some of the day-to-day issues where people make incorrect assumptions about timber – and helping correct those assumptions.”

At the same time, he said it was vital for timber’s market reputation that the material used at the Olympics is 100% environmentally sound. “We should be making sure that even the wood used in the swizzle sticks in your cappuccino comes from sustainable sources, whether that’s FSC or PEFC-certified,” he said.

With 60% of its work in education, White Design is “as busy, if not busier, than ever before”. Although that’s not to say it’s totally immune from the credit crunch downturn.

“The impact will be indirect as companies that have traditionally had a large housing portfolio look to diversify into other work,” said White. “And we are starting to see some competition on fees.”

However, with several timber-based projects in the pipeline, the future for the practice still looks rosy. With a reputation for developing context-led, low carbon and low environmental impact buildings, White Design is bang-on message.