Timber Building
20 August, 2008
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Organic buildings
Summer 2007
Published:  15 July, 2007

The Onwin-Lawrence house at Balnafoich, Inverness, features Douglas fir trusses curved at the ridge with slow-grown larch cladding

Peter Wilson, director of business development for the Centre for Timber Engineering at Napier University in Edinburgh, reports on the work of Neil Sutherland, an architect who has gone to unusual lengths to achieve his desired effect

Some architects dabble with wood on their buildings: only a very few take the use of timber so seriously that they end up forming a construction company and sawmill as adjuncts to their practice in order to maintain quality control in the delivery of their projects.

It goes without saying that commitment at this level to this particular material also requires an ability to identify and source suitable trees. Such is the unusual practice life of architect Neil Sutherland who, since setting up his office near Inverness, has seen his workload expand from small projects in the close vicinity to more substantial commissions throughout Scotland.

At the heart of the practice’s philosophy is a commitment to sustainable design and intelligent use of natural materials. In the early 90s this included turf roofs and reclaimed dry-stone for base courses, but more recent projects have concentrated on the refinement of Douglas fir post and beam frames on simple pile foundations with untreated Scottish larch cladding on the walls. This might not seem particularly unusual – and low environmental impact is a fashionable cause for architects nowadays – but the consistent development of themes and ideas rooted in each building’s immediate climate and landscape is not so often seen in the work of more conventional practices.

MacIver House features a Douglas fir frame with a larch exterior cladding and balcony
The path to Sutherland’s current set-up has not been entirely straightforward. In the practice’s early days planners were far less receptive to turf roofs and timber cladding than they are today today. The new environmental consciousness sweeping bureaucracy has also brought with it far more support for this type of architecture. Getting it built properly, however, was a continuing source of frustration before putting together the team of experienced joiners he employs today. In large part the problem was simply finding people with the necessary skills – hardly a unique difficulty – but in the thinly populated Scottish Highlands where travel distances to projects can be daunting, an even greater challenge.

One solution used by Sutherland – in a sort of reverse Auf Wiedersehen Pet scenario – was to employ Zimmermen from Germany, uniformed carpenters-in-training required by their Guild to travel for three years and one day and never to stay in one area for more than six months. The purpose of their itinerant existence is “to become acquainted with the practices of work and way of living in other countries and thereby improve their knowledge about their profession and extend their experience of life”. The Zimmermen’s skill and pride in their work is evident in many of Sutherland’s projects, but ultimately he found that just when they had reached a level of understanding of his design and build approach, it was time for them to move to their next place of employment.

The Strathnairn shelter has an inventive truss profile and hydraulic operated doors allow the whole façade to open onto the deck area
A similar challenge faced the architect in securing the quality – and regular supply – of material for high quality timber buildings. His solution has been to establish a portable sawmill close to his house and office in order to cut and season the wood needed. Local contacts are important in this process – word of mouth information on Douglas firs being felled nearby led to some £6,000 of large-section logs arriving at his office for later use.

But what of the architecture itself? Phrases like ‘sustainable design’ and ‘organic buildings’ can often inspire other architects to foam at the mouth, refusing to see virtue in projects predicated on local materials and climatic conditions. Sutherland, however, has trod an experimental path since setting up his practice, and indeed his own home has been a ‘work in progress’ for several years, a place to try out new techniques and details. With each project, the practice’s understanding of the structural potential of different species has developed, allowing a more creative approach to the design of roof truss and frames.

Neil Sutherland surveys the output of his sawmill for another house
As a non-inhabited building, the recently completed, low cost shelter in a community-owned woodland at Strathnairn, near Inverness, perhaps shows the practice’s experimental approach at its best. The new pavilion sits on agricultural foundations and is a highly articulated exercise in timber structural design. Not only does it have an inventive truss profile within its roofspace, but the spaces between the supporting posts are filled by full height ‘garage doors’ that rise on hydraulic hinges to allow the whole façade to open onto a huge deck area extending out into the forest.

The bulk of the practice’s current workload is in house design, and as more projects have been constructed, so too has the number of enquiries leading to new commissions. Any reference to domestic scale is deceptive, however, since some of the ‘two storey’ homes Sutherland has built are tardis-like in the surprising volume of their interiors. Recent projects show signs too of his organic building approach mellowing in response to ideas seen in the work of architects like Glenn Murcutt. Aside from demonstrating his familiarity with – and confidence to engage in – current debates on modernism and critical regionalism in architecture, the newer projects reveal a design maturity that has come from deeper understanding of the constructional and technological possibilities of different species and the constant refinement of details needed to exploit them to their full potential.

Sutherland’s own house at Clachandreggy, near Inverness
For many of Sutherland’s clients the attractions are simple: bespoke homes made of natural materials and with simple breathing wall constructions that make them more comfortable inside. These characteristics, along with minimal fuel bills and reduced maintenance requirements, make for a highly desirable package. Yes, the projects are predominantly designed for the rural environment, but many of the locations have full-on exposure to the elements. Building air and weathertight homes in the Scottish climate is always fraught with challenges, not the least being build quality. By taking control of the complete process, from timber sourcing through to construction and finishes, this architect has confidently placed himself on the side of genuinely sustainable solutions.

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