Timber building, Embassy for Refugees. Credit: Natasha Reid

+ Wood is one of the oldest building materials known to man. It’s also well within the comfort zone of contractors and clients, but there’s still scope to use it in innovative ways.

When you think of innovation in the built environment, what comes to mind? Perhaps you picture a state-of-the-art facade made from a material grown in a lab, or a digital climate-control system? I think there’s definitely a place for hi-tech solutions, but there are plenty of ways we can innovate using more traditional ideas and materials too.

The construction industry isn’t renowned for innovation. Many stakeholders are conservative and resistant to new approaches and techniques – they worry that a new process or an unfamiliar material might lead to unforeseen problems and financial overruns. 

But it’s important that, as designers, we don’t use this as an excuse to stand still. Through new ideas and approaches we can achieve more with traditional materials and existing skills, but we can do it more efficiently and improve the reputation of the industry at the same time. 

For example, I’ve recently worked on several timber projects. Wood is one of the oldest building materials known to man, so it’s hardly hi-tech. It’s also well within the comfort zone of contractors and clients, but there’s still scope to use it in innovative ways. 

On the LifeCycle Tower, for example, Arup has been developing a system for high-rise buildings made from timber. A timber high-rise building would be cheaper and more sustainable than one made from more conventional construction materials. By continually refining and improving our ideas we can make them better – without necessarily drawing on a hi-tech solution.

The Bosco Verticale in Milan is, in some ways, a traditional residential tower. What makes it different is the way that the building’s trees aren’t just at the base of the tower; they’re installed on the terraces of each apartment, right up to the 27th floor. This vertical forest improves the quality of the environment for the residents, helps mitigate pollution, and fits with the development’s sustainable philosophy. 

It’s quite a simple idea – we didn’t have to adjust to a completely new material – we just had to approach it in a new way. The innovation was in the botanical assessment to select the right species, and in making sure that the trees and the building wouldn’t be damaged in windy weather. We talked it through with the client and investigated and resolved the concerns they raised. For example, the botanist chose tree species that would withstand the conditions and added structural restraints to prevent any large trees from falling.

At Arup we approach every project from first principles – even familiar pieces of work. My team and I are always asking ourselves: “Can it be done better?” Sometimes that means a hi-tech innovation, but I think that often we simply need to challenge ourselves to achieve more with what we’ve already got.