The Black & White Building In London Showcases Wood Construction Techniques

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The Black & White building in East London is a testament to constructing commercial buildings that are truly green and sustainable. Unlike many so-called “green” buildings that hang a pretty wooden façade over a steel and concrete core, the Black & White building uses entirely structurally engineered wood products for its frame. The exterior is covered in shutters made from tulip wood that were computer designed to admit the maximum amount of sunlight while limiting solar gain.

The Black & White building was designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects for The Office Group, a company that specializes in flexible workspaces. The American Hardwood Export Council and interior design specialists Daytrip were heavily involved in making the building a reality.

Image credit: Ed Reeve. Courtesy of AHEC

The Architecture Of Sufficiency

According to TOG, the Black & White Building features an “architecture of sufficiency” where every element serves a purpose, nothing is superfluous, and all materials and processes are as efficient and sustainable as possible. The new seven story timber building in the Shoreditch section of London is intended to demonstrate that timber is not just a viable alternative to the conventional concrete and steel used to build offices, when it comes to performance and sustainability, it is the preferable option.

TOG worked with Waugh Thistleton Architects to produce a structure that can serve as a model for the office architecture of the future. It was created using renewable materials and highly innovative construction methods to serve as a landmark in sustainable architecture.

“When I heard that TOG were thinking about a new sustainable office building, it’s like I was standing in the queue for a nightclub and they put my favorite song on,” says lead architect Andrew Waugh. “I admire the fact they had the commitment and the courage to do this in the first place. They flew in the face of naysayers, and they took the lead. It was very bold of them.”

TOG and Waugh Thistleton set out to create a building that minimized carbon in both its construction and, once complete, its operations. The architects proposed a structure built from the ground up using cross laminated timber and laminated veneer lumber. These high performance engineered wooden materials generate much less greenhouse gas emissions in the production than steel or cement, saving thousands of tons in CO2, while also being highly durable. The use of CLT as the principal construction material means the Black & White Building has 37% less embodied carbon than a comparable concrete structure.

Sustainability Is The Key

“The principal message of The Black & White Building is sustainability. This is a mainstream, grade A central London office building, built entirely from timber. It clearly demonstrates that mass timber is a viable replacement for concrete and steel in the mainstream office market, saving thousands of tonnes of CO2. We’re trying to change the way we build, to transform the industry,” says Andrew Waugh.

Black & White buidiing

Image courtesy of The Office Group

The CLT frame was chosen for its perfect balance of sustainability, lightness and strength. Glulam — made from glue laminated layers of timber — is used for the curtain walling. The columns and beams are made out of beech LVL. The structure comprises a combination of timbers from 227 beech and 1,547 pine and spruce trees harvested from certified forests in Austria and Germany.

CLT is significantly lighter and easier to transport than conventional building materials such as concrete and steel, which means that fewer deliveries are required to bring the necessary quantities to the construction site. This not only represents a carbon reduction in terms of logistics, it also makes building in dense urban areas a more efficient process that is less disruptive for neighbors and other road users.

wood building

Image courtesy of The Office Group

Because the timber components are prefabricated and precision engineered to be slotted together, the “screwed not glued” building not only requires a smaller workforce to construct, it also has a part to play in the circular economy. At the end of its life, the building can be easily disassembled rather than demolished, and the materials can be recovered and reused. The team expects to achieve a BREEAM Excellent rating once the building is complete.

“The Black & White Building represents a major step forward for us, and I hope the wider industry too. It’s a statement of who we are and how we will approach sustainability. We don’t need to build the traditional way with concrete and steel anymore. We always retrofit when we can, and when we build new buildings in future, TOG is committed to constructing them from timber and other sustainable materials,” says TOG co-founder Charlie Green.

The Black & White Building is powered by 100% renewable energy sources, including 80 solar panels on the rooftop. No element of the building is purely decorative. Everything has a purpose. The exterior is clad in timber louvers that provide natural shade, reducing solar gain on the façade and boosting the natural light reaching the interior. The louvers change in depth as they ascend the building in order to optimize energy efficiency. They are crafted from thermally modified tulip wood, recommended and supplied by the American Hardwood Export Council. This timber is highly affordable, lightweight, readily replenished, and has minimal environmental impact.

“It’s good for the soul to be surrounded by natural materials. It’s good for companies because people working in timber buildings tend to stay in the job longer. They feel happier and they’re more productive,” says Andrew Waugh.

Photograph: Ed Reeve. Courtesy of AHEC

An Extraordinary Interior Environment

The interior of the Black & White building has been purposely designed to encourage interaction and collaboration, enabling people to connect through a variety of spaces in many different ways. Lounges of various sizes and layouts are found throughout as well as plentiful breakout areas and pockets of outdoor space. As an added bonus, a rooftop terrace offers great views of the city. To maximize natural light in the building throughout the day, a light well runs the full height of the building from the rooftop terrace down to a courtyard containing a maple tree on the lower ground floor. In all, the building is home to 28 offices of various sizes, six meeting rooms, focus booths and breakout areas, 94 bike storage spaces, and showers.

Every feature of the internal space is functional and honest, echoing the emphasis on timber as the structural essence of the building with its environmental credentials made obvious by the materials used. Andrew Waugh says, “I love that kind of ‘whoosh’ sensation you get when you first come in — the beauty, excitement, and aroma. When you walk through the front door and discover the contemporary cathedral quality to the space, you just feel that there’s a sense of overwhelming optimism about the building.”

“I often come in and put my nose against the walls, just to smell it,” Charlie Green tells The Guardian. Everything in sight appears to come from trees, from the oak butcher block floors to chairs made of ash and walnut, stools made from  cork, walls of raw spruce, and support columns of beech. “People come into work and just start touching everything.”

Image credit: Ed Reeve. Courtesy of AHEC

The beech laminated veneer lumber support columns are made by peeling a tree rather than cutting them into planks and gluing the thin layers together. The result is a tougher, more slender component that is “as strong as steel but 20% of the weight and a fraction of the carbon,” says Waugh.

He is almost evangelical when it comes to building with wood. “We drew every component on the computer and our files went straight through to be cut in the factory. Every piece of timber is engineered for its exact purpose, so there’s no waste. The modernists talked about ‘truth to materials’ but then they clad everything. Here, everything you see has a structural purpose  — this is proper, hard arsed modernism.”

“We’re getting a really clear understanding of the biophilic benefits of natural environments, beyond the carbon savings,” he adds. “People sleep better in timber homes, study better in timber schools, heal faster in timber hospitals, and have less stress in timber offices.” What building do you know that can make similar claims?




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