Review of Khrum Syed's Concept Design for a New Building for the Centre for Timber Engineering

Anne McDonald reports.

Khrum Syed

Khrum Syed

If plans for the new Centre for Timber Engineering (CTE) building at Edinburgh’s Napier University come to pass, the Centre will be housed in a long low cylindrical building (think a tree trunk on its side) based on a glulam structure. It will contain a free standing, three storey timber frame office unit; and laboratories, workshops and timber store; catering facilities, a roof garden and a lecture theatre, plus all the usual services. It will have a curved, partially glazed roof, shaded by light-activated timber shutters; a main entrance which carves a decisive, flat slice out of the south elevation of the cylinder; and a ramped rear entrance shaded by a porte-cochere, whose timber roof echoes -but inverts- the dramatic curve of the cylindrical main building.

So who’s the designer? Zaha Hadid? Frank Gehry? Not quite. It’s Khrum Syed, second year architectural technology student at Napier University’s Centre for Timber Engineering and winner of the Scottish Timber Trade Association’s prize for the Best Design from a Second Year Architectural Technology Student.

And while the design brief is not constrained by requirements for economy or working detail, it is an indisputable celebration of confidence in the structural and aesthetic possibilities of timber, which is to be hugely welcomed. Its confidence is also reflective of the quality of timber teaching students enjoyed in the module they received prior to this project at the CTE, where students learned about:

  • Structural Insulated Panel Systems (SIPS) Panels
  • Glue-laminated timber (Glulam)
  • Post and beam construction (Hufhaus)
  • Brettstapel (Continental wood construction technique
  • Wood based panel products

STTA Secretary David Sulman, says

“We’re delighted that the first winner of this newly-established STTA prize has produced a design which so clearly recognises the potential of timber as a building material. We feel this design takes cognisance of timber as a structural and an aesthetic medium. This is an excellent start for any design and for any young designer.”

Commenting on the winning qualities of the Khrum Syed’s project, CTE tutor Mr John Wood, who set and assessed the project, says:

“Khrum’s project was judged to be the winner as it was the most innovatory design. It was the most thorough of the schemes presented and the most dynamic building. The use of glulam was an integral and highly visual part of the design solution, and the architectural form was derived from the structural possibilities offered by glulam construction. The ideas were well communicated through drawings, models and an effective verbal presentation.”

The aims of the project were to:

  • Raise awareness of timber as a structural material
  • Give confidence in designing with timber
  • Promote timber as a sustainable structural material
  • Develop students’ design ability
  • Create functional and imaginative buildings
  • Give experience in designing a building within a specific site where context and access are real issues.

Craighouse Site ModelKhrum Syed’s starting point was a site survey. Students were given the choice of two sites on the Craighouse campus of Napier University in Edinburgh. Site One was a square central site, 40 x 40m. Site Two was a rectangular site of 90 x 40m near the entrance and set against woodlands.

Khrum says

“Site Two was near the woods and did not block the view of the existing 19th century buildings on the Craighouse Campus. I didn’t want my building to be constrained by height considerations, which the central site might have imposed. And to be honest I had already got the feeling for a long, low building, dominated by curves, sitting into its environment, set against woodlands. It seemed right for the Centre for Timber Engineering and the 90 x 40m sloped Site Two allowed of all these possibilities. It was also closer to the entrance and offered easier access for vehicles delivering timber supplies for the lab.”

This was to be Khrum’s first design in timber. Prior to this, in his career in architects’ offices, he had always designed in concrete. He says

CTE Model on site“Designing in timber was quite a challenge; I thought I’d be constrained by size or shape. But then I looked at timber – especially glulam- buildings around the world and saw what they were doing. And closer to home I looked at the *“egg” building on the Napier Craiglockhart Campus and realised how delicate it was. How could they have achieved the same in concrete? So that was helpful.”

*The “egg” is the Lindsay Stewart Lecture Theatre, a LVL, titanium-clad gridshell building, designed by BDP architects, fabricated by Cowley Engineering opened in 2004.

Having established the broad shape of the building, Khrum decided that glulam was appropriate for the main structure. He even considered an open “skeleton” “Like the rings of a tree” he says, but reality took hold. “This is Scotland and the weather wouldn’t permit of such an open structure!”

Having settled on glulam, the next stage in Khrum’s design was to accommodate the various functions the new CTE building would require. His response was that there were clearly defined activities which needed different treatments and dictated discrete spaces: the laboratory; the offices; and the central services/circulation.

The laboratory requirements in this largely research based establishment dominated and were allocated two thirds of the east side of the building. Laboratories occupy the ground and first storeys and include a structures lab (housing a massive crane) on the ground floor, flanked on either side by a timber workshop and timber storage facility. The first floor houses a clean lab and metal workshop. The laboratory area is partially timber clad for visual impact, as it is the first thing that visitors to the campus would see. The top floor CTE Modelaccommodates a roof garden flanked by a canteen and raked lecture theatre.

The central services area separates the laboratory area from the office area. It houses the entrance, the lifts and the toilets, and is entirely glazed, including the roof.

The office accommodation is a separate “open topped” three storey timber frame block, set within the glulam superstructure. The basement area houses a library. The circular Glulam beams surrounding the office are interrupted by a full three storey height glazed wall, which gives a view of the trees, “letting the outside in” says Khrum “and in keeping with the timber theme”.

However, practicalities impinge on aesthetic and spiritual issues and this level of glazing demands a shading solution against the sunshine – even in Scotland!

Detail model of roof and shading systemKhrum selected a commercially available timber shutter system to provide shading. This is set on the roof of the building, over the office area, and opens and closes automatically in response to the level of sunlight - like a huge, curved, timber eyelid, closing against the light.

Disabled access was also a key consideration. The main entrance has easy, flat access and plenty of disabled parking. The ramped rear access is shaded by a timber roof. Or as Khrum puts it “An aerofoil in timber flowing from the shading over the office area and out towards the trees, bringing everything together.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself!

Further information such as the Project Brief, Elevations, Floor Plans, Sections, and the Site Plan, can all be downloaded, as PDFs, by clicking the links.

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