Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Trees for timber

By John Makepeace

Parnham College, Dorset

Parnham College was established in 1979 to provide integrated courses in design, making and management for aspiring furniture-makers. In 1983, the college acquired Hooke Park, a 350 acre forest in Dorset, and used the by-products of woodland management for all the structural components for building the new campus, especially forest thinnings from 5–10cms in diameter. The College amalgamated with the Architectural Association in 2002.

We worked with a top flight of foresters, architects, structural engineers, material scientists, and chemists on the design of the buildings at Hooke Park. Many of the conventional barriers to these processes were bridged by the collaborative research programmes which preceded each building. This allowed us to develop the technologies to exploit the best properties of the materials. As no Building Codes existed for the use of forest thinnings, the research findings and the proposed designs had to be approved by the Department of Environment.

Given the unprecedented form of construction, the building costs were hard for quantity surveyors to predict. This was most pronounced on the workshops, where costs substantially exceeded the forecast, leaving me the task of raising funds retrospectively to meet the overrun.

Despite the overruns, the extraordinary quality of the buildings provides a wonderful educational environment. These technologies have now been further developed at the Weald and Downland Museum and the Savill Gardens building at Windsor. The Duke of Edinburgh even took a personal interest in the initiative at Hooke, and oak from the estate at Windsor was used at Savill Gardens, where they worked with the same structural engineers, Buro Happold.

Students are encouraged to utilise timber from the surrounding forest in their designs, and new experimental buildings are partially built by students. Being based within the woodland, they begin to understand the whole culture of woodland management and how to use materials more intelligently. The woods are a wonderful resource for the students.

I’m currently planning several other initiatives to encourage design and architectural students and practitioners to be more entrepreneurial in developing businesses that make better use of our indigenous forest produce, especially hardwoods. It is all about using land sustainably and for multiple purposes — intelligent forestry.

It would make a huge difference if government legislation recognised and encouraged, not only the planting of trees, but the social, economic and environmental benefits of adding value through local enterprise.