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National cancer support charity Maggie’s has just opened Maggie’s Centre Oldham, in Greater Manchester, the world’s first building made from hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT) using American tulipwood.
This Maggie’s Centre is one of the most important developments in a decade of research and development by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) into structural timber innovation. It will transform the way architects and engineers approach timber, and will signal a pivotal moment for modern architecture and construction.
We caught up with Jasmin Sohi, Associate Architect from de Rijke Marsh Morgan (dRMM), who led the project team that constructed Maggie’s Oldham.
Q: When did dRMM first start using hardwood CLT, and how has it been incorporated into past projects?
A: In 2013, dRMM collaborated with AHEC and Arup to develop tulipwood cross laminated timber for our London Design Festival installation, Endless Stair. Tulipwood strips were laminated by hand to make the CLT which was the perfect material to use, as it is strong but relatively light, making a very efficient structure. For Maggie’s Oldham, the CLT was machine-laminated at Zublin Timber in Germany.
Q: In contemporary architecture, default materials tend to be concrete and steel. Why was hardwood CLT a more appropriate material for Maggie’s Oldham?
A: Sustainability was one reason that we chose to predominantly use hardwood CLT. Timber is more environmental than concrete and steel when it comes to Life Cycle Impact performance. The process of producing the wood products used in Maggie’s Oldham is less energy intensive than other building materials.
Maggie’s Oldham is a carefully made manifesto for the architecture of health, realised in wood. It reverses the norms of hospital architecture, where clinical, institutionalised environments can make patients feel dispirited. Studies have shown that people feel calmer and more at ease in a timber building. In wood there is hope and warmth.
The walls and roof of the structure are visible, with an exquisite timber finish internally. The hardwood CLT has been carefully detailed to bring out its natural beauty – its fine, variegated finish is more akin to furniture than construction material. The slatted ceiling was created from wood left over from the CLT fabrication process and the kitchen table was made from the offcuts from door openings – so nothing is wasted.
Q: What are the practical and ethical advantages of using hardwood CLT over other types of wood in construction?
A: In sustainability terms, tulipwood has excellent credentials as it is a fast-growing hardwood, abundant in American forests. It currently replaces itself through regrowth at a much faster rate than at which it is being used. For example, at Maggie’s Oldham, all the tulipwood used in the building will be replaced in just 108 seconds through regrowth in the forest.
Practically, using hardwood CLT for the walls meant that the structure could be the finish – we didn’t need to apply any additional paint or wall finishes, saving time and cost. In addition, cable routes and recesses for sockets were done in the factory in Germany, meaning that the first fix wiring during construction was very quick and simple – a matter of simply threading cables through. Another advantage was that any modifications to the walls could easily be done on site, without the need for heavy machinery.
Q: How did advice from support workers and cancer patients inform the design and layout of Maggie’s Oldham?
A: The experience of cancer patients and Maggie’s as a client gave us valuable insight and understanding when it came to designing the building, from overarching principles to the smallest details.
The entrance sequence is very important. Someone coming to the centre for the first time might be a bit nervous, but the experience of being met with a tree as soon as you enter is a lovely surprise which helps to dispel any apprehension. Glimpsing the kitchen table through the tree leaves also enables people to find their way without any signage, which would feel too institutional.
On entering, the visitor is met with a space, light and unexpected views down to the garden below, up to the sky, and out to the Pennine horizon – a very hopeful view. To the south, a large balcony means visitors can sit outside enjoying fresh air and views of the garden. A deep overhang provides shade as after radiotherapy you usually don’t want direct sunlight.
The open plan nature of the space is deliberate as Centre heads had explained that sometimes people open up more in an open space – they don’t need to make eye contact but can look beyond to something else as they talk. The need for privacy is met by a series of rooms to the east side of the building.
Dutch artist Petra Blaisse has also designed a wonderful curtain in silver leatherette and yellow velour, that can be drawn along a looping track to make a room within a room for yoga sessions and the like. Circular windows in the curtain allow daylight in and views out.
Colour has also been very important in designing an uplifting space. The bright, yellow floor creates a very sunny atmosphere, particularly important in Oldham where it rains a lot and can be quite grey. The colour of the reflected light helps skin tones affected by cancer treatment look more healthy.
We have considered the use of wood at every opportunity. As those undergoing chemotherapy sometimes feel pain on touching cold objects, oak rather than metal door handles have been used. Wooden grab rails in the toilets also add beauty and joy where usually there is ugliness. Wood fibre insulation ensures a breathable, healthy environment.
Q: How did you develop the ‘tree house’ typology for the building?
A: There is a change in level across the site as the west boundary is about four metres higher than the rest of the ground. When we first visited the site, which previously had a disused mortuary on it, we realised that to capture the views of the Pennines and create a garden underneath, we would have to raise the building off the ground. This meant that the building could then be at a level accessible to the oncology department adjacent, and have a garden flowing underneath.
The building is supported on six slender columns and hovers above a garden framed by birch and pine trees. Making use of the change in levels, trees grow around the building and through a central curved glazed oasis in the centre of the building.
You get the feeling of being in a treehouse, surrounded by the canopy of trees.
Q: dRMM has been pioneering the use of engineered timber since 2000 – where and how will you be using it next?
A: dRMM use engineered timber as much as we can! We are currently developing the technical design for a series of stacked and cantilevered workspaces in Greenwich.
The building has been conceptualised in CLT which can be used as shear walls and slabs, allowing for fast construction. The building form means that CLT is the perfect choice as its structural properties allow each unit to step out and cantilever. The exposed timber finish will add a warmth to the building inside as well.