On the sofa with

Jonas Lencer

May 17, 2018
Director, dRMM Architects

Jonas Lencer is a director of Stirling Prize winning architecture practice dRMM. He oversees the design, construction and delivery of major projects including Faraday House; a bold and imaginative residential building within the Battersea Power Station development. With a focus on prefabrication and engineered timber, he specialises in combining design concepts with innovative construction techniques. Jonas lectures internationally on dRMM’s pioneering work in engineered timber, he is an assessor for the University of Brighton and is currently on the Wood Awards judging panel.


You spoke at the launch of this year’s call for entries for the Wood Awards, held at the Building Centre in London. Can you please give us a quick summary of what you spoke about and why you think the Wood Awards are important?

I spoke about the development of timber design within the past 15 years, linking my experience growing up in rural Germany where I learnt traditional forestry and how to make things from wood. I am very excited about recent developments in digital design and manufacturing which are breaking down the barriers between design and make. I think the Wood Awards are tremendously important when it comes to highlighting exemplary forms of this. The world is looking to these awards as UK design ingenuity, along with European technology, which is continuing to lead the way in modern timber construction.

You designed the Endless Stair with Alex de Rijke, (which won a Wood Award) during the 2013 London Design Festival. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Alex and I were inspired by MC Escher’s drawings of impossible perspectives. Our aim was to translate this concept into a real life experience, which was a challenge. We only knew the 3D experience of the illusion was going to be successful once we had modeled it physically and digitally. The result is a freely-accessible installation which defies people’s cognitive experience of space. With Andrew Lawrence from Arup and David Venables from AHEC (the American Hardwood Export Company) we developed a system of identical flights to be assembled in any orientation and space. The best part of six months was spent developing a system which joins without special parts or steel, and can be reassembled in endless iterations.

Alex de Rijke and Jonas Lencer, Endless Stair factory visit, image by Jonas Lencer

The Endless Stair, made from American tulipwood CLT was hugely technically ambitious. How has timber construction moved on since then?

Endless Stair wouldn’t have been possible without the development of American tulipwood CLT. The inherent strength and refined surface quality allowed us to develop the stair elements in very small thicknesses. Since then, we have collaborated with Züblin Timber to factory produce the CLT in panel form. The structural advantages, as well as visual and haptic qualities, are well-beyond those of standard softwood CLT. Last year, we completed Maggie’s Oldham, a cancer centre which utilises this new material. It is the first permanent building in the world made from hardwood CLT. The structure is the finish, and in some cases even the furniture.

Can you tell us a little bit about the significance of projects like Maggie’s Oldham?

The Maggie’s project is very close to our studio’s ethos when it comes to making architecture for people and the environment. We embrace Maggie’s ambition to create an architecture of hope and providing a space of comfort. The use of wood is part of a bigger intention to innovate the norms of healthcare architecture, where clinical institutionalised environments can make patients feel dispirited. In wood there is humanity, scale and warmth. Timber itself increases recovery times and reduces heart rates.

Maggie’s Oldham, image by Alex de Rijke

dRMM picked up the 2017 Stirling Prize for Hasting Pier.  How important are awards for your practice?

Winning the Stirling Prize public vote and the jury vote for Hasting Pier was really satisfying. It’s popularity is exciting because the design principles were born out of discussion with the community. Winning confirms to us that we are prioritising the right aspects of design and architecture. I feel that highlighting exemplary projects is crucial to supporting further innovation.

Hastings Pier, image by Alex de Rijke


What is dRMM working on now in wood that you can tell us about?

We are always challenging the status quo of the construction industry and architectural typologies. The London Plan highlights the loss of industrial space in London, and as a design community we need to rethink how to densify use-classes and intensify workspace, in a way that allows neighbourliness to flourish. dRMM is currently working with the Greenwich Enterprise Board to develop a vertical stack of workshops in CLT. On this occasion the vertical stack functions as a sculptural grid, but the application of lightweight timber will allow for more complex mixed-use developments in the future.

Charlton WorkStack in Greenwich, image by Alex de Rijke

And finally, what are your thoughts on timber skyscrapers?

Although the race for increasing heights of timber buildings pushes innovation and increases visibility of timber construction in general, timber is not necessarily the right material to make very tall buildings. Hybrid solutions with steel and concrete, however, offer advantages in prefabrication, quality, and carbon sequestration. The question of our time is how we build dense and livable cities, which may or may not necessarily result in further tall structures.

Rundeskogen in Norway by dRMM and Helen Hard, image by Sindre Ellingsen

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