The value of ruins

Across the UK, timber cladding is helping to make many a ruin habitable again, as Holly Squire discovers

Crumbling buildings always hold a strange sort of fascination for many a property lover.

In our increasingly digital age, ruins appear to be an endangered species, physical embodiments of modern paradoxes reminding us of the blunders of modern technologies, and of the riddles of human freedom.

Ruins lead us to think of the past that could have been and the future that never took place, tantalising us with dreams of escaping the irreversibility of time.

Ruin literally means collapse – but actually, ruins are more about remainders and reminders. The idea that here lies the remnants of what was; which continues to exist with what is. They also make highly interesting renovation projects.

“To take a derelict and ruinous property and build a new structure that rises gleaming, like a phoenix from ashes, is quite the feat; and is fast becoming a favourite of a number of developers across the UK,” says Sheffield based architect Nicole Wilson.

“For many, a property’s ruinous nature is part of its joy, and instead of simply demolishing existing or derelict structures, many clients are instead looking to incorporate the old with the new to build a future on the past,” she adds.

Wilson explains that while the use of timber in renovations is nothing new, there is a real trend emerging in ruinous projects, to use timber cladding to help give a new lease of life to old and derelict homes.

Not only is this opening up a whole world of new possibilities for the ruins in question, but also clearly demonstrates how the use of timber cladding in construction has changed hugely, given it was only 15-20 years ago that retail chains began specifying softwood claddings on their low-rise outlets, and now it’s widely used as a low-cost solution, providing an attractive and sustainable alternative to man-made claddings.

“The modern trend for timber cladding began with Western Red Cedar, says Neil Woods, timber category manager at Grafton Merchanting. “It is the timber species of choice for commercial buildings and especially favoured by architects.

“Its popularity grew from its environmental sustainability, its ability to survive prolonged use externally and the fact it simply looked really good.”

Western Red Cedar is still strong in the timber cladding arena but new species are constantly becoming available with the emergence of hybrid products, and chemically or thermally enhanced species, which provide predictable long-term performance and a high level of environmental sustainability.

And since the European Union Timber Regulations (EUTR) came into effect in March 2013 it has provided greater confidence for all when specifying or procuring imported species for use as external claddings.

Using any timber cladding product to give an older building a new lease of life has many benefits, the main one being aesthetics. If you are looking to make a building beautiful then timber products will do that every time. And because it isn’t manmade, each piece of timber cladding is unique. The appeal lies in the different grain patterns, colours and character of each piece.

“Composite timber products are assuming a greater role because their overall performance is noticeably better,” explains Woods, “Fixing and installation techniques make them slightly simpler to install, and they can be more stable in-situ and more resistant to staining caused by the weather.”

“Timber cladding is also much more cost effective compared with alternative materials such as glass cladding, metal or plastic claddings, which can sometimes make a building look a little dated,” he adds.

The use of timber cladding is not only beneficial from an aesthetic perspective, but it can also help to significantly reduce a building’s carbon footprint. Timber has a much lower impact on the environment compared to other building materials; it essentially grows itself, with no heavy industrial processes to produce the raw product.

“Timber is one of the few natural building materials,” explains sawmill manager, Carl Johnson. “This has a lot of advantages. Timber is not toxic, does not leak chemical vapour into the building and is safe to handle and touch.

“It also means that as timber ages, it does so naturally and doesn’t break down into environmentally damaging materials.”

Wilson too sings the merits of timber cladding, but points out that while it can be a sustainable approach to conserving built heritage, doing up a ruin can become an expensive route to housebuilding.

“It would be far cheaper to build new than to amalgamate the past and the present in one structure,” she says. However, this strategy, dubbed ‘constructive conservation’ by English Heritage, is more economical than painstakingly restoring a ruined building to its original design. But aside from the practicalities of a renovation project, restoring a building back to its former glory with an added twist of modernity seems to come with a real sense of honour.

“Working on a project to transform the old into the new, for me, almost takes on a certain mythical quality of its own,” says Wilson. “You are sometimes working with structures that have hundreds of years of history, and there is a certain level of respect that comes into that process, in considering the original intentions of the building and how to sympathetically integrate the past and the present under one roof.”

Woods agrees, adding that restoration projects hold a certain sort of charm for him. “The great thing about a renovation project is you can either bring a building back to life by restoring it to its former beauty or you can completely change its use,” he says.

And so it seems that by taking the vestiges of human-made architecture, structures that were once complete, only to be left in a state of disrepair, can be completed once more: only this time with a respectful blending of ancient and modern.
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The White House

A perfect example of timber cladding featuring in a renovation project is the award winning Scottish ruins bookend ‘The White House’, a modern and environmentally sensitive house designed by WT Architecture.

It is a new house formed in and around the ruins of ‘The White House’ where James Boswell and Samuel Johnston visited during their tour of the Hebrides in 1773. The spectacularly cleft ruin has been consolidated and only partly occupied.

A glazed living room link connects a wing of domestic accommodation to the west, which is sheltered by a massive dry stonewall that extends into the landscape, extending the ancient patterns of enclosure.

The house integrates passive design principles to minimize energy demands, and the architects selected local materials for construction and topped the home with a lush green roof.

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Out of the Woods

Neil Woods timber category manager at Grafton Merchanting gives his top tips when it comes to the use of cladding in a renovation project When it comes to selecting the right timber cladding product for a renovation, it is worth bearing in mind that there is no one type of timber that would be perfect for every single project.

It depends whether the project is residential, commercial, rural, city centre, or a development which needs to be carbon neutral or in high pollution area. What will determine the product used however, is the purpose of the renovation.

Is it an old barn conversion in the countryside that needs recycled timbers to achieve that rustic and period finish or is it a large building, possibly with an industrial past in a city centre, which will be used as new accommodation or office space?

The type of timber cladding product is very much dependent on the location and the desired aesthetic look of the building once the renovation is complete. While sustainably sourced hardwoods or thermal treated softwoods may perform better than other cladding options in harsher conditions, different timber species have different natural oil levels, which can make them more sustainable in tougher conditions.

It is also worth considering the ease of site access during construction – all these factors come into play and affect which product is most suitable to achieve the desired results in appearance and budget.

Many renovation projects and derelict buildings can have access issues but these difficulties can be managed to not disrupt the timber supplier’s deliveries during the renovation, as timber cladding can also be assembled offsite and craned into place in some cases where ease of installation and maintenance can be key to the timber cladding chosen.

There are hundreds of timber species that can be sustainably and ethically sourced from all over the world, so when it comes to sourcing legal, sustainable timber products that have not disrupted indigenous life, plants, animals or people there should be no compromise at all; ensuring a supplier can guarantee it’s Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certified is important.

These two certifications ensure that the entire timber supply chain is ethical and legal. No building is worth risking the environment or people’s livelihoods or an honest supply chain and that’s where FSC and PEFC comes in.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 print edition of Timber in Construction magazine