Gareth Barber, MD of The Stable Company, discusses the reasons why timber construction is passing with flying colours in education.

Growing pupil numbers, tightening budgets, spatial constraints and lack of dynamic teaching space. School leaders certainly have a lot on their plates. 

Meanwhile, timber-framed construction is leading a revolution in education, providing a dynamic, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly solution. How is this building method proving its credentials in the classroom?

Modular construction — unlocking extra teaching space

Timber classrooms are modular, standalone facilities, which gives them a huge advantage over buildings constructed in a more traditional, bricks-and-mortar fashion — the ability to be placed almost anywhere.

As such, timber allows any area of the school campus can be utilised for extra teaching space provision. Teaching space comes at a premium for many schools, so the ability to place these buildings on once-derelict land is a huge draw.

Expanding the main school buildings is often not feasible, or comes with a significant time and cost penalty. Timber-framed classrooms, on the other hand, can be set away from traditional buildings, for example on the periphery of school playing fields, with bi-folding doors which open up. This can ‘bring the outdoors in’.

This makes timber constructed classrooms useful for facilitating outdoor learning — an aspect of the curriculum that has been growing in importance for some time. It’s been reported that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates! 

Bespoke buildings

If someone said ‘modular classroom’, the first thing that springs to mind might be those rather uninspiring, cut-and-paste prefabricated buildings. But these timber classrooms, created with modern construction methods and technologies are much, much more. Each is bespoke and unique to the school and pupils’ needs.

Modular timber construction puts the end user’s experience at the forefront. Timber classrooms can contain interior and exterior adaptations and design features including sliding doors, smart lighting, heat pumps and meadow roofs. The use of canvas awnings can allow for indoor/outdoor use whatever the weather, while interior rooms can be specially designed to fulfil multiple purposes and activities. Whether an exam room, lecture room, teamwork space or traditional classroom, many schools value the dynamism of these buildings.

Timber’s popularity in education also comes from its design flexibility, and ability to acquiesce to any number of architectural visions. Testament to this is the popularity of timber buildings amongst schools that cater for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN); popular solutions here include well-placed handrails, accessible storage and low-level door and cupboard handles, as well as hygiene facilities.

The scale, timeframe or style of an architectural design is not usually a hindrance with timber-framed buildings. This method of construction works for a small home gym, a large classroom block or an 18-floor tower (see Brock Commons residence hall at the University of British Columbia, as an example); recent technological advancements with cross-laminated timber have even given rise to design blueprints for a timber high-rise building currently in preparation.

‘Green’ classroom buildings

With the pollution and destruction of our planet ever-increasingly important, many schools are seeking to burnish their ‘green’ credentials with environmentally-sustainable choices where possible. There’s no better choice than timber construction.

In the UK, buildings currently account for 40 per cent of our total contribution to the greenhouse effect. As the only carbon-neutral building resource out there, wood is coming to the rescue (not just in education). Timber stores gasses that would otherwise contribute to the greenhouse effect, releasing them back into the atmosphere without surplus when naturally degrading over time.

When sourced responsibly, timber has the lowest ecological resource use index of any building material; because more trees can be planted, wood is 100% renewable. When compared to steel, concrete and masonry, timber is also less energy intensive to transport and manufacture. For schools, there’s also an added bonus to making the ‘green’ choice of timber construction: the projects can become eligible for external grants and funding.

Timber construction: making us happier?

Our built environment can have a hidden effect on our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It might sound a little contrived, but there is solid evidence to prove that timber buildings can benefit us on a physiological level. 

Recently, architects have grown more interested in ‘biophilic design’; that is, design that caters to humans’ innate desire to be surrounded by nature — biophilia. Research indicates that timber teaching spaces can have a positive impact on students compared to traditional classrooms. The study, School Without Stress, showed that pupils in a timber-clad and timber-furnished classroom are less stressed and better able to concentrate than those in a standard classroom. Essentially, timber makes us feel good!

According to another study, timber buildings can result in ‘improved mental engagement, alertness, concentration, physiological and psychological responsiveness’. Also, research by Harvard University shows that ‘green buildings’ can improve cognitive function by between 61% and 101% — good news for learning.

Timber’s superior thermal performance

Nothing can dampen productivity in the classroom like sticky, stifling heat — or winter goosebumps. Did you know that wood insulates fifteen times better than masonry, and 400 times better than steel?

As well as being a superb natural insulator, timber is a hygroscopic material, which means it can breathe. As a material, timber has air pockets which allow it to exchange moisture with the surrounding air, fighting against humidity and boosting air quality. Users are kept cool in summer, but warmer in winter — keeping heating and cooling use is kept to a minimum.

Technological innovations can supplement timber’s already-high natural thermal performance. Air source heat pumps can be installed, for example — these take heat from the outside to power radiators. Timber classrooms can also be draught proofed and central heated, as well as fitted with insulation; because this is contained within the structure of the timber cavity, the walls of a timber frame building can achieve the same level of insulation as concrete or stone, whilst being much thinner (thereby also saving on vital building space).

Budget and time-friendly teaching spaces

For the vast majority of schools, balancing cost, quality and time is a huge issue. Many, however, are discovering some kind of solution with timber.

As a rule, construction projects undertaken with timber, as opposed to other traditional building materials like brick or concrete, come in at a cheaper financial cost. This is simply because timber is a more abundant, less frequently used material. It’s also much quicker and easier to work with. 

Wood being grown for timber usage currently exceeds the speed at which the material is being used, so there’s actually a surplus of it — which can’t be said of other building materials. This is good news for quick building as timescales for supply are very short. Also, because of the off-site construction element inherent to timber, on-site disruption to schools is minimal. Timber classrooms can be erected by a team of specialists in a matter of days or weeks.

Timber construction is changing the game in education, helping schools to balance a range of sensitive considerations with high-tech, ‘green’ teaching spaces.