Ep 126 - Engineering Innovation in Architecture

27 min 47 sec

Today we're speaking with Fabia Baumann from Henning Larsen Architects. Fabia shares her unique perspective on the synergy between the two disciplines of engineering and architecture, especially in the context of Europe's heterogeneous architectural landscape.

We explore the evolution of design practices, tackle the bottlenecks facing designers, and delve into the nuances of measuring sustainability in construction. Fabia also highlights the latest innovations from Scandinavia and shares her excitement for the future of mass timber construction.  


Timber Talks Series 7

WoodSolutions Timber Talks podcast is back for series seven with our host Adam Jones, Australian engineer and founder of CLT Toolbox. This series offers a blend of informative and entertaining content focused on timber design, specification, and construction. The podcast features discussions with leading experts in the field, presenting the latest design practices, innovations, and intriguing case studies.

Episode transcript

Adam Jones (00:03):
Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, what you do, and your background with Henning Larsen?

Fabia Baumann (00:15):
Great, thank you very much for having me. I'm Fabia Baumann. I said I'm working at Henning Larsen Architect currently in Denmark. I'm originally from Switzerland and have been living in Denmark now for five, six years. I think I did most of my education in Switzerland first as a carpenter and then a timber engineer there. And so yeah, now I brought my timber competes up to Scandinavia and I'm thriving here. And it's also exciting working with the architects.

Adam Jones (00:55):
It's such an interesting background starting from carpentry engineering and now you're working with architects and I guess as an architect by who you're working with. So, can you tell us a little bit about what's the relevance of that experience and how it can help integrating disciplines in this way?

Fabia Baumann (01:14):
Oh, absolutely. I mean, sometimes I think that the carpentry background might be the most important of all of them. I mean, people might think some kind, it's just only a trade, but it's very important in my everyday life because I can really imagine how will it go out on the building side, how can you mount all these pieces that we're nicely designing? But I mean, you always have to think about how this will be mounted in the end and also having the imagination on how that can look and so on. So I really profit of that every day in the work together with the architects, I'm trying to translate my knowledge into the design processes and trying to guide the architects. I sometimes describe my role as the translator in between the architects and the engineers. I mean, they both have the ideas and it's really important that they understand each other.

I mean, they're not there to make each other's life more difficult. And if they work together well, I mean that's really an important part of having a project succeeding and having great architecture and the timber being designed to a really great level. So, through that experience, I think I really can bring in some of my practical knowledge and try to guide the design, but also the engineers pushing them a little bit in the sense where could they maybe optimize a bit, even if they maybe lack experience or sometimes they might lack a bit the motivation to do another iteration. So, in that sense, we're trying together as a team of course, to get to the best possible design and solution in the end.

Adam Jones (03:17):
Yeah, that's amazing. Well, I've got lots of, I want to pick your brain on a lot of those things, but maybe just for the audience, be interesting to hear about some of the projects you're most proud of that you've been working in this space over the period and some interesting aspects about and yeah, I think that'll be interesting.

Fabia Baumann (03:38):
When I started working at Henning Las Night a couple of years ago, we honestly didn't have much timber going on yet. It was just up and coming. So where I'm coming from Switzerland together with Germany and Austria, I would say is the core of the modern timber construction. And so coming from there, I was used to building a bit bigger in timber already in all the nice engineered way. Coming up here to Denmark, I realized that they haven't been building much with timber yet. I mean they do have a very old tradition of building in timber, but it hasn't really reached that next level of going further, of taking it further maybe in Sweden or Norway. We have seen that they already, maybe a decade ago they managed to bring the timber to the next level, but not yet in Denmark. So, it was really exciting coming here basically starting fresh and seeing where this will lead us.

So, we started quite small and now we have really big projects. So, I do have a lot of favorite projects in that sense that I've been working on off various scales. So, currently I'm working on a really exciting logistics center that is going to be built in the Netherlands together with our client bestseller. And it's just an amazing project to kind of figure out how can we bring these industrial projects as well to further how can we bring sustainability in these also nice architecture. I mean there is a necessity of these buildings, but maybe a lot of architects wouldn't really want to touch on these kind of logistics centers. They think, oh, it's just a big cube. So, I'm really excited about all the possibilities we have in this project now, and it's going to be in timber and with a lot of other bio-based materials in it.

So that's very, very exciting to see that happening. But currently almost finished is the world of Volvo, which is an experience center that is built in Gutenberg, Sweden. It's showcasing Volvo's tracks and it's built in a really cool, very big round roof structure made out of timber. And it was one of the first projects I started with a couple of years ago and now seeing that built, it's just amazing and seeing how we really pushed the agenda. So people were quite hesitant, obviously, about building something in that scale. And together with a really great team, we managed to get there and that's just such a great accomplishment to see that happening.

Adam Jones (06:45):
A hundred percent. You mentioned before how, I mean I think from our part of the world in Australia, we might see the European landscape is a bit more homogeneous than it actually really is. Same in North America, you throw it into a basket. So you mentioned there's differences in maturity. What are the nuances from region regions within Europe and the things like that that designers need to be aware of and where all the differences are?

Fabia Baumann (07:13):
I mean, I quickly mentioned it before that Denmark isn't maybe that far in timber architecture is a lot of people assume when they think about timber buildings in Scandinavia, just due to the tradition of building and wood, doesn't mean necessarily that you're taking the next step to building tall and big in engineered wood. So of course what we see is a lot of different legislations and codes in Europe, a lot of different backgrounds. I mean certain countries we see of course the countries which traditionally have a lot of timber, they used to build in timber and they're also a bit quicker to adapt in general to the modern timber construction. So, they were a bit early to adapt, as I mentioned before, Switzerland, Germany and Austria for example, but also Norway and Sweden. And then there are countries which maybe traditionally have built more in stone and bricks.

Bricks were really important here in Denmark. And then later on the concrete industry stepped in. So Denmark has been doing a great job in going forward in prefabrication of concrete. So they're really good at that. And that was also the difficult part and maybe bringing the timber in because they were doing so great in the concrete construction, why would they need to change? But of course now the mindset is changing. People are understanding that due to sustainability and so on, now we really should focus on other materials. But there can maybe also be an advantage, this kind of being used to prefabrication that we can prefabricate in timber as well and use some of the same principles and going forward there. But I mean Henning Larsen is not only designing in Denmark, so I'm really working in a lot of different countries and of course every country comes with its own challenges but also benefits. We're trying to work with local engineers and so on to help us understand the legislation and also bring forward the best possible solution in the local context.

Adam Jones (10:41):
So I'm interested to know what is the status quo generally where you are, and I think you might've mentioned about brick and go into concrete and where does timber, what can it replace right now in where you own buildings specifically, whether it's apartments or offices or hotel, whatever it might be to sort of help with the sustainability side of things that we need to make change on?

Fabia Baumann (11:08):
We're attending Larsen currently, I mean we're designing a lot of offices headquarter, but also public buildings, schools and so on. So I think there's a great market basically for all different kind of topologist for timber. Of course some of them might be easier to move into the timber. I mentioned a big logistics center before that we build in timber. Now that might be more a kind of front runner project currently, but I think especially housing and offices is just a really great and also big mass markets where we can adopt to timber currently. And I mean there's such a big mass of buildings being constructed and also a big urgency of course to change the way we build to save more CO2. And I think there we also have a big maybe leverage or a big tool to change the building markets if we focus on these kind of mass markets.

Of course, it's always amazing and exciting if we have this kind of lighthouse projects like a world of Wall War experience center. I mean they're amazing. They also really showcase what is possible in timber and they're also a great lighthouse to visitors being like, oh, if we actually can build such a big thing, why shouldn't I build something smaller in timber for myself? So, they are very, very necessary as well in the whole context, but we just should understand and try to build more of the mass markets in timber and trying to get our foot more into that area as well. Now,

Adam Jones (13:03):
One of the things that I'm interested in is measuring sustainability because I'm not sure if it's very well consistent and not so subjective where you are, but in Australia sometimes some assumptions have such a big impact on the building and if you include biogenic carbon or not, it's, it just looks like a totally different building just based on little assumptions. So maybe if you just let us know how it's going on your side of the world on that and what are your general thoughts on everything there?

Fabia Baumann (13:38):
Absolutely. I mean, that's of course a very, very tricky one, calculating carbon. It's basically done differently in every single country. I've seen an overview over just over Europe how you calculate biogenic carbon, and it's really different for every country. So what Denmark introduced was mandatory LCA calculations for building. Then buildings bigger than 1000 square meters from I think two years ago they introduced it. So this pushed us forward in the sense of we really have to design for carbon now. We really have to consider it in all of our project. It's not just some kind of fluffy wish to be more sustainable. We actually have to fulfill certain targets and that really helps us. Of course, we are very much bound into the ways that carbon is calculated in our legislation here in Denmark. So, there are strict rules about, for example, you have to calculate timber being incinerated after 50 years for example.

And we might debate that because maybe that's not our reality. Maybe we design for disassembly so we can reuse recycle after 50 years. We might have completely different ways of using the timber in 50 years, but that's the status quo or the current status. Of course, in the way we calculate, we try to give suggestions being like, Hey, actually if we design for this assembly and we reuse, we might have way better numbers in the end than what we're calculating currently. But I mean that's more of a political question and of course it's very difficult and understanding also complete spectrum of all the decision makers that are talking into these topics. But this definitely a change needed and maybe also a more unified system on how biogenic carbon is calculated in LCAs.

Adam Jones (15:57):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean there's a question I've got here that I asked people in USA Canada is maybe similar or different around the world, but what are the major bottlenecks or things that are stopping buildings going ahead for you? And maybe it's good to ask from a context in Switzerland or Germany or the more mature markets versus the more emerging timber markets like Denmark.

Fabia Baumann (16:22):
Yeah, absolutely. I mean there are definitely certain questions and worries that come up from the client side in every project, no matter where we design. Those are the classic ones. Like what is with fire, safety, humidity, moisture, maybe acoustics, but of course the economic aspect of it as well. Does it cost more? Can we get insurance for the building? These are quite universal questions of course. And then if you go into a market like Denmark, of course we have to check what are the legislations. So when we compare to a country like Germany for example, when we look at how we design in timber in Denmark, there are some rules especially in fire safety that are really too difficult to get around things like how much exposed timber you can have. So sometimes we don't want any suspended ceiling. We would like to, for example, show a CLT ceiling or maybe a wall or something.

But in general, we are only allowed to expose 20% of the timber within a room or a building and the rest has to be covered. So, in practice, that mostly means that we have to add fire gypsum at the bottom of a
CLTs lab. For example, here in Denmark, when you look to Norway, they calculate it differently. They use a lot of sprinkler systems and so on to mitigate the risk of the incineration of the CLT, and they deal with it differently and they don't see their buildings as more prone to fire or anything than they do here in Denmark. So it's really, the legislations also dictate a lot how our buildings can look in the end, like the aesthetics, but also in Switzerland of course, I mean in general the further, I mean that's my own opinion. The further of course a country is in terms of implementation of timber in their buildings, the more open the legislations are.

Or maybe some countries like Denmark are still very focused on solutions for concrete. So you can basically open a catalog and choose a solution for fire safety that fits to any kind of brick or concrete building, but you don't really find anything for timber yet. So countries that are further, like Switzerland, Germany, they do already have some standard solution, which of course makes it much, much easier to implement timber in some kind of a mass market because it can be difficult, it can be expensive time consuming to always get specialized engineers onto each project that will do some fire calculations and so on for you. So I think yes, going back to the question, what are risks and so on and there I would say yes, legislations are definitely a big part of these kind of question, what is actually possible? How can we get a building that in the end meets the economics that we wish for the price and where we actually can solve all the regulations like fire safety and so on, and still keep the aesthetic image that we have. For example, having a lot of exposed timber if that's what you're going for. I mean it would be sad for the client obviously aiming for a building with a lot of timber and then figuring out, oh, it's actually not possible in your country.

Adam Jones (20:42):
Yeah, that's so interesting. And then it seems like the legislation's deal with country by country, not like an umbrella euro code there is for design. But I found that interesting and the idea of legislation maybe being slow to move and then you've got the pushing where I guess the public sector is trying to be progressive on sustainability and there's that balance of risk I guess that they're handling at the moment. I mean, what are your thoughts on the general move forward from a sustainability point of view from the public sector and the public buildings and do you have any, I think you mentioned on Denmark you've measuring, but do you have any more broader thoughts on that?

Fabia Baumann (21:25):
I mean Europe is definitely moving forward in that sense, sorry. So what we do see is that, I mean the general public, so the people are definitely more focused on designing sustainably that can also be big investors that sometimes are, for example, pension funds and zone going for more sustainable solutions. So of course that benefits me in wanting to push forward with timber and other biogenic materials. But we do definitely see changes in legislation. For example, Norway's usually quite far ahead in terms of introducing rules of a lot of their public buildings have to be in timber and they have to meet the specific CO2 targets and so on. So, they basically make it impossible using other materials than timber or biogenic materials. And I think that is a really, really big factor because a lot of project, of course the money will decide in the end what is built for.

I mean, we can always hope for the client that is going the extra mile, but of course if the legislation is asking for timber is asking for the meeting specific CO2 values, then that's what brings the mass market forward. That's what brings the public sector to build in timber. And I think it's a very liberating in a way as well, going into competition and knowing the baseline is this building is going to be built in timber or with other biogenic materials. So it's not like you enter competition and you have to pitch the timber and fight for actually them listening to you and being like, yeah, great idea, but no thank you. I mean it's too big of a risk. So it's really nice because then you actually can focus all of your energy in making the best timber building possible when you already know this is going to be in timber. You don't have to compete to any material that might be cheaper. The client is on the same side as you really can pitch the best timber building that you can come forward with. And I think that's very liberating and that's also the way forward how it should be. Maybe not so much materials competing, but more again the design and the best solutions.

Adam Jones (24:21):
Yeah, a hundred percent. And I mean that leads very well into the closing questions on what do you see as the biggest innovations going forward in construction? And I think you've mentioned a couple of times, maybe other biomaterials potentially. So, is there keen for you to speak more generally about innovation and are there any emerging materials that get you excited that have big potential in the future?

Fabia Baumann (24:45):
I mean, absolutely. I mean, of course I'm a timber engineer, so I'm slightly biased towards this material. I still believe in timber being a really big piece in the puzzle of solving our climate crisis and how we can deal with the need in construction in constructing buildings and still meeting the CO2 values. But timber is not the only solution. We have to remember that because if 100% of the world starts to build in timber, we have very many new problems in terms of forest depletion. We will harvest too much timber and so on. So always of course focus on using sustainably timber from sustainably managed forests and so on. And additionally, we should look more into using alternative materials. I mean, we can slowly build up the use of these than a lot of new interesting materials emerging. We have been using eelgrass for example, seaweed for acoustic ports and so on.

So, I mean the bigger demand there is the more of these alternative products will also emerge. So it's definitely interesting looking into them now before it's too late because maybe we don't have any, I dunno, raw materials for the other products left. So bamboo, I think bamboo will also get more importance in terms of structural material. It'll definitely be interesting. Can we produce bamboo for the mass market as well here maybe in Europe, bamboo glulam or something. I mean that could be something to help timber not being only bio-based structural material. Then I mentioned eelgrass, of course, a lot of natural fibers, especially in terms of insulation to not only base on foam products for insulation or glass and rock wool, which are of course needing high temperatures, CO2 intents and so on to produce. So, I think we should look more into these and really there to use them.

And we've been using them in some of our projects and we had a very interesting project of a quite small school. It was an extension to a school here in Denmark, but we really managed to use a lot of these small or biogenic materials in that project. And that was just such a big learning for us. And of course the client as well. The client was very happy with the extension of the school. And for us it was a big learning using these materials first in a small scale, and now we're actually using them in a bigger scale in our other projects as well. And it's just important to be open and look into alternatives. We shouldn't forget that timber isn't the only alternative, even though of course I love working with it, but there's definitely a lot more materials coming and I hope we don't only use it when we don't have any other choice, but we already start looking into them now.

Adam Jones (28:25):
Yeah, that's beautifully said. And I remember one day I was looking at the actual numbers of concrete production and it's like crazy numbers. It's so high. And that's with steel above 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions to make a dent in it. And you need a lot of solutions, basically. To your point, timber can't do everything.

Fabia Baumann (28:48):

Adam Jones (28:49):
It's an amazing note to end on Fabia, if people want to learn more about yourself, some of the things we've been speaking about or is there anywhere people should be pointed to check out on the back of this conversation.

Fabia Baumann (29:03):
Thank you very much.

Adam Jones (29:04):
Yeah, cool.

Fabia Baumann (29:05):
Thanks for having me.

Adam Jones (29:06):
Thanks so much, Fabia. That was amazing.

Are you looking for a supplier?

Start Your Search

Social Media Feeds