RODERICK WILES, AHEC director for Africa, Middle East, India and Oceania, highlights why designers and architects of educational institutes are turning to wood as an alternative material.
AMONGST his many achievements, celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for saying: “Wood is the most humanly intimate of all materials. Man loves his association with it, likes to feel it under his hand, sympathetic to his touch and to his eye. Wood is universally beautiful to man.”
This is difficult to dispute and there is no doubt that a space with wood in it – whether it is used in the wall panelling, flooring, furniture or all three – is simply a better place to be.
This is a widely accepted notion amongst many designers and, in particular, those involved in creating spaces in which to learn. However, when it comes to designing an educational facility, architects and designers must balance the reality of limited financial resources with the desire to provide students with an exceptional learning environment that is warm and enriching. As a result, many are choosing to use wood as both a structural and finish material.
The reality is that while demand for education is growing, budgets for new educational facilities are shrinking, which has forced many school districts to look at wood-frame construction for its cost effectiveness. However, they’re also finding that, in addition to less expensive material costs, wood offers other advantages such as speed of construction, design versatility and the ability to meet green building goals, while creating positive learning environments and meeting all code and safety requirements.
Warmth is another reason why architects and building designers like to use wood in schools. Many feel that exposed wood enhances learning by providing an inviting and enriching environment. In addition, wood provides visual interest and softens interior spaces. As a result, it makes learning more comfortable for students than steel or concrete, both of which can have a cold, institutional feel.
In a three-year study of 700 schools, Japanese researchers studied how the educational environment is shaped by the type of materials used for school buildings, surveying teachers and students to measure their impression of wood versus reinforced concrete. Both groups had similar, favourable impressions of wood over concrete. Results also showed that teachers and students in wooden buildings felt less fatigue, and that students perceived schools with larger areas of wooden interiors to be brighter than reinforced concrete structures.
Most education experts also agree that a school’s design affects how well students learn and, by extension, how well the school serves its community. Globally, a number of current trends favour wood being used to design schools. A ‘warm learning environment’ is one of the primary requests from parents and other advisors in the school design process.
Schools are increasingly used for community events and wood’s natural beauty provides a welcoming environment for public gatherings while instilling civic pride. Most architects take a collaborative approach to the design process, seeking input from school and community leaders as well as parents. Educators are increasingly grouping students by learning styles, which results in the need for flexible building configurations to accommodate classrooms of various sizes. Wood’s design versatility is well-suited to this requirement.
In addition, a 2007 study by McGraw-Hill Construction found that the education sector was the fastest growing market for green building. The report also noted “an increasingly widespread adoption of policies that require public buildings to have green characteristics”.
Widely recognised for its environmental attributes, wood is well positioned to help schools meet their green building requirements. More importantly, wood is also the only major building material that is both renewable and sustainable over the long term – and the only material with third-party certification programmes in place to verify that products being sold originate from a sustainably managed resource.
Independent life cycle assessment (LCA) studies show that wood has significantly less embodied energy than materials such as steel and concrete. Embodied energy is the energy needed to extract, process, manufacture, transport and maintain a material or product. Wood also outperforms other materials in terms of air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and offers more efficient resource use. And, because wood continues to store the carbon absorbed by growing trees (it is 50 per cent carbon by weight), it’s an important tool in the fight against climate change.
Today, the US is the number one supplier of temperate hardwoods to the Gulf and, American species are being used in a wide range of new projects, including hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, villas and even schools and universities, such as Al Bateen Secondary School, the Zayed University and the upcoming New York University, all situated in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Given that globally accepted green building standards are being implemented across the region, American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), the leading international trade association for the American hardwood industry, aims to ensure that sustainably managed US hardwoods receive full environmental recognition, thereby allowing architects and specifiers to select the material on the basis of full environmental disclosure.