School of Civil Engineering

This article was first published on Timber Trader News.

Building links between fabricators and researchers is just one of the goals behind the team planning the 5th Pacific Timber Engineering Conference.

In July 2019, some of the biggest names in timber construction will gather in Brisbane for the 5th Pacific Timber Engineering Conference (PTEC 2019).

Run by the Australian Research Council Future Timber Hub, together with the UQ School of Civil Engineering, PTEC 2019 aims to bring young and experienced academics together with practitioners, researchers and developers to share the latest developments in research and application of timber in construction.

The three-day conference program features world-renowned experts from multiple fields and concerns regarding timber construction, from fire safety to logistics.

It aims to not only bring new information in the field to participants, but to foster a sense of common cause between different parts of the timber construction industry, from engineers and manufacturers to designers and builders.

The overall goal of conference organisers is increasing the number of timber buildings in Australia – from tall and mid-rise to domestic structures.

And that’s not just self-interest from those working in the sector; timber is the most sustainable construction material we currently build in, which makes it a vital part of a low-carbon future.

Sponsorship and exhibitor positions are still open for the conference (see the end of story for details), and a reception and banquet dinner will form part of the event.

For details, visit www.civil.uq.edu.au/5th-pacific-timber-engineering-conference-ptec-2019

On the schedule

Associate Professor Dilum Fernando from the UQ School of Civil Engineering researches innovative applications of materials (including new materials) and sustainable design.

Fernando is a leading voice in the conference’s local organising committee.

“We have a range of topics that we are going to cover in this conference,” he says, “but I think if I am to pick some of the most exciting topics, those would be the fire safety of timber buildings, then engineered timber products, the construction of timber buildings – especially automation in construction – and then sustainability.”

Professor Jose Torero will be leading the discussion on fire safety.

He’s a renowned researcher on the topic and Head of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London.

His work at the University of Edinburgh helped show that fires in compartments made of cross-laminated timber (CLT) can self-extinguish without intervention – results that have been replicated in research at UQ.

“Professor Jose Torero is one of the top fire experts in the world,” says Fernando.

“We will also hear from Craig Gibbons from Arup [an independent firm of designers, planners and engineers specialising in the built environment], who will be talking about fire aspect from the practitioner’s point of view.”

One obstacle to increased timber use as a construction material in Australia is the perception it’s a fire risk: both in the mind of the average lay person and in some of our standards.

It’s led to our use of timber in larger structures going backwards over time.

“The reality of Australia is that in 1913 we built Perry House, now known as the Royal Albert Hotel in Brisbane,” says Fernando.

“That is an eight-storey [now nine, an extra storey was added in 1923] building that was the tallest timber structure in the Southern Hemisphere at that time. Now most of our timber buildings are one- or two-storey, mainly due to regulatory constraints.”

Those regulatory constraints are based on the perception ‘timber burns’, however timber burns very slowly and has the ability to self-extinguish. Fernando uses the example of setting a fire in a hearth: the large logs we use for the main part of the fire last a long time. “Once timber chars, it burns very slowly,” he says.

The Edinburgh and UQ experimenters built compartments using CLT panels and showed they had the ability to self-extinguish once the fuel (furniture, carpets, curtains, etc) in a room is burnt out.

As Fernando says, “The charring layer keeps the burning very slow and, once the fire takes the fuel load out, it allows self-extinguishment, provided the building is properly designed.

“Even in buildings where the timbers don’t self-extinguish, the slow burning due to charring means the building loses its structural capacity more slowly than a steel or concrete building, giving people more time to evacuate. For buildings that are built to standards that allow self-extinguishment once the fuel load is gone, the structure can actually survive the fire.”

Changing such outdated perceptions of timber, both in the eyes of the public and the regulatory authorities, is one of the key goals of the conference team.

Clever construction

Other key speakers include Professor Frank Lam from the University of British Columbia, who will be talking about building design and construction, and Professor Minjuan He from China, who will be talking about the construction of timber structures in China.

China and Canada have both seen their timber industries take up new construction methods and advanced materials in recent years.

Offering faster build times and much lighter structures compared to steel and concrete, timber is an attractive option, and there are lessons to be learned from the international experiences.

“In China there is a lot of push towards precast volumetric construction,” says Fernando, “where they build the whole units and then come and install them. There is quite an interest in these pod technologies, especially in Melbourne.”

International experiences aren’t identical and don’t translate linearly to Australia. Yet, as Fernando says, “There’s quite a lot that’s common irrespective of wherever you go in terms of the construction. But then there are certain technologies that vary in their availability from country to country, for example, the regulatory requirements, the traditional construction techniques, the material availability… How those countries overcame those constraints we are currently facing are very important lessons we can learn. And also, how did these new technologies perform against their conventional construction technologies?”

One strong recent development in timber nationally and internationally is the increase in automation.

Engineered timber product and mass timber construction often require extremely precise fabrication, which has led to an increased reliance on automation for at least parts of the manufacturing process.

“The next part of it is how do we make the assembly process on site automated?” Fernando asks. While skilled builders are important, so is the need to lower the risk to workers on high- and mid-rise construction and to optimise efficiencies. “I think there is probably a long way to go in this, but the path towards bringing in this technology has already started with work done in Germany.

“In terms of the fabrication side of the precast elements, there is already construction with CNC machines and using robot arms. I know that in Australia Hyne Timber has invested a lot in terms of moving into this digital fabrication space. That shows how much the industry is thinking about moving in this direction.”

This need to work with industry is central to the work being done at PTEC 2019. Two other key speakers are Anna Charalambous and Ben Owen from Lendlease. “They are the experts who led the design and construction of the Melbourne Forte building and 25 King in Brisbane, the world’s tallest timber office building,” says Fernando.

The Lendlease team will talk about the practicalities of their building process and also the reasons behind the company’s shift into tall timber construction. The central reason is, as always in business, cost. New construction technologies must represent a saving over the old, and the time and project efficiencies represented by engineered timber products and offsite construction more than tick this box for large developers.

But these technologies have been slow to trickle out into the wider construction industry in Australia, and this concerns Fernando. “This is the second part of it,” he says. “The education: how do we transfer the knowledge? That transfer of knowledge needs to pick up the interest groups for different things.

“For example, courses in the universities will be able to effectively transfer these technologies and how to design to engineers. But how do we actually integrate the construction methodologies into our designs? And how are those construction methodologies transferred to the builder? Getting the builders themselves involved in our designs, getting their experience and knowledge integrated into our designs – I think that is also very important.”

The PTEC organisers see the future of design and construction as all parties getting together at the same table, looking at every aspect of the design and construction and working together to produce technologies that tackle the performance requirements of every aspect – design, construction and maintenance. Fernando also wants a cross-disciplinary approach to “coming up with the training modules to educate each and every sector. I think that is where we have the potential to fast-track our technologies and become a world leader in timber engineering.”

Sustainability

The last key platform of the conference is sustainability. Again, research is being driven by a combination of need and innovation.

Timber construction has already been identified as a practical way to help limit CO2 emissions.

One way to help meet our climate commitments is simply to increase the amount of timber used in construction.

“If we can get through timber-first policies at both government and private levels, that could significantly affect the market growth for timber,” says Fernando.

Of course, as we have seen in recent years, with growing demands, timber supply can’t always keep up. This is where engineering solutions become important.

As Fernando says, “If we can come up with more efficient structural designs while looking at better performance for the same amount of material we use, then we are going to be able to meet those demands.

Currently, most buildings are significantly over-engineered for purpose, even given the increasing extreme weather conditions in our changing climate. If the quality of construction itself can be improved, and the materials made more consistent, with fully understood qualities, then, Fernando says, “we can come up with better-engineered systems where we could distribute our loads much more efficiently.”

Current research projects at UQ are progressing down this road, including fibre and timber hybrid technologies that allow both the structures themselves and the construction processes to become more efficient.

“The ultimate goal is, how do we make construction even more sustainable by reducing resource consumption?” Fernando asks. The answer involves many parts, but at its heart is being able to reduce the amount of material in buildings to the most efficient level while maintaining safety.

Fernando’s own research interests focus on the lifetime of the building.

“Looking at whole lifecycle performance is essential the moment we start talking about sustainability,” he says, “because design and construction are not detached from maintenance. How we design and how we construct the building affects what maintenance it will need.”

Understanding that lifecycle requires information. Leading manufacturers are already starting to adopt BIM (Building Information Modelling) technologies and asset management tools have become central to planning.

“These technologies, together with the advancement of other technologies, are essential parts of working towards more effective designs, looking at the whole lifecycle performance and also the construction,” Fernando says.

“BIM, to me, is a wonderful tool. It allows us to really look at the information of the buildings at different stages. We can even embed sensors to monitor the building’s performance, which give us feedback and mean we can, if necessary, take corrective actions for any problems we face in the future.” Perhaps no more Opal Tower sagas.

Fernando sees the conference as part of a gentle culture change that the industry needs for success.

“In the past, especially in Australia, there were not so many interactions between the industry and the universities, and we are currently seeing that changing. Only when the practitioners, the engineers and the economists can come together and interact with each other are we going to be able to come up with the best products. If we keep doing that, I don’t see how we would fail.”

Early bird tickets are available until Wednesday 15 May at www.civil.uq.edu.au/5th-pacific-timber-engineering-conference-ptec-2019. Interested sponsors and/or exhibitors should contact Kelly Rischmiller, ptec2019@civil.uq.edu.au or (07) 3443 1360.