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What challenges are facing architects today when it comes to product specification? And what can manufacturers do to help? Building Design spoke to over 300 architects to find out, including Tom Waddicor from Maccreanor Lavington 

Tom Waddicor

Tom Waddicor, associate architect at Maccreanor Lavington

Architects and urbanists Maccreanor Lavington have a portfolio of projects that spans housing, schools and community buildings, workspace, shops and urban mixed-use. The practice uses timber extensively in its projects and, when it comes to specification, sustainable choices are very much front of mind. We spoke to associate architect Tom Waddicor.

What are the issues currently impacting on specification and how are these changing?

There are two main issues: the climate emergency and changes in regulation – specifically fire regulations. In fire safety we’re dealing with the fact that not only have the regulations changed for residential buildings of at least 18m in height, but there is also an ongoing anxiety and perception of risk affecting buildings of under 18m. We do not have a static environment and things may continue to change.

Are any design trends having an impact - if so, what?

In the education sector specifically, volumetric design and modern methods of construction is still being very keenly pursued by many commissioners, and is a key part of the Department for Education’s strategy to tackle embodied carbon in the school estate.

How are you responding to these challenges?

We’re responding with enthusiasm and caution. It’s a tightrope at the moment, balancing the urgent need to tackle low carbon, not just in use but in construction, and meeting the shifting regulatory landscape for non-combustibility in buildings.

Where do you turn for information on product specification issues?

We engage with manufacturers and suppliers, trade and research bodies such as the Timber Research and Development Association, third parties such as warranty providers and, of course, standards documents and statutory instruments.

How confident are you in these sources of information?

One obviously has to take a pragmatic view about information that comes from manufacturers and suppliers – but they are also often best placed to help on issues around specification. Having a good spread of sources and verification from multiple parties – including independent bodies – is important to us in making informed decisions.

“It’s a tightrope at the moment, balancing the urgent need to tackle low carbon, not just in use but in construction, and meeting the shifting regulatory landscape for non- combustibility in buildings.”

What are the issues or topics where specification knowledge is lacking?

There is still a challenge in accessing the necessary information to meet new fire regulations and a lag in testing and certification.

Working with MMCs requires greater scrutiny in terms of procurement and lines of responsibility. As the name suggests, MMCs are relatively new – so there isn’t that body of experience to fall back on in the industry, but we believe the investment in research and deeper understanding is worthwhile.

As a practice, we work with cross-laminated timber in the education sector and timber to a lesser extent in housing. Particularly for residential, that can be challenging. That’s because it is a fairly new technology and, relatively speaking, there is not a huge amount of test data in existence, with relatively small players in the MMC market struggling to gain the level of access to test facilities that large players have. A lack of testing data makes it very difficult to specify products.

What do you think would help improve knowledge on challenging specification issues - and how could manufacturers help?

Greater collaboration from manufacturers would be hugely beneficial. The biggest challenges in certification and approvals come from mixing different systems; it’s an approach one always wants to avoid but sometimes is the only option to meet conflicting demands.

In order to continue driving innovation and answering some of the big questions the industry faces, we need a shared commitment from manufacturers to work together to expedite change.

What product developments would you like to see to ease some of these challenges?

If anyone could crack non-combustible timber, that would be an absolute game-changer.