The university of wood

Part of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and designated as ancient woodland Hooke Park can trace its history back to the Middle Ages. Today it is owned and maintained by the Architectural Association – the UK’s oldest architectural school – and is a thriving hotbed of creative thinking, cutting edge design, imaginative engineering and innovative solutions to contemporary problems.

The 150-hectare working forest sits comfortably in the agricultural landscape to the southeast of Beaminster and for most of its life was part of a private deer park until in 1947 it was almost completely clear felled to provide timber for post-war construction. Bought by the Forestry Commission in 1949 it was replanted over the next few years with a variety of species and much of the park’s spruce, beech and oak date from this period.

In 1976 internationally renowned furniture maker John Makepeace, who owned nearby Parnham House, set up the School for Craftsmen in Wood, which evolved into the School for Woodland Industries as an extension of Parnham College. The school buildings were designed in collaboration with distinguished architects Richard Burton, Frei Otto and Edward Cullinan before, in 2000, the site was handed on to the Architectural Association and has since flourished as the AA’s woodland campus. It now runs Masters degrees called Design & Make in Architecture and Science, with plans to introduce an MA, as well as a series of courses open to the public and a summer participation programme in building construction alongside the Design & Make students.

At any one time of the year there are up to 40 people studying and working on the campus, which is still growing with new buildings designed and constructed by students to specific briefs.

The complexity of building sensitively in the woodland environment is at once a challenge and an opportunity for the students. All the buildings are part of a planning-approved master plan for the campus and though experimental pieces of learning the buildings are also new workshops, accommodation, studios and functional spaces that must comply with building regulations.

They must also be funded through donation as the AA is an educational charity, but other than that, the only limits are those of the imagination and the properties of the timber growing on the site.

‘We’re pretty much unique in that students create real-world buildings for the campus, but in an environment that encourages experimentation and risk taking,’ says Martin Self, director of Hooke Park, explaining how the visually stunning reciprocal framed structure of the Timber Seasoning Shelter came to be designed and built in a way that tested the viability of steam-bent beech timber.

Even more dramatic is the cathedral-like Woodchip Barn, built just off campus on the site of the old sawmill where a new one is also under construction. The barn was completed last year to store fuel for the campus biomass boiler and is a dramatic monument to the craft of forward thinking. Tree forks, where branches form from the main trunk, are among nature’s strongest structures yet are often seen as woodland waste, unwanted by sawmills, loggers or chippers.

So why not utilise that strength and join forks together to make an incredibly robust structure? It sounds simple enough, but even with the benefit of cutting edge digital technology it’s not.

Hooke Parks seasoning shelter. Photo © Valerie Bennett

Using 3D scans of beech trees and bespoke evolutionary algorithms developed by the students new computer software is able to determine which forks should be used where in the building’s design. Hooke Park is pioneering the use of robotics in milling and the school’s new robotic arm, repurposed from industrial manufacturing, was programmed to cut each component and drill the connections.

‘Seeing how our programmers work is like watching craftsmen at work, they are effectively working with a new craft,’ says Hooke Park’s estate manager Jez Ralph, who also points out there’s still a vital part to be played by time-honoured craft timber skills.

‘To work wood you have to know how it feels and how it behaves. Wood is not an homogenous product like steel or concrete, it is organic, it has lived and no two pieces are the same.’

The point is demonstrated well in the Boiler House. The beating heart of Hooke Park the biomass boiler heats the entire campus and is afforded all due importance in the design of its housing, which is made entirely from bent wood that would otherwise be left to rot as it can’t be put through industrial chipping or logging machines. Again, 3D scans were made of bent wood poles and a computer programme identified precisely which curves should be cut from which pole and how they should fit together in order to match the design. It’s impressive.

‘Yes, but it could have fallen apart or rotted out in no time if it wasn’t for the craft knowledge that comes from working with timber. There’s a lot of detailing in the construction that is absolutely essential for its durability – things like the drip cuts made so that water doesn’t run completely around the exposed ends and the tension cuts that allow for movement in the wood.’

There’s a philosophy at work at Hooke Park that goes back to the time of John Makepeace and it’s to do with finding worth in low value wood. The buildings, such as the Refectory and the Workshop, that date from that era are made of narrow roundwood Norway spruce poles that would otherwise have been discarded. Designed by Richard Burton and Frei Otto, the Refectory – where students, tutors and staff all sit down together to eat – was conceived as a potential house and the Workshop boasts a remarkable vaulted ceiling, both created from apparently inferior material.

That design ethos lives on and the two-bedroom lodges from 2013 and 2014 were designed to a brief for student housing. The South Lodge flooring is made from beech and the timber window frames are spruce with a sweet chestnut laminate on the outside of the window frames for stability and resilience. The furniture, also made from beech, was made in collaboration with students from the Boat Building Academy at Lyme Regis.

‘English beech was planted mainly for a furniture industry that no longer exists and today it goes mostly for firewood, but we’ve used it for flooring and it works really well. It also cleans up beautifully for interior cladding. There is so much beech in southern England and it is coming to the end of its useful life, soon it will rot.’

from left: Richard Burton, John Makepeace and Frei Otto

With its eye-catching architecture and scenic location it’s easy to forget Hooke Park is a place of learning. Students used to arrive and be shocked at how far they were from the Architectural Association’s central London HQ, but now courses are routinely over subscribed and the industry kudos attracted by recent constructions such as the Woodchip Barn is pushing the stock of its qualifications ever higher.

Hooke Park is also keen to play a part in the wider community, from supplying local sawmills and wood workers, to hosting open days, family events and evening lectures and talks. Under the watchful eye of forester Chris Sadd, who has worked there for more than 30 years, there’s a diverse mix of tree species that includes oak, beech, sequoia, western red cedar and Douglas fir, as well as an ancient willow coppice and groves of ash, alder, hazel and poplar. There are public rights of way through the forest and a network of paths and tracks that are further illuminated at this time of year by some of Dorset’s most impressive bluebell displays.

‘We want the public to come in and be interested in what we’re doing here, to explore the forest and discover the importance of well managed woodland to good contemporary building techniques,’ says Jez. ‘Our open days are very popular, especially since we were featured on the BBC’s Countryfile.’

As historic as Hooke Park undoubtedly is, for all its firm sense of place and past its primary concerns are very much to do with the future. From the training of young architects who will design the public buildings of tomorrow, to the 50-year rotation of tree crops and the ash that awaits its fate at the hands of chalara dieback or the emerald ash beetle – there’s even a three-year plan to grow and cut grasses to create an organic layer that will pave the way for kitchen gardens and a green courtyard between the student lodges. The future starts here.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine

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