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Working lives - Wooden heart

Timber - Innovation in timber is an ongoing love affair for Gordon Cowley.

It may be nostalgia but Gordon Cowley fancies a return to his roots designing and constructing timber I-beams and trussed rafters.

'Trussed rafters are a miracle of technical achievement, ' he says. 'They have broken on the construction market so insidiously that there's never been a point where the breakthrough has been recognised.

It's like they've always been there.'

Lightweight trussed rafters are used in the roofs of buildings the world over.

Factory made and weighing only around 50kg for a 8m-10m span, they create enormous savings by lightening the burden on load bearing walls. Workers are able to handle and install them with relative ease.

'Now their sale is explosive. They're a simple product backed up by really brilliant design and manufacturing software - they're a technical advancement of considerable magnitude, ' Cowley enthuses.

Cowley's combined creativity and expertise in the use of structural timber helped deliver the Scottish Parliament and the bizarre gridshell bridge featured in this week's issue. Now 63, he played a major part in the trussed girder revolution in the mid 1970s when his then employer bought machinery capable of increasing output from '30 a day using hammer and nails' to several hundred. 'We were one of the first firms to take that step.'

In 1977 Cowley put the same machinery to work on the production of timber I-beams, lightweight composite alternatives to solid timber joists and beams. Timber I-beams have taken time to catch on, but now they look set to chase trussed girders into the construction mainstream.

Cowley set up on his own in 1980 as a link between the European suppliers of what was then relatively exotic glue-lam technology, and the UK construction industry.

As suppliers and buyers grew increasingly comfortable with one another, Cowley's firm, Cowley Timber Engineering, started to specialise in the fabrication of complex three-dimensionally curved structural timber forms. He has carved out a niche for himself as a specialist subcontractor par excellence, capable of delivering solutions to seemingly impossible architectural challenges.

A list of recent jobs reads like a who's who of acclaimed architectural projects, including organic reading 'pods' inside London's Peckham Library and the sweeping, UFO-like ovoid of Napier University's new lecture theatre, as well as the Scottish Parliament roof.

'Peckham Library punched us into the big time, ' Cowley notes. 'The pods took one and three quarter man years to draw, which these days represents an extreme case. Architects' grasp of true geometry is coming on as well, which makes life a lot easier for us.'

Cowley came up from the tools with a little inspiration from his dad, an 'independent thinker', inventor and furniture maker.

On leaving school Cowley went to work for a local factory, producing parts for moulded plywood De Havilland aeroplanes.

Innovation in the use of timber is a constant theme he can trace back to his teens.

Aged 29, in 1970, Cowley moved from the shop floor to the design office and found that 'designers didn't know what the shop floor was doing'. Bringing knowledge of construction to design is the cornerstone of his business, and Cowley prides himself on bringing his own workers up from the tools if they show an interest in and aptitude for design.

His designers' skill shone through on the Scottish Parliament project. The CAD model they developed for the roof proved so much better than that of the main project team that it was adopted to check for structural clashes.

And it is the failure of clients and main contractors to value what he brings to a project that gets Cowley down.

Last year Cowley Timber Engineering folded after struggling to claw payment from its debtors. The experience was the final stage in what Cowley feels has been a downward spiral of placing price over quality and dumping risk on subbies.

Now afloat again as Timber Engineering Connections, Cowley is ultra risk averse - he won't touch a contract of over two pages long. But he reports a healthy order book and is enjoying preparations for his next project, the doubly curved soffit of a lecture theatre at Birmingham Medical School. He also thinks there is a market for another Cowley first - a one piece, stringless, zig-zag plywood staircase.

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