By Benjamin Brits
With a passion for the experience that timber offers, architectural technologist and timber-product designer, Jacques Cronje, began his career in Knysna – where most of the pioneers in South Africa’s timber industry started.
Cronje kicked off his career by qualifying with a BSc in building management. Although from an early age he had keen interest in timber, this was frowned upon at the time in the construction world (being the late 80s). He recalls even wanting to do his final year thesis on timber construction but was recommended not to do so by his thesis supervisor.
HOW THINGS STARTED OUT
After obtaining his degree, Cronje opted to head off to the United Kingdom, and gain some work experience. On his return to South Africa, it was purely by chance that a friend was building a timber house for a client, and he was invited to help out.
Taking up that opportunity, Cronje started with the surveying and setting out , but soon realised he wanted to stay on. He took up the initiative and bought some tools and continued with the carpentry work and saw through to the completion of the house. It was at this point that he realised that this was where he was meant to be, what he wanted to do with his life.
“At that time there were very few companies specialising in timber buildings, and most were based in Knysna, so I went to see two companies there and was fortunately offered a position, and so I relocated,” says Cronje.
From then on, Cronje held various positions at different companies, from drawing and designs to construction management and consulting in timber construction. He was involved in a number of highly successful builds locally and internationally. Through his various roles he obtained certification as a senior architectural technologist which lead to the cross-over into the architectural world in his career, and this also opened up a niche opportunity as not many architects had been designing with wood back then.
It was shortly after completing the Bontebok National Park project that Cronje decided to start his own practice with the intention that his focus would be 100% on timber buildings to address the niche market he had observed. He moved to Cape Town and started Jacques Cronje Timber Design in 2007.
“If I had to summarise the start of my career I would say my love for timber took me to Knysna and I was embedded [at that time] in the heart of the timber industry, and also where timber construction was pioneered in South Africa,” says Cronje.
Not only is Cronje multi-talented in the construction space, he also branched out into timber product design in 2014. This was due to his interest in becoming more involved in digital fabrication, which at the time was also not a big element of the industry. It was through this product development that he would learn the CNC fabrication that is currently being seen in much of the architecture space and timberbuilding techniques in Europe. In future, Cronje aims to combine his experience in timber architecture and timber product development.
Cronje believes his inspiration comes from an affinity with nature, the same sentiments any person who is passionate about wood feels. Wood, being a natural product, has a good feel to it and generally people are attracted to it.
“There is no other material that, when you work with it, you want to run your hand over it and see how it feels – if you walk into a building that has timber wall panels or columns, standing next to a timber column you will touch it and feel it – it’s like an automatic response. You will rarely see someone touching a concrete column to see what it feels like – wood is an innate thing for humans that bonds to what we have inside ourselves,” says Cronje.
STANDARDS AND CERTIFICATION
Cronje is a member of the sub-committee that recently drafted the updates to the SANS-082 standard, the code for timber frame building in South Africa, and produced most of the diagrams for the standard. From a legal point of view, Cronje believes standards are important simply because you need assurance that if something goes wrong, you would be covered by laws or insurances. For example, if you build a guesthouse and the balustrades are not according tostandard, a guest may fall over it and you would be liable.
In Cronje’s opinion however, many South African standards are quite out-dated when compared to what is happening in the rest of the world, particularly around timber. Certain regulations are very conservative and also very restrictive. Considering timber buildings around the world, South Africa has a long way to go in terms of catching up. Cronje advises that companies and individuals should always perform their own due diligence, but stick to the regulations in place. Should an application require rational design, then this should be sought out.
“If you look at what is happening in countries like Canada, the US, and Australia, these countries are constructing 18-storey timber buildings, which shows that they are many years ahead of South Africa in terms of making the most of what timber has to offer,” notes Cronje.
WHY PROMOTE TIMBER
From a technical point of view, timber is a sustainable option. Cronje considers wood as a truly renewable resource and likens the use of timber in construction to that of, for example, using carrots in your meal – when you eat carrots you are not ‘using up’ the carrots, because more carrots are planted and this is exactly the same with the wood used in construction.
There are many cries of ‘we are using up all of the forests’ – but this is not the case at all – wood is a crop, you harvest it, you use it, replant and grow more, while at the same time storing carbon. Cronje further
notes an international study that shows an example of a replacement time, or re-growing time of wood used in a multi-storey timber building, which was as little as every 15 minutes.
“International organisations are able to determine very complex calculations in carbon footprints and growing times of various species of trees around the world, as far down to how much energy is used through electricity and transportation in a particular country when producing a timber product. South Africa for example, has a very high carbon footprint when it comes to electricity because we are coal-driven. We need to understand that there is a continuous production of wood and trees which are being grown across the globe to cater to timber construction, making wood a completely environmentally sustainable resource compared to other similar
products,” says Cronje.
Timber is also a precise material to work with, and also generally a cleaner material to work with. From a design point of view, Cronje adds, it requires more accuracy because it’s not like brickwork that will finish more or less in a particular position. Wood is designed according to exact dimensions and tolerances, which has its own challenges.
Cronje shares that one of his favourite projects was the Bontebok National Park – the little cottages that were built, and the milestone to the next steps in his career. The simple reason was that they were really compact units, with everyone having access to them. The client brief was to make these cottages as efficient as possible. The units were thus designed around modular sizes of wood and standard dimensions around everything including the decking and the structure. These units were not like conventional timber-framed buildings where you finish off with plaster boards or timber cladding – all the elements of the structure are exposed which clearly expresses the rational logic of the design.
“For me, the best part of any project is when it is only half built and you can see the structure and the logic behind the design. I also always look forward to my next project because that is where the design and initial concepts come in, which is exciting,” says Cronje.
WHAT CHANGES ARE IN STORE FOR THE SECTOR?
Perception. Cronje believes that timber buildings still suffer from a perception problem in South Africa, where conservative tastes still favour ‘solid’ brick and mortar construction, so if there is one thing he could change, it would be the perception around timber homes. Further, that more people could have the opportunity to live in and experience a timber home so that their ideas of this technology will change.
“Once people have lived in a timber home they almost always don’t want to change back. You find anecdotally that people love timber homes but too few people have the opportunity to live in them,” adds Cronje.