Assembling the mass timber adaptation in SA

By | 2020-11-25T09:27:03+00:00 November 25th, 2020|

By Leon Louw | All photos by Shaun Forster

Back in South Africa after working on various projects in Europe, Shaun Forster decided to activate his ‘trust in wood’ and establish a timber assembly business in his home country.

Shaun Forster inside a three-storey CLT structure.

Shaun Forster inside a three-storey CLT structure.

Timber iQ spoke to Shaun Forster about his passion for wood and how his CLT experiences have moulded his future plans.

Shaun, timber is your passion. Before lockdown you returned to South Africa after being involved with a few timber projects overseas. Tell us more.

About four years ago, I was given an unexpected invitation to work with Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), which I had no hesitation in accepting. I committed to the journey, a labour of love, which I realised would carry some short-term sacrifices. As they say, luck happens when preparation meets opportunity. This happened to me over lockdown – tangible business opportunities started to present themselves as people actively looked for alternative building solutions to extend or adapt their living and working spaces. So, my time in Europe was purely focused on maximising my exposure to and working knowledge of CLT, specifically the assembly phase.

(From left) Miki Racz, Shaun Forster’s teammate on one of the projects in Italy where they worked in teams of two screwing down the roof. Beside Miki is architect Andrei Bodnar. Shaun Foster is on the far right.

(From left) Miki Racz, Shaun Forster’s teammate on one of the projects in Italy where they worked in teams of two screwing down the roof. Beside Miki is architect Andrei Bodnar. Shaun Foster is on the far right.

The most recent project that I was involved in was in Romania where we worked on the construction of the biggest CLT timber structure in Eastern Europe for a tech corporate office. During my time in Italy, I met and worked with one of the pioneer assemblers in Rome, which was a fascinating and privileged experience, as they were the first adopters of CLT.

Prior to that, I worked on a timber school project in the outskirts of Rome and closer to the city, and erected houses in which hay was used as insulation material. During this time I got to experience and understand the CLT supply chain and connect with leading suppliers and producers in Germany and Italy. I also completed some technical, CLT and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) training at the Rotho School.

Training and skills development are a critical parts of the value chain. I got to meet with higher education institutions and training centres during this time and this knowledge transfer is taking place with two universities in South Africa, both in the Cape. It was a well-rounded experience which provided invaluable insights and a practical context that I am now able to apply in South Africa. What struck me most is that a business model as technically precise and systemically integrated as CLT cannot be effectively set-up without trust and collaboration in the value-chain and a deep respect and affinity for wood as a natural asset. I come from a family of skilled carpenters so the love of wood is, as they say, in my blood. I am most comfortable working with teams even when language and other barriers present personal challenges, as was the case working in Europe. One has to embrace change and diversity when working with innovative solutions. With this mindset and being South African, I turned the constraints into a learning opportunity. I now look forward to sharing this knowledge in South Africa through AdaptAbuild.

Where does your love for timber come from, and have you done any projects in Africa?

I have always been curious and intrigued with wood. My dad is a carpenter so my connection with wood started at a very young age. As youngster, I went on to build a patten and mould-making business with my father, which developed my manufacturing, operations, and supply chain experience. As a mountain-biker, I got to travel internationally to represent South Africa, but I knew that my desire was to work on projects across the world one day. After having sold my cycling retail business, things led me back to using my hands and I found myself working on new build projects on game lodges in South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique, including working with timber decking, barn building as well as tented camps projects. In 2016 I supervised a wooden private residence project in the Southern Cape before returning to Port Elizabeth. In May 2017, I received a call from a visionary leader in the Eastern Cape who had been tracking my building project work, joined the dots and identified me as the ideal candidate to work with a Europe-based investor to evaluate and position the CLT story in South Africa, including considering concept building. Thus began my CLT story.

Shaun with his CLT teacher, Constantin Tisteain, in Rome. They are standing in the interior of one of the houses in which hay was used as insulation material in the roof and walls.

Shaun with his CLT teacher, Constantin Tisteain, in Rome. They are standing in the interior of one of the houses in which hay was used as insulation material in the roof and walls.

It is great that you have gained experience and have knowledge about the timber industry and both Europe and in Africa. How different are the mindsets between the two, and how has your experience moulded your future plans?

The mindsets are significantly different, only because the industry is well-established in Europe where timber is the preferred construction material for housing, and high-rise building structures have long been used in the construction industry. In Europe there are excellent training facilities, and the engineering and assembly skills are of an extremely high standard, because their lifestyle choices, policies, systems, and skills development programmes are further progressed with regards to eco-friendly building alternatives.

South Africa is a brick-and-mortar country, and convincing people to build houses with timber will require a massive shift in perception. As a result, there are few, if any, timber engineers specialising in timber construction and design. Many Europeans are keen to invest in the South African timber industry, but I do believe that the model must be developed in a way that fits the South African culture. It helps to have knowledge of, and working experience in, both worlds, and that has shaped my thoughts.

Tell us more about your company

I started AdaptAbuild in 2016 as a new build and renovation projects company, having done a few projects with high-end game lodges, residential buildings as well as corporate offices. During lockdown, developments led to me pivoting the business to embrace the growing local interest in affordable, eco-friendly building options. We offer a tiny house option, and this was the logical, niche starting point. The CLT solution is being added in the most viable way. My partner, Roland Mazar, has worked on CLT and tiny house projects in Houtbaai and in the Southern Cape, and has immense assembly knowledge. I am grateful that we are in a position now where we have a trusted nucleus of experienced professionals to commercialise the offering.

The Western Cape is best positioned for the business, given its ‘open for business’ philosophy, the movement towards sustainable building alternatives (which is already progressed), and the close proximity to the timber plantations. This is where AdaptAbuild will be based.

I believe you also have ambitions to establish a carpentry school?

Yes, indeed – that is the intent. It is critical to develop local skills and I am committed to prioritising this from the start while CLT is still in its baby shoes and learns to walk in South Africa. Although there is a lot of interest, there is limited information and understanding of how to construct a timber building. Timber engineers, for example, are a key component of such a project, particularly if it involves large, multistorey buildings. The challenge for European engineers working here, is that the South African landscape, climate, and conditions are completely different. For example, in South Africa they do not need to calculate the snow load, which adds to the final cost of the building. The primary concern in South Africa, of course, is the cost, and one needs to reduce the input costs as much as possible, by increasing economies of scale. Localisation of this global technology is therefore, in my mind, very important.

There is a movement around the world in terms of timber as a way of life and to highlight the health benefits. Timber building also requires less maintenance. What is your opinion?

Using timber, CLT and LVL as alternative building materials is part of a more holistic way of living. CLT has set a new benchmark for sustainability and SMART building in construction. It means you are building with eco-friendly materials, using a systems-driven, technological approach with a an integrated design methodology that includes ventilated façades, insulation and double glaze windows which results in a concept known as ‘passive housing’ which enables energy efficiency. This, plus lower maintenance cost, has a direct benefit to reduced total cost of investment which, in turn, net offs the initial investment in the innovative CLT design solution. Over the long term, yes, it requires lower maintenance.

CLT seems to be the new buzzword in the timber industry. Why is it regarded as such a great material to build with?

CLT is multi-layered treated timber panels, arranged in 90-degree, perpendicular layers. The product is treated and tested for local conditions and against local quality standards. Originally the design allowed only angular designs. However, there are variations that now allow for curved and sweeping designs for better design flow. Design features such as windows, cable inserts and the like are integrated into the panel design and production. The assembly process is quick and therefore efficient. As an example, the 2 300m2 building that we worked on in Romania took less than 45 days to complete the structure. The team consisted of eight carpenters, we used 22 trucks and 820 CLT elements, and 60 000 screws – every part of the process was executed according to a detailed and monitored plan using a Rivet-BIM systems approach. Although it was put up with the speed of light, I have never seen such precision. The team of assemblers were extremely professional, well-trained with years of experience between them. It made me realise how far behind we are in South Africa as far as bridging the gap between current building methods and the growing demand for eco-friendly efficiency.

The industry is going through a metamorphosis and it requires highly-trained, skilled, and qualified professionals, something we need to develop in South Africa. With the recent developments in the local construction industry, now is probably an ideal time to adapt an innovative solution that is future-fit. Of course, there will always be a demand for steel-cement-bricks construction, but CLT gives investors a greener and SMART choice. It then goes beyond any one project.

There is a fantastic opportunity to, as a country, develop the value chain and revive our legacy knowledge-base in timber, timber plantations and wood technology. For those who have an engineering mind with a passion for timber, CLT presents an exciting space to work in. Therefore upskilling, collaboration and cultivating a culture of home-grown CLT excellence is part of the vision and those that I work with must share this intent.

What sort of skills and attributes does one need to become an accomplished assembler and carpenter?

One needs to have a love and passion for timber and wood and a willingness to learn more. Because I grew up with timber, I have always understood timber and how to work with it. I don’t know if that is something you can nurture, but at least we can orientate young people and create interest.

Five characteristics that will enable the transition for anyone are: curiosity, adaptability, systems-thinking, trusted partners and humility – it is after all, an organic product that is sourced from nature, and to deliver a seamless, efficient solution, one has to respect the role of each partner in the value chain, communicate clearly, work in an integrated way and uphold the credibility of the globalised, yet niche, CLT industry.

In South Africa we have all the attributes to build a very successful timber industry – we have the forests and plantations, and we have the depth, and more than enough human resources, however, we have lost the culture of timber to a large extent. We are a concrete society. The transition, or perhaps integration, is going to take some time, and that process in itself needs to be managed to secure trust and buy-in, including working with building regulators and other stakeholders. It’s a longer-term vision.

How do we change mindsets?

Covid-19 has shifted the concept of living space, work-from-home and efficient living. Around the world, millennials are already starting to embrace a more holistic lifestyle and making ‘sustainable-friendly’ choices. As this generation enters the property market, timber will, without a doubt, become a go-to building solution around the world. As we start becoming a more carbon neutral society and government starts offering tax benefits for carbon neutral buildings, more people will consider using timber as a sustainable building material.

Millennials make decisions of where they will stay during holidays based on whether it is a ‘green building’. The health benefits of a wood building will become more pronounced in the future, as will the cost-efficiencies of passive housing principles. CLT is an option at different levels of investor readiness – some may want a 100% timber design, others may choose a hybrid building design and then there is the tiny house option which presents a lower cost, flexible entry point. AdaptAbuild will offer the investor a timber solution that best suits their needs and budget.

A floor element lifted into place with a crane in preparation for it to be screwed on.

A floor element lifted into place with a crane in preparation for it to be screwed on.

Do you think we have the supply chain to support a growing timber industry in South Africa?

Demand for timber products are in the early adoption stage in South Africa, so the supply chain is not yet fully developed – this is where the opportunity lies as there is a growing interest. It is important to start generating the necessary demand to start building a large supply chain. One thing is for sure: there will be significant opportunities.

Do you think there is enough interest from the architects for example?

There is a lot of interest from architects. The annual wood conference that was hosted in Cape Town in February 2020 was attended by more than 1 000 architects, so I do think there is intent and curiosity and a realisation that timber is a sustainable solution for the future. The response is generally positive, but any change requires early adopters, a pull-factor and courage to be different. Alongside this, building policies, codes, regulations, financing and insurance models will all require some level of review and adaptation to enable this type of innovation. It is a journey that I am very excited to have started and which I am now fully committed to – in CLT, I have found that my purpose has met my passion for wood.