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Written 29th January 2021

Practice insight two

In Conversation,

Gustaf Granstom-Steer

Continuing our In Conversation series we spoke to HTS senior engineer Gustaf Granstrom-Steer. Gustaf works across many of the practice’s timber developments as well as playing a key role in the HTS Timber Focus Group, an internal forum committed to sharing knowledge and expertise in the field of engineered timber.

Why did you choose to study engineering, what do you think you would be doing now if you weren't an engineer?

I didn’t really choose engineering but fell into it – ‘slid in on a banana peel’ as the Swedish expression goes. Studying engineering came out of an attempt to map my interests – art, mathematics, science and philosophy – onto a possible career path. Even at university I was unsure about engineering, and while I loved the mathematics and physics-based classes, without real life experience I found the more practical classes archaic and alien. After university I accepted a structural engineering role in the Ramboll Cambridge office. As I started seeing how structural engineering could be applied in the real world something clicked and I have never looked back.

What is your role in the Timber Focus Group?

I’m the acting chair of the TFG monthly meetings helping with the overall organisation and planning. We try to keep the group structure as flat, flexible and open as possible and come together as a team every few weeks, to discuss recent developments and ideas for research. We then take on research actions in smaller groups or individually, presenting and discussing our findings when we next meet. I have had the pleasure of putting together our company timber fire strategy, organising noise testing on live projects and bringing in expert speakers.

What have you learnt from being a part of the focus group?

While we have made good progress on many technical subjects, the most positive realisation I’ve had is actually how engaged and interested colleagues are in timber construction and consequentially how large and dynamic the group has become. This is reflected in the wider industry where curiosity about timber design is exploding. Consultants, contractors and clients are committing to sustainable construction goals and we are finding a sharp rise in demand for the timber presentations we offer to help educate the industry. It appears to me that people are starting to really care about sustainability rather than just the appearance thereof, a very positive sign!

What are some of the key lessons learnt from working on timber buildings? What do you wish that you’d known five years ago?

I have learnt a huge amount about timber construction over the past 5 years, and the industry itself has changed radically.

If I could give some practical advice to aspiring timber engineers it would be:

  • Consider your critical connections at early design stages as these may impact member sizes and cost, and in some instances even the feasibility of a solution.
  • Vibrations will often dictate the design, and many of the current design standards e.g. Concrete Centre and SCI guides were developed for heavier structural types, so it is worthwhile ensuring that you have a robust methodology of vibrational analysis.
  • Timber construction is heavily influenced by the supply chain, and early interaction with the contractor base can help reduce risk, inform design, and highlight any potential issues with sequencing/construction.
  • It is common to expose and celebrate engineered timber, and you may need to occasionally put your architect’s hat on and think about how your interfaces and connections will look.
  • There can be a lack of experience within a project design team and you’ll need to be ready to step beyond your structural silo and help drive the design. If you don’t have a basic knowledge of, for example, acoustic requirements and fire engineering, it is at least worthwhile making sure that the relevant design team members have worked with timber before.

What do you hope to see happen in the engineered timber industry over the next few years?

I am excited to see timber engineering becoming more mainstream within a number of sectors as the industry becomes more comfortable with its use and the demand for sustainable construction materials increases. I hope to see simplified verifications and rules of thumb become available for timber design to allow its widespread application, including subjects such as vibrations, acoustics, fire performance, tall buildings and moisture control. In the near future I am hoping to see further developments in vibrational analysis, composite design and services penetrations through timber beams.