timber wave

Engineering the Timber Wave

There had to be a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing between the architect and the engineer. The architect used clever design software to come up with the forms that it wanted, and the engineer then had to calculate whether these would be structurally stable. If there had to be changes in the engineering, then the architect had to rework its design – and send it back to the engineer for further calculations.

Because of the curves and the way that the elements came together, it was also necessary to design some complicated joints, using as little steel as possible, to keep the integrity of the timber structure. When designing theoretically, it would be possible to make every single member and joint different – but this would have been a nightmare to manufacture. So a degree of standardisation was introduced, in terms of the thickness of the members and the curves, without losing the quality of the original design.

Because thick pieces of timber will not curve and the curves on this structure are tight, the elements had to be made from thin slices of timber (lamellae) that were curved and glued together – a well-known structural solution known as glued laminated timber, or glulam for short. Further rationalisation had to be carried out at Cowley Timberwork, to make sure that it was possible to manufacture the elements effectively – and that it could be done within the very tight time frame.

There was also a great deal of testing done during manufacture, to ensure that the pieces would actually fit together, and that the elements and connections were as strong as calculations had suggested. Fortunately they performed even better than expected, largely thanks to the quality of the timber. The small elements were assembled into ten large pieces, which were brought to London and assembled on site in the week before the London Design Festival opened. 

The Victoria & Albert Museum celebrates the craft of making objects, as well as the finished object itself. With the Timber Wave, which in completed form framed the museum entrance so beautifully and gave visitors a new perspective, it is appropriate therefore to look at how it was designed and the engineering challenges that were overcome to achieve the finished object. 


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Ruth Slavid

Journalist and editor

Ruth specialises in architecture, landscape, lighting and [...]