Distinctive wood architecture combining the new with old

Extension project of the Paris Préfecture de Police headquarters

Published: 15/10/2015 00:00

A new reception building is being built at the police headquarters right in the heart of the old centre of Paris and the wooden frame structures for this building are going to be made from Kerto® LVL.  “A wooden structure was chosen because it is light and can be built quickly,” explains the architect behind the building, Fabienne Bulle.

The structures are made up of 30 Kerto LVL wood frames, which make the building’s long span lengths and large interior spaces possible. The construction site is surrounded by protected buildings, which means that foundation work had to be kept to a minimum. The pre-fabricated frame elements were brought to the site when the roads were quiet and were erected during the day. “Construction based on wooden elements significantly reduces construction time and the light wood can be handled on site without the need for heavy machinery, minimising the drawbacks caused by building in a busy city centre,” says Bulle.

In France, Fabienne Bulle is known for promoting wooden architecture, and she wants to increase the use of wood in both public and urban construction. For example, thanks to its lightness, wood could be used in building additional floors in old buildings. “When you use Kerto LVL, you can do more than just add floors to the roof of the building; you can create more distinctive architecture. Kerto LVL works well with long span lengths and is therefore ideal for building covered colonnades, for example,” says Bulle.

In addition to its lightness, Bulle highlights how quick it is to build with wood. The installation of factory-produced wooden elements brings noticeable cost savings as construction time is cut significantly.  “Another benefit of light, wooden elements is that the amount of construction waste is reduced drastically and we make further savings as we only need to use light machinery.”

The benefits of wooden frames lie in lightness and speed

Bulle first started using Kerto LVL 15 years ago in two care homes for disabled people in Normandy. Now she is using it, in addition to the reception building, in an extensive school project in Northern France.  “Kerto LVL is attractive because of its technical properties and aesthetic qualities. As we wanted wood to be a powerful presence in the care home, we made the frames from our own arrangement drawings in a more imaginative way than would have been possible with traditional timber.

I have always been interested in the protean qualities of wood: in use it folds, merges and turns into a load-bearing structure,” says Bulle.  “I had used wood earlier as a facade material, but it was only later through Kerto LVL that I came to realise its technical possibilities as even sheets can be turned into a load-bearing structure.   

Our first use of Kerto LVL was made up of large trapezium profiles, which we cut into pieces to let light into the building. Kerto  LVL is light and thin and it is easy to work, which makes its use very interesting,” says Bulle. You have to know how to listen to the material. In addition to its technical properties, Kerto is very versatile.

Bulle started using wood for making furniture, after which she moved to construction, and support structures in particular. “For me, it was quite easy to see how wood can be used in construction. You have to be careful when using wood though, because any defects will show; other materials conceal much more. Building with wood can be a holistic process, starting from structural decisions.”

For Bulle, wood offers diverse possibilities, from the structures to the facades and interior design. “Wood is so much more these days than just a simple column and beam structure. For example, Kerto has notable acoustic and heat properties, all in one package.”

Fabienne Bulle brings wood to modern architecture in France

Bulle, who has spent the last three decades advocating wood construction as well as training other architects in it, names Alvar Aalto as one of her role models and holds him to be a pioneer in wood construction. “These architects were environmentalists even before the time of environmental protection. They favour wood for reasons of localness, climate and light. This is what wooden architecture is all about.”

The HQE environmental standards that have been adopted in France are expected to increase the use of wood in construction. As a building material, wood is renewable and material-efficient, and the manufacture of building elements consumes little energy.

“I have been building out of wood for the last 30 years, and environmentalism for me means both localness and eco-friendliness. Even before people were talking about carbon dioxide emissions, we talked of dry building. When I made my first houses from local wood, the aim was to keep the construction chain dry and save time in building,” says Bulle.

Bulle, who has won several architectural competitions, wants to update wood and adapt it to modern architecture instead of just seeing it in its traditional role. “The breakthrough of wooden architecture has required us to change the popular and traditional image of wood. France was, after all, originally built from wood.  We have now been able to prove that wood is a competitive material, and finally building contractors are willing to use it and even request in tenders architects who know how to use wood.”

“Wood can be so much more than the structural dimensions and it has the capacity to adapt. Building from wood has been rejected for cultural historical reasons. As all our great cities have, at one time or another, burnt down, now we have to demonstrate that wood is an economically viable material and that a modern wooden building can stand the test of time and be safe,” says Bulle.

Humane architecture

According to Bulle, there is a general change in attitude taking place in Europe, and as a consequence of this building contractors and architects have come to understand the potential of wood better. “For this reason, wood is ideal for use in public buildings where it helps to create a sense of humane architecture. This is quite surprising, but true if one thinks of a large school complex or even the reception area of a police station. Wood lets the imagination soar. Using wood helps to foster the intimacy of home even in public construction because wood’s range of applications is truly vast,” says Bulle.

“The use of wood in public construction can encourage other builders to use it, and demonstrate the humane qualities of wood,” believes Bulle. “For example, we want to use wood in schools and care homes, because people have a need to be in contact with natural materials and to experience the look and the fresh smell of wood.” 

Bulle believes that it is easier to use wood in construction in Germany and Austria than in France, where gaps in the wood construction chain and the adverse attitude of the authorities have slowed development.  “Now the situation is becoming better. This can be seen in new projects where localness and environmental friendliness are taken as clear goals. For a wood construction project to come to fruition, the architect, the building contractor and the user all have to be active in pushing for it.”