Designing and building in wood – a natural and sustainable material, with excellent structural properties, manufactured through an innovative process – fills us with great pride as it offers solutions to one of the most dramatic problems of our times: climate change.
We created a powerful partnership with the Nelson Mandela University, to strengthen our potential and share the groundbreaking value of CLT technology through Southern Africa.

After years of research and intense cooperation, a valuable agreement was recently signed between the Nelson Mandela University of Port Elizabeth and InnovHousing.
If we were living in regular times, all the people who joined and fully supported this initiative would have to come together and toast the success of this unique undertaking. The agreement marks the beginning of a close collaboration to create a real alternative to the conventional way of building.

The idea of the project stems from the observation that Mass Timber Technology – already present in Europe as a construction technology – was only in its infancy in South Africa and that there was no proper business model for it yet. The contacts between Innovhousing and NMU began about three years ago and have proven to be paramount both as a partnership and as a business opportunity.

The first stage of this project was to search for a reliable institutional partner that could give continuity to a complex as well as an ambitious objective. It became clear from the outset that it was not just a matter of creating a brand new market, but also, expanding the size of the market potential and ensure its growth. The best plan to achieve this was to implement a research project, in collaboration with an academic institution.

The second phase consisted in demonstrating the added value that this new technology could generate. The step was done initially through series of documented evidence; we organized targeted visits to the UK, Italy, and Austria to document the achievements and the market potential, as well as the production chain that the mass timber construction process requires. At the same time, we created intra-university relationships so that we could channel all the information collected through the creation of ad hoc research units.

But, as theory is not enough to show the opportunities provided by the mass-timber building technology, we needed to develop a tangible example: a real validation of the potential of this innovative construction method.

An initial project was carried out to install a building inside the Nelson Mandela University headquarters, in Port Elizabeth, within a closed court on the North Campus. After a preliminary evaluation, it became clear that the transport and installation of the materials, inside the courtyard, were of considerable complexity and high costs.

Thanks to the intuition of Dr. Oswald Franks the project was relocated to George campus – home to one of the most prestigious Forestry faculties in the country: a prime value location. Its position on the top of a hill overlooking the city, surrounded by mountains full of conifers makes it the ideal place for enhancing the project.

The choice of the site within an arboretum required a total revision of the project. The new concept included a set up strategy for its very peculiar habitat and the attribution of a wide array of functions to the building. The dialogue between architects, engineers, and the University was very fruitful, and allowed the construction of a building with completely innovative features (read more about it here).

We didn’t just want to demonstrate the extraordinary building efficiency that this technology is boasting; we also tried to make it clear that the architects’ creative ability can be extended far beyond the boundaries we are used to.

Due to their lightness and resistance, the new materials give way to new aesthetic and structural potentials previously unthinkable with the use of traditional materials.

YTimber – as we called the pilot building for its shape and play on words – gives only a pale idea of the immense potential of CLT. Still, it suggests unprecedented design paths, which, we are sure, the new architectural levers will be eager to try.

YTimber, beyond the achievement of a project shared between NMU and InnovHousing, has to be framed in a much broader scheme of activities involving the diffusion of the CLT technology through a coordinated set of actions. An essential event along these lines is the establishment by NMU of the CLT Engagement Unit led by Dr. Oswald Franks. In this regard, Dr. Franks points out:

“The CLT technological involvement unit, enhanced through its scientific approach and in dialogue with other universities, private companies, wood structural engineers, architects and recognized experts, must develop potential for a future table of marches on a strategic corporate level to shape the future of the timber construction sector in southern Africa.”

Referring specifically to the CLT Unit mission, Dr. Franks claims that:

“Nelson Mandela University’s commitment will be to promote the adoption of the CLT technology, through education (distribution of knowledge), research (discovering new information about CLT ) and building a broad ecosystem of partners relevant to the CLT value chain and in so doing contribute to enhanced economic activity, job creation and reduced poverty along with the preservation of our natural resources.”

By now, I think it is right to thank everyone who supported the project and contributed to this agreement.

I am grateful to the Nelson Mandela University and namely to the Vice-Chancellor Prof. Sibongile Muthwa, the former V.C. Prof. Derrick Swartz, the Head of the CLT Engagement Unit Dr. Oswald Franks, Dr. Andre Hefer of the Infrastructure and Sustainability Dept., Ms. Emma Ayesu-Koranteng as Coordinator and Project Manager; for George Campus Dr. Jos Lowes, Barry Muller, and Richard Mueller.

As for InnovHousing, I would like to thank the Architect Alessandro Zuanni and Eng. Franco Piva for their dedication to the drafting of the new YTimber project, and Guido Angelucci, Director and Legal Advisor, for his assistance and collaboration in drafting the agreement.