On the lookout for tomorrow's timber talent

4 February 2019
On 8-9 February, 60 UK students will gather in Sheffield for the TRADA University Challenge 2019, a charrette-style challenge to design healthy student accommodation predominantly from timber. 
TRADA University Challenge logo

TRADA University Challenge logo


Tom Harley-Tuffs

Tom Harley-Tuffs

Senior Engineer
M: +44 7976 894 919

The TRADA University Challenge brings 60 students from multiple disciplines and universities together at the University of Sheffield’s Diamond Building, separates them into ten teams of six, and then challenges them to design a building predominantly from timber. The 2019 challenge invites students to design exemplary student accommodation, with an emphasis on health and well-being, energy efficiency, and building to budget. 

Ramboll’s Tom Harley-Tuffs will be joining the judging panel alongside architects Alex Abbey of Cullinan Studio, Waugh Thistleton’s Kieran Walker and dRMM’s Patrick Usborne; engineers AKT II’s Ricardo Candel, and Arup’s Jaffel Versi; quantity surveyor Oliver Booth of Gardiner & Theobald; and landscape architect Stephanie Crewe of LUC. 

This year students will be asked to design to a tight brief, incorporating sponsors’ products while working around real life constraints provided by the existing site chosen for this challenge: an old shopping centre in the heart of Sheffield’s shopping district.

As an additional challenge, and to emulate real life experience, students of quantity surveying have been added to each team this year – stressing the importance of building to budget. Each team will include two architects or architectural technologists, two engineers, a landscape architect and a quantity surveyor – creating situations and relationships comparable to project teams – with pioneering design professionals and industry members providing specialist support.

Timber is growing more popular amongst developers of student accommodation due to the savings that can be made on time and cost. However, the inherent benefits of timber and its potential role in supporting health and well-being also warrants highlighting; there is a mounting awareness of the mental health crisis students across the UK are currently facing – and when research indicates that the average person spends more than 90% of their time indoors, never has the influence of our environment on our mindset been so important to utilise.

Tabitha Binding, TRADA’s University Engagement Manager, shared: ‘Our University Challenge is all about putting multidisciplinary teams, where students have not met prior, up against a strict deadline – and watching them flourish while working together within a practical context. We want to help students gain confidence in how to design, specify, cost and build with timber and timber products’.

Tom Harley-Tuffs said: ‘Timber is often the most sustainable material choice, and it’s great to see TRADA continuing to promote its usage through this university competition. It’s a fantastic opportunity for the students to work in multi-disciplinary teams, just as they would in a real consultancy environment, and learn how to holistically design high performance and aesthetically pleasing timber buildings. I look forward to seeing what they come up with!’

Tom is a senior structural engineer at Ramboll who has worked on a diverse range of projects, with expertise in steel, concrete, timber, modular and renovation work. Tom has worked on many technically challenging timber projects, including Dalston Works, the largest Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) project globally. He also helped develop the timber industry in Singapore and was technical author on the BCA timber guidebook during his time there.

Universities involved include Bath, Bournemouth, Bristol, Canterbury, Cardiff, Coventry, Derby, Dundee, Edinburgh Napier, Herts, Leicester DMU, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham Trent, Reading, Salford, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, Strathclyde, Trinity St David, UEL, USW, and UWE.

Update: Winners of the TRADA University Challenge 2019

The competition kicked off early Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon, during which time students collaborated in designated design teams. Each team included two architects or architectural technologists, two engineers, a landscape architect and a quantity surveyor, none of whom had met before – creating situations and relationships comparable to real world project teams. This aspect is painful and opens up clear divides, with each discipline fighting for prominence, before boundary lines are broken and ideas coalesce into one design. Knowing then what they need to bring to the project, the team members work together, enjoying the constraints and interaction that team working brings.

Throughout the two days teams had open access to the judging panel of pioneering design professionals and knowledgeable industry sponsors, and the University of Sheffield’s exceptional facilities.

The teams then had 8 minutes to present their designs concisely and elegantly to the expert panel of judges, who were unanimous in naming Team 9 the winners, citing their innovative approach and attention to future adaptability. The multidisciplinary team of six that aced this year's TRADA University Challenge ignored the convention of the red line boundary and changed the arrangement of buildings around the site. Their innovative approach led to a design that combined post and beam with a modular volumetric structure. Slotted and stacked into four frames of differing heights, which maximised sunlight, the ‘CLT room pods insulated with wood-fibre’ are accessed through the communal central areas, adding to student community engagement. Each studio room included a shower room and a study area with external windowed views. Communal areas at both roof and ground level encourage further interaction. Total costs were estimated at £33 million with an 18-month program.

Tabitha Binding, TRADA’s University Engagement Manager, shared: ‘I am absolutely delighted with all the students who participated in this year’s University Challenge. The degree of imagination that went into each teams’ designs was amazing. The knowledge gained of how and where to use timber and timber products is both practical and useful as students head out into the professional world. The multidisciplinary aspect has given them an understanding of how working holistically is so beneficial to designing, engineering and constructing quality buildings.

Tom Harley-Tuffs said ‘Having worked with the University of Sheffield quite recently, the TRADA University Challenge continues that involvement – promoting the use of timber to students. When I was at university we didn’t receive formal timber training or have this kind of competition. Everything I’ve learnt [about timber] has been post education. The students have come up with some interesting and unusual solutions.’ 

Related Projects

Dalston Works completed

Dalston Works

Dalston Works (previously known as Dalston Lane) is the largest Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) project globally, using more timber than any other scheme in the world by volume.

Blackdale Residences, Unviersity of East Anglia

Blackdale Residences, University of East Anglia

The new 514 unit student residential accommodation buildings utilised digital tools and offsite construction to enable a breathtakingly fast paced programme, completing the construction in just 62 weeks.


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