Tucked away in a Lincolnshire village, Gordon Cowley has been quietly revolutionising the world of timber design. Thomas Lane reports on his experimental approach to complex projects – and his very own product inventions
Gordon Cowley doesn't like his photograph being taken. So he picks up some wooden sticks and starts playing with them as if they were worry beads. They might as well be, because once the wood is in his hands he barely notices the camera flash going off.

Cowley has an extraordinary affinity with timber. When you want a timber structure that defies all convention, go to him; he'll know how to build it if anyone does. "For me he's one of the industry's greats," says Hanif Kara, partner at structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor. "When we did Peckham Library with Will Alsop he didn't say we were crazy; he brought a level of confidence to the table that persuaded us we could do it. We need more people like him."

Cowley heads the firm that bears his name: Cowley Structural Timberwork. It made the now famous pods in Peckham Library, south London, which are meeting rooms inside asymmetrically curved wooden structures. Other tough assignments he has taken on include the sculptural roof of Frank Gehry's tiny Maggies Centre for cancer care in Dundee with beams that twist and turn like the branches of a tree; and the immensely complex structure supporting the roof of the Scottish parliament debating chamber.

Since 1980, Cowley Structural Timberwork has built up a reputation for innovation in timber. This is because Cowley relishes pushing the boundaries of engineering and design. "Every enquiry is exciting; I find the whole business of design and problem solving terribly satisfying," he says. "If someone says it's impossible, it's a good starting point. I enjoy grasping that challenge, standing back and thinking of alternative ways of doing it. Its very satisfying if you get it right."

Dressed in a green shirt, tie, glasses and leather waistcoat Cowley cuts a gentle, grandfatherly figure. He has a quiet, unassuming manner and explains everything with the same level of care as he takes over his work. The company operates out of premises on the edge of a village called Waddington in Lincolnshire. He has worked there since 1970, originally for timber specialist LR Bootle & Norman until Montague L Meyer bought them out in 1979. The new owner wanted to close the site and move Cowley elsewhere, but Cowley had other ideas. "I took over the rent, paid them for the desks and carried on," he remembers.

The company has always been a design outfit first and foremost. Cowley only went into manufacturing because he could not find good quality subcontractors. The main competitors were large continental timber companies such as FinnForest. Once they started offering design services, Cowley decided to specialise. "We moved over to these complex, unusual one-off structures because there is very little value in the wood and therefore these are unattractive to the single product companies."

Computer technology has enabled the company to offer increasingly sophisticated services. "CAD has revolutionised all our activities; we couldn't have done Peckham Library without it," Cowley says. Peckham Library was the turning point and was a tremendous learning curve. When the library job came along in 1997 Cowley had one CAD designer, but he soon had to employ a second. Today he has nine designers working with 3D computer packages.

This expertise means Cowley has a strong influence over the design. For example, the company is designing the roof of a 200-seat lecture theatre at Napier University in Edinburgh for architect BDP. It is shaped like a flattened egg. Originally the architect came up with a 2D solution with the structure supported by a series of parallel arches that were all in the same plane. "This was viable, but not towards the ends [of the roof]," explains Cowley. The problem was that the sections between the arches would have joined the arches at increasingly steep angles towards the ends to form an increasingly tight curve.

Cowley re-engineered the roof as a 3D structure, and modelled it to convince the architect. Now the arches are tilted to the same angle of the curve at all points so the infill sections meet the arches head on, making the structure much stronger. There was another benefit. "BDP were very happy to accept this solution," says Cowley. "They were content to hide the original form, but now they have decided to expose the underside of the roof structure." It was cost-effective too. "I don't know if it was cheaper, but we got the job – and it went out to competitive tender," he says.

Competitive tendering is something Cowley loathes because it denies him the opportunity to produce creative solutions. "Something I feel very strongly is that the cheapest tender is not the most economical approach, as there is not the opportunity to value engineer the job," he says. "It produces cheap, nasty buildings that are not well engineered. If you have time to work with the designer you have the opportunity to produce something more interesting."

This creative design approach saved money on the roof of the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha in Southall, west London. This Sikh temple had a budget of £13m but when the tenders came back, the cost had risen to £24m. This was a problem as its construction was funded entirely from donations. The original roof structure was to be made from long lengths of oak shaped like giant tapered cigars.

Parminder Mew, the temple's project manager, was delighted with Cowley's contribution to making the project viable. "We said this is all we have got, and he designed something within the budget," she says. "What he did was quite fundamental. He changed the round beams to short square sections that look more like a spider's web." Mew continues, "He was good at designing something that looked beautiful, and also worked structurally." Cowley's specially developed joint was instrumental in saving money on this project (see "The joint master", opposite).

Cowley's constant experimentation is what enables him to offer these solutions. He strives to find elegant solutions for less money, pushing the boundaries of timber engineering forward. During our meeting he is constantly popping out of the meeting room and reappearing with bits of splintered wooden structure to demonstrate some new idea. "We do a lot of wrecking, we learn an awful lot from this," he says. "Our draftsmen use this to inform them, rather than numbers in a book that don't mean much."

The future looks promising for Cowley Structural Timberwork. Turnover is up 50% since last year. "There is a phenomenal amount of work out there and we are struggling to keep up," says Cowley. He has just invested in a five-axis CNC profiler, a computer-controlled machine that shapes wood accurately from any angle. "This is a massive step forward for us," he says. "It will be faster and more accurate. We will be able to do things in minutes that used to take hours." He even talks about joining forces with a larger organisation. Whatever the future holds, Cowley's mind will be constantly on the move, like the pieces of wood in his hands.

The joint master

Cowley has invented a number of useful products, including the Cowley joint. “Jointing tends to be the achilles heel of our industry,” Cowley says. “Each joint needs to be specially made so our jointing solution is extremely useful.” Much of his work relies on node joints, where several wooden ribs meet in one place. This enables the wooden structure to follow complex curves, and it makes use of cheaper, short lengths of timber. Before the Cowley joint, a special joint had to be welded up to hold the end of each timber rib at a cost of £200 a joint. The Cowley joint costs a mere £35. The jointing nodes are made from pieces of metal tube with threaded holes corresponding to where the rib meets the jointing node. Each rib has a hole drilled along its length at the end and a sleeve inserted into the hole with a bolt inside; the sleeve is glued in place using an epoxy resin. A second hole is drilled at an angle into the side of the timber spar so a tool can engage with the bolt head enabling it to be turned and tightened against the tubular metal node. “It’s ever so versatile,” says Cowley. “It has a very high load capacity and is ever so quick to install on site.” Another innovation is the curved panels used to clad structural frames. Cowley reckons nobody else has done this, simply because of conventional preconceptions. “You know you can’t bend a sheet in two directions so you don’t try,” he smiles. He is coy about the technique, which involves gluing several thin sheets of composite board together. This board is pressed to the desired shape and heated until the glue sets. The company has just developed a new type of monocoque floor panel for constructing a floor and ceiling in one go. It works on the same principle as an I-beam, except that the panel incorporates the deck for the floor and forms the soffit too. This cuts out the need to install the floor deck and ceilings as a secondary operation.