KATE WILLIAMS – ‘MAN OF WOOD’
There’s nothing quite like interviewing a ‘creative’ as they are so passionate about their work. MD of Carpenter Oak, Luke Copley-Wilkins, waxes lyrical about his ladder climb to the top, the firm’s ground-breaking designs and challenging the norm.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got .”
This is a favourite quote of Luke Copley-Wilkins, managing director at Totnes timber firm, Carpenter Oak, which explains a great deal about the ethos of this ‘man of wood’.
For over 30 years, Carpenter Oak has been redefining what it means to build with timber, creatively designing and crafting ‘purposeful and beautiful buildings’ – a progressive company which, unsurprisingly, attracted innovative and forward-thinking Luke to its threshold.
Brought up on the Devon and Somerset border, Luke has always enjoyed making things and being experimental with materials. However, it was as an adult that he became more interested in design and how timber can be used in unusual and different ways.
After studying architecture at Sheffield University, with a focus on environmental design, he worked on some high-end projects in the Cotswolds and played a part in a number of experimental timber architectural constructions, including Studio in the Woods and Dartmoor Arts.
After a stint in New Zealand working on housing and innovative architecture, Luke returned to the UK, started at Carpenter Oak as a carpenter in 2016 and settled in South Hams.
“Architecture, design, building and construction with large-scale timber structures are a passion of mine and so I knew that I wanted my career to be in that area. Timber engineering is fundamental to what we do at Carpenter Oak, we pride ourselves on constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can create with high-quality timber”.
“Following a period as a carpenter at Carpenter Oak, an opportunity arose to examine how we could diversify our product offering to the market. I set my sights on creating a new market sector for the company and, as a result, Carpenter Oak Build was born – a new part of the business focussing on complete builds. After the successful implementation, I went on to join the leadership team who merged Carpenter Oak with its sister company, Carpenter Oak and Woodland, in 2017, allowing the company to bring together its combined skills and expertise, and offer new services”.
Luke climbed the company ladder very quickly, going from a carpenter in 2017 to MD of the whole Carpenter Oak group, supported by a strategic team across the sites.
Explaining how the process took place, he said:
“Sometimes life hands you an opportunity and it is the right time and point in your life to go with it. Carpenter Oak is a progressive company that looks to challenge the norm and we are a strong, diverse and supportive team who each bring a broad range of skills to the business”.
An innovator and visionary, Luke loves being involved in the projects that the forward-thinking company takes on.
“The best bits are being involved in some of the most innovative timber architecture in the UK. We have worked on amazing projects such as the new roof at Radley College, the renovation of Brixton Department Store in London, reinstating a replica timber roof on Castle Carrick which dates from 1171 and a residential project like a stunning waterfront home overlooking the picturesque River Dart”.
“Every job has its challenges and that is partly what makes them worthwhile and interesting. An area which I have really enjoyed has been being part of the custom-build project with Teignbridge District Council. Together, we have been lobbying to support self-builders’ rights to build and secure ways to build their own home. Kilnwood is one of a number of sites that Carpenter Oak will be developing over the coming years”.
The result will be well-designed self-build homes, the inside showcasing a beautiful timber-frame, using a choice of timber types. The Kilnwood site in South Devon is being developed on a small scale with only five homes, each as unique as the people who live in them. Carpenter Oak has been involved in some very high-profile jobs, including rebuilding the roof following the fire at Windsor Castle.
“Windsor Castle is really only the tip of the iceberg of our work with the royal estates and we are proud to have worked on a number of projects for the Duchy. In our portfolio, are some real groundbreaking projects. Our award-winning projects include Stowe Gardens Visitor Center and RIBA, award-winning Wolfson Tree Management Centre, Loch Lomond National Park headquarters, the solar canopy at the Earth Centre and Brixton Department Store. Our collaborative projects involve working with renowned architects and engineers; working with Squire and Partners, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Page\Park, BuroHappold, David Narro Associates, Mark Lovell Design Engineers and Simpson and Brown and Momentum Structural Engineers”.
So, does Luke have a favourite of all the interesting projects he has worked on at Carpenter Oak?
“I have so many favourites, it is probably impossible for anyone here to choose. It is one of the perks of the job, we love what we make. But two recent projects that I really like at the moment are Forest of Imagination, Bath, and the Castle Carrick roof, Northern Ireland, which was recently featured on Good Morning Ulster on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Newsline TV. There are also a few coming up that I can’t talk about yet, but they are going to be very exciting! Keep an eye on our facebook account – @carpenteroakltd – for more details”.
Carpenter Oak’s collaborative and creative ethos took a significant step forward in 2017 when the firm started the journey to becoming employee-owned. For a company that consciously steers away from a faceless corporate approach, this was an important commitment to remaining ‘hands-on’ in all aspects of the business.
Carpenter Oak claims loyalty to its values, and its techniques provide a solid foundation for all of its employees and from this firm basis, its staff can each add to and benefit from the 30 years of invaluable experience within the company. For clients, the firm believes it means stability, ensuring that the specialist skills needed to deliver a client’s project will always be on-hand.
Luke explained how this works:
“The company moved towards employee ownership in June 2017 and is working to a mixed-ownership model that is made up of employees, trustees and shareholders. However, as we move forward, this model will grow and flex to ensure it meets the needs of employees and stakeholders along the way.
“We are keen to continue to embrace an open and honest communication policy within the business that promotes transparent decisions, a live and vibrant culture, collaborative working with partners and a collective desire to build amazing spaces that bring wonder and interest to architecture. Ultimately, we believe that employee ownership is the right way to run a business, we believe that getting employees involved in how the business is run is best for the business and best for our clients. Invested and engaged employees are the very best employees to have and we believe that those employees make the best products in their field”.
Makers of stunning oak-framed buildings, Carpenter Oak pledges to collaborate with the country’s best and brightest architects to bring innovation and passion to design and timber framing and has featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs.
The company says its courage in creating inspiring spaces means each Carpenter Oak project is a showcase; a unique cutting-edge design.
“Timber has always been one of the most versatile and sustainable materials available to the construction industry. For a time, it fell out of fashion as the industry discovered new and modern materials, but as we become more environmentally-aware it is right that timber construction is making a comeback. With the innovations in engineered timber, there is very little that cannot be made from timber in one form or another. If I could influence something major in construction right now, it would be to help the industry move to more sustainable methods and materials. This is also embodied in our company environmental aspirations and the way we do business”.
An outdoorsy sort, on his day off Luke, can be found climbing on the sea cliffs, quarries and tors around Devon, spending time at the beaches and dusting off his tools to make things.
“I love the crags and rock around Berry Head, they are world-renowned and offer outstanding climbing, something that I am passionate about. However, if I was to find myself on a sunny day with nothing to do, then you will more than likely find me on Mattiscombe beach!”
Written by Kate Williams
Featured image supplied by Kate Williams
Photos of Brixton Squire bar area by James Jones
Photo of Carrick Fergus construction by George Fielding