Timber has been a popular source of construction material for thousands of years. Through sawing, milling, and other engineered wood conversion processes, various wood forms have been created and applied in products, furniture, and architecture. However, these processes can sometimes alter the basic lines of wood structure. The stems can be split, grain patterns changed, and some woods, such as oak and cedar, are easily reduced while others can become intractable. This led to the exploration of whole timber forms in ancient structures, such as log cabins, which layered timber in different cross-sections to form home profiles. Through design, the use of trunks or branches of trees in their entirety can accentuate their innate mechanical properties for structural sustainability. Although these practices are fairly absent in contemporary building techniques, new technological innovations expand the prospects of timber construction in architecture.
Timber construction is based on both engineering and cultural practices that demonstrate its high strength-to-weight ratio and It is used most efficiently in structures where it carries a lot of its own self-weight. This belief, however, limits the plausibility of its natural log forms as tensile elements, as structures of tall buildings, or as major elements in large-scale contemporary architecture. Despite this, by embracing the grain structure and longitudinal fibers of timber, these wood pieces demonstrate strong mechanical resistance that can be explored. Some engineering companies, such as Whole Trees, and architectural research institutes, such as the Architectural Association postgraduate program Design + Make, have explored different prospects of timber natural forms as columns, beams, trusses, rafters, and more.
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Whole Trees Structures is a design and construction company based in Wisconsin that explores the architectural potential and environmental advantages of using intact tree trunks in buildings. Founded in 2007, the company sought to revitalize “cull trees” – trees that are suitable for timber but do not contain a merchantable sawlog due to poor form, quality, or undesirable species. They repurpose these trees into columns, trusses, beams, and joists for commercial construction.
Over time, the company has developed a system for examining the structural, sculptural, and sustainable viability of timber logs. They use a 3D-scanning system called Lidar to create digital models of the trees, including every nub, notch, and scratch. By analyzing digital data on their structural performance, they collaborate with architects and other building professionals to actualize these timber forms in designs. One of their projects, the Maharishi University Sustainable Living Center in Fairfield, Iowa, utilized timber logs transformed into columns, beams, and structural arches within a contemporary design.
The Design + Make program at the Architectural Association explores architectural design at the point of physical production. With a campus located in Hooke Park; a 142-hectare woodland in Dorset, South West England, the educational scheme was aimed to research, demonstrate and teach the better use of forest produce around them. The program has an explicit technological focus on the innovative application of timber in architecture, with full-scale prototypes. They integrate emerging tools, such as 3D scanning, generative modeling, and robotic fabrication, enabling feedback between the designer and the material properties of timber logs.
In a project titled Wood Chirp Barn, a team of 5 students (Mohaimeen Islam, Zachary Mollica, Sahil Shah, Swetha Vegesana, and Yung-Chen Yang) designed and built a curvilinear shed structure with natural timber forms. The roof structure is made from 25 forked beech branches that were 3D scanned to determine the arrangement and milled to form interlinking connections with a robotic arm. Through design and technology, the team explored how the inherent form and structural capacity of the natural tree can be transferred and exploited within a complex truss structure. The project and research program demonstrates that technology can be used to create more design opportunities for timber logs, even in simple natural forms.
Caitlin Mueller, an Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), leads a research team that is exploring a new approach for architects to use discarded natural tree forks as load-bearing joints in their structures. The team focuses on the spots where the trunk or branch of a tree divides in two, forming a Y-shaped piece. Caitlin notes that a cross-section of a tree fork reveals an unbelievable network of fibers that intertwine to create these often three-dimensional load transfer points in a tree. She points out that y-shaped nodes can exist in architecture, and through design, nodes where straight elements come together can work as cantilevers, like in trees.
The research team has developed a five-step “design-to-fabrication workflow” that employs digital and computational tools to fabricate these natural timber elements. The steps include creating a digital material library, finding the best match between the initial design and the material library, creating a balance in structural performance, generating machine code for cutting, and assembling the required fork elements to build the structure. While natural timber craft is mostly employed for decorative purposes, Caitlin’s team at MIT hopes to make it possible to use wood in structural roles without compromising its natural geometry and internal grain structure, through computational tools.
Novel forms of construction with built-in technology can coexist with simple elements. This enables architects and engineers to rethink these elements and challenge the myths surrounding their plausibility. Unprocessed timber forms are a prime case. Computational tools, digital technology, robotics, and timber studies have expanded the architectural and structural possibilities of employing these timber log forms. Research from the AA Design + Make program and the MIT research team show that computational tools can explore the natural geometry of timbers to create radical and complex structures. Meanwhile, Whole Trees sets a template for commercializing this concept by focusing on reusing Cull trees and engineering them in ways fit for architecture. Expanding the prospects of natural timber forms in architecture not only creates unique structures but also contributes to a sustainable environmental impact.
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