New Forms Of Timber Design

Technology is taking timber into new architectural and engineering territory. Peter Wilson, architect and Director of Timber Design Initiatives, highlights some recent developments that may have huge implications for the future of wood.

The V&A in Dundee recently broke new ground in highlighting an important emerging direction in timber technology with its 'Up-Sticks' installation. The project's title is a play on words, given that this dramatic construction is comprised of almost 2000 separate timber elements, but this is no giant Jenga game: it is stateof-the-art robotic technologies being used to rethink traditional timber building methods. In doing so, the structure provides a thought-provoking demonstration of what can be learned from the past and re-applied to a largely unsung solid laminated timber system – dowel lamination – and takes the technology into new architectural and engineering territory.

To complement its major 'Hello, Robot' exhibition, the museum commissioned the MAS Architecture and Digital Fabrication programme and Gramazio Kohler Research at ETH in Zürich to: "explore the connections between traditional sustainable Scottish construction methods and pioneering robotic fabrication techniques… to demonstrate the extraordinary creativity that can be achieved between man and machine."

Students and staff first visited Dundee in February 2019 and undertook a study tour of Scotland's traditional architecture before applying their technical skills to their newly-gained knowledge. The objective was always to use digital design and robotics to design, map out and exactly place around 2000 individually-tailored spruce planks and beech dowels in a form that could be installed in the V&A.

Manufacture and initial assembly took place in Zürich before being dismantled and transported to Dundee for re-assembly prior to the exhibition opening last November. Standing beside the entrance to the highly popular 'Hello, Robot' exhibition, the resulting spectacular structure has been seen by thousands of members of the public whose astonishment at its freestanding form has been tempered by the fact that its construction is – at a very basic level – instantly understandable. Perhaps more importantly, the structure easily communicated the opportunities presented by robotic design and digital fabrication in the search for new sustainable ways to build.

How advances of this type in timber technology can be applied commercially – and how long will they take to reach and impact upon the market – are moot points for the industry in the UK, given that we have been importing cross laminated timber (CLT) for over 20 years but have yet to establish a manufacturing facility anywhere on these islands.

The same is true of course for the other big players in glued laminated timber systems such as glulam and LVL, each of which require substantial investment to deliver the scale necessary for manufacturing facilities to be commercially viable.

Time then perhaps to look more closely at alternative and less onerously expensive ways of producing solid laminate timber systems – at the forefront of which must be the dowel and lamination methods that are being used in Europe and North America to interesting effect.

 Nail lamination has only ever been used sporadically in the UK and usually for small domestic projects but in the USA, Vancouver-based architect Michael Green produced a striking, seven-storey office building in Minneapolis in 2016 which, at the time, was described as: "the first modern tall wood building in the United States." Called 'T3' (timber, technology and transit) the building has a structure built entirely from wooden slabs, columns and beams. The manufacturer, StructureCraft, has since invested in a major dowel-lamination plant: an ambitious, but possibly prescient, decision given the current climate of enthusiasm for CLT in the USA – given the UK's issues with various diseases in tree species, much of the timber used came from trees killed by mountain pine beetles, but which was considered still to have the necessary strength and stiffness properties.

In Europe, dowel lamination has been championed by proponents of nonglued systems, but the technology has yet to establish a significant presence in the UK, there being only a few buildings that showcase the various products imported from manufacturers such as (MHM), Rombach and Thoma. Invaluable research, design and experimentation in domestic manufacture has been led by Edinburgh Napier University and architectural practices such as Architype and Gaia, however, and Architype's Burry Port Community School in South Wales ably demonstrates the excellent quality that can be achieved using rudimentary manufacturing techniques and UK grown timber.

How robotic design and digital fabrication can take this experience much further to create an affordable and sustainable form of timber construction distinctive to the UK is the challenge awaiting an industry response. 'UP-Sticks' has clearly shown that dowel lamination need not be dull.

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