Meet the architect creating wooden constructions that form themselves

Humanity has lengthy sought to tame wooden into one thing extra predictable. Sawmills manufacture lumber from bushes chosen for consistency. Wooden is then sawed into commonplace sizes and dried in kilns to stop twisting, cupping, or cracking. Generations of craftsmen have employed refined methods like dovetail joinery, breadboard ends, and pocket flooring to maintain wooden from distorting of their completed items. 

However wooden is inherently imprecise. Its grain reverses and swirls. Trauma and illness manifest in scars and knots. 

As an alternative of viewing these pure tendencies as liabilities, Achim Menges, an architect and professor on the College of Stuttgart in Germany, sees them as wooden’s biggest belongings. Menges and his workforce on the Institute for Computational Design and Building are uncovering new methods to construct with the fabric by utilizing computational design—which depends on algorithms and knowledge to simulate and predict how wooden will behave inside a construction lengthy earlier than it’s constructed. He hopes this work will allow architects to create extra sustainable and inexpensive timber buildings by decreasing the quantity of wooden required. 

Menges’s current work has targeted on creating “self-shaping” timber constructions just like the HygroShell, which debuted on the Chicago Structure Biennial in 2023. Constructed from prefabricated panels of a standard constructing materials referred to as cross-laminated timber, HygroShell morphed over a span of 5 days, unfurling right into a sequence of interlaced sheets clad with wood scale-like shingles that stretched to cowl the construction because it expanded. Its ultimate kind, designed as a proof of idea, is a gently arched cover that rises to just about 33 toes (10 meters) however is simply an inch thick. In a time-lapse video, the evolving construction resembles a hen stretching its wings. 

HygroShell takes its identify from hygroscopicity, a property of wooden that causes it to soak up or lose moisture with humidity modifications. As the fabric dries, it contracts and tends to twist and curve. Historically, lumber producers have sought to reduce these actions. However via computational design, Menges’s workforce can predict the modifications and construction the fabric to information it into the form they need. 

“From the beginning, I used to be motivated to know computation not as one thing that divides the bodily and the digital world however, as an alternative, that deeply connects them.”

Achim Menges, architect and professor, College of Stuttgart in Germany

The result’s a predictable and repeatable course of that creates tighter curves with much less materials than what may be attained via conventional development methods. Present curved constructions made out of cross-laminated timber (also referred to as mass timber) are restricted to customized purposes and carry premium costs, Menges says. Self-shaping, in distinction, may supply industrial-scale manufacturing of curved mass timber constructions for much much less price. 

To construct HygroShell, the workforce created digital profiles of a whole bunch of freshly sawed boards utilizing knowledge about moisture content material, grain orientation, and extra. These parameters had been fed into modeling software program that predicted how the boards had been prone to distort as they dried and simulated the best way to organize them to attain the specified construction. Then the workforce used robotic milling machines to create the joints that held the panels collectively because the piece unfolded. 

“What we’re attempting to do is develop design strategies which might be so refined they meet or match the sophistication of the fabric we take care of,” Menges says. 

Menges views “self-shaping,” as he calls his approach, as a low-energy method of making complicated curved architectures that may in any other case be too tough to construct on most development websites. Sometimes, making curves requires intensive machining and much more supplies, at appreciable price. By letting the wooden’s pure properties do the heavy lifting, and utilizing robotic equipment to prefabricate the constructions, Menges’s course of permits for thin-walled timber development that saves materials and cash.


The form, construction, and development means of Menges’s HygroShell pavilion are all based mostly on knowledge that exhibits how completely different supplies change over time.

In the event that they had been self-shaped, curved parts may halve the fabric necessities for sure structural options in a multistory timber constructing, Menges says. “You’ll save a whole lot of materials just because curvature provides stiffness. That’s why we see all the pieces is curved in nature.”

Menges started his profession within the late 1990s, at a time when architects had simply begun to make use of highly effective new software program to design buildings. This shift opened new prospects, however usually these digital designs ran afoul of the fabric’s bodily constraints, he says. It was the strain between the bodily and the digital that impressed Menges to pursue computational design.

“From the beginning, I used to be motivated to know computation not as one thing that divides the bodily and the digital world however, as an alternative, that deeply connects them,” he says. 

His curiosity in self-shaping constructions was impressed by pinecones, which—lengthy after falling from bushes—retain the organic programming to open and expose their seeds as temperatures rise. “That’s a plant movement that doesn’t require any motors, nor does it require any muscle mass,” Menges says. “It’s programmed into the fabric.” 

Pinecones made him understand that simply as robots are programmed to carry out sure actions, supplies like wooden may be manipulated to hold out particular behaviors which might be hard-coded of their DNA as a response to a stimulus.

Other than the HygroShell, Menges has used self-shaping methods to create proof-of-concept tasks just like the Urbach Tower, a 45-foot spiraling wooden construction overlooking the fields of the Rems Valley close to Urbach, Germany. As an alternative of utilizing energy-intensive mechanical processes that require heavy equipment, the workforce prefabricated a dozen curved, self-shaped wooden panels and assembled them on web site, decreasing the time it could in any other case take to construct such a construction. 

And in 2023, his workforce labored with researchers from Germany’s College of Freiburg to create the livMatS Biomimetic Shell, a construction made out of 127 wood cassettes, every resembling the form of a honeycomb. Menges used self-shaping to design a system of 3D-printed wood window blinds that opened and closed in response to modifications in relative humidity. Embedded within the wooden shell is a photo voltaic gate that closes in heat climate, shading the house, and opens throughout colder months to offer passive photo voltaic heating. In contrast with a traditional timber constructing, this construction has half the environmental impression over its life cycle.

Menges’s work is coming at a time when the sustainability of mass timber buildings—these with structural parts made out of engineered wooden as an alternative of metal or concrete—is beneath scrutiny. Considerations vary from the place the timber is sourced as to whether preserving forests sequesters extra carbon than harvesting them for constructing materials, even when constructing with wooden reduces carbon emissions relative to producing concrete and metal. There are additionally worries about what occurs to all of the wooden left behind in the course of the logging course of. Timber could also be a renewable useful resource, however they require a long time to mature and are already threatened by local weather change. That’s what led Menges and others to advocate for extra environment friendly constructing practices that don’t waste wooden. 

The design of the Urbach Tower, a proof-of-concept challenge, emerged from a brand new self-shaping course of for its curved wooden parts.

Architects face a dilemma, nonetheless. Mass-timber buildings may very well be constructed utilizing much less wooden, however the much less materials is used, the extra vulnerable the construction is to fireplace, says Michael Inexperienced, principal of Michael Inexperienced Structure in Vancouver. 

“The best way we defend wooden is by overbuilding it to create a thickness that may resist a sure period of time beneath fireplace,” Inexperienced says. The requirements rely upon the kind of constructing and the number of wooden used, however Inexperienced typically provides round 3.6 centimeters (1.four inches) of additional materials to his constructions for every hour of required burn time. The extra folks occupy a constructing, the longer it’s required to withstand fireplace and, within the case of mass-timber buildings, the thicker the wooden construction. 

Inexperienced sees Menges’s work as essential foundational analysis that will result in breakthroughs influencing wooden structure in a long time to return. However he doesn’t see self-shaped structure being extensively deployed outdoors the towers and pavilions Menges has already designed. 

exterior view of livMat
interior view of livMat

The livMatS Biomimetic Shell options 3D-printed wood window blinds that open and shut in response to modifications in relative humidity.

“It’s instructing us much less about what we are literally going to construct within the subsequent 5 years and extra about what we have to be taught so we will develop different merchandise that help that,” he says. 

Even with out widespread adoption of self-shaping methods, Menges believes, computational design will proceed to unlock new methods of constructing with wooden. He sees a future the place the knots, crooks, and branches of bushes are seen not as defects however as development instruments, every with its personal distinctive properties. 

“A tree doesn’t have a defect,” he says. “It’s an anatomical characteristic. What we have to be taught is what sort of constructing methods we develop that combine these options, and never attempt for the homogeneity that’s merely not there.” 

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