Renewable materials in digital fabrication
In view of the worldwide shortage of energy resources and the increasing concern for climate change, PART office (founded in 2015 together with Siim Tuksam) aims at radically advanced application of timber as a structural material considering economic and ecologic criteria in particular. In this respect, we study a highly integrated digital design and fabrication process for timber. The local concern of undesigned and under-valued log export has drawn greater attention of the public concerned about losing forests and its inhabitants. Considering the situation, PART research on timber is investigating how architects could add more value to the material through local design, allowing the manufacturers to be just the raw material provider.
Industry connected to digital fabrication
Our projects feature various scales of investigation, varying from furniture to open-air structures of 8 metres in height. Parametric design tools and a common design platform (Rhino Grasshopper), allowing engineers and architects work in the same program, have helped to establish highly complex and performative architectural forms without compromising on speed and cost of industrial manufacturers. The fourth dimension in architecture is time – if you can make custom solutions almost as time-efficient as standardised ones, the industry is willing to adapt. In the examples presented in this research, the Body Building Installation (constructed for Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2015) consumed exactly the same amount of timber elements and production time as a small detached house (80 m2) would for its structure, yet with the advantages of greater spans, height, cantilevers etc. Also the spatial qualities – fluid and round – created an understanding of various possibilities. And above all, the fact that all the used material would grow back in Estonian forests within 1.5 minutes made this urban installation truly intriguing.
Digital material fabrication
We argue that, compared to traditional craftsmanship, digital craftsmanship in the techno-cultural environment of Estonia offers more opportunities in terms of speed, building scale production and formal complexity. The isolation of the material qualities has to stop and become embedded in the design process. Our investigations with students at the Estonian Academy of Arts vary from light transparency and bending directions in veneer to civil projects such as electricity pylons of 42 meters. For the Elering pylon, we proposed acetylated wood technology, with the structural qualities (density, weight and strength) embedded already in the simulation process of the pylon’s dimensions and design. Aside from the end result, such an experimental approach without previous references has made s.c. demonstrators – installations to test certain methods – highly important in the daily practice. Therefore, mingling between the computational and physical space, we could create familiar yet complex spatial encounters combining traditional materials with current technologies and inherent aesthetics.
The algorithmic optimisation enabling all the previously mentioned possibilities is especially useful in collaboration projects such as construction marked by the constraints of the site or the collaborators’ input or constantly changing production machines. It is particularly useful when working with “living” material such as wood where the precision for efficient joinery has to be on millimetre level while the material is constantly reacting to the surroundings (e.g. moisture level). By using the 3D model parameter, we can make timber architecture once again approachable and the process from the idea to construction more feasible.
It’s all about design
Those various projects could potentially be implemented with other types of CNC machines and technologies, but the research in question at PART is primarily focused on design methods. Experiments so far should be understood as research into design methodology, rather than as research into production and manufacturing as in case of engineering tasks. Repurposing industry machines towards creating complex, adaptive and structurally intelligent architecture could help us to overcome faster the modernist physical space of standardised precast concrete. The use of algorithmic optimisation as a tool and the local context as parametric criteria provides crucial arguments for developing a contemporary design language for algorithmic timber architecture.