In today’s timber industry, the amount of waste is enormous – and practically only three types of wood are acceptable. Anders Kruse Aagaard carries out research into how new types of wood can be introduced into the building sector, and how we can make better use of the resources of wood.
Slices and squares. That’s roughly what our wood is turned into after a trip to the sawmill. For these shapes are suited to industrialised construction and the relevant regulatory standards.
However, Aarhus School of Architecture is home to researchers who imagine a better world. A world where the original shapes of the wood are reintroduced into the building sector – with the aid of high tech.
One such researcher is Associate Professor Anders Kruse Aagaard. He spends most of his waking hours thinking about wood. Recently, an exhibition created by Anders and Associate Professor Niels Martin Larsen, called Thinking Wood, was on display at the school.
At the exhibition were pieces of wood with curved shapes that had passed through the two men’s rugged hands – as well as metallic claws of the robot. For it’s all based on the interaction between people and machines.
A computer is capable of managing huge amounts of data and can help us identify the pieces that are best suited for a specific purpose.
‘We have been cooperating with a sawmill, where the curved branchings and trunks were 3D scanned and entered into a database. Thus, in a manner of speaking, creating digital twins of each piece of wood. We next coded software that made it possible to draw a curved shapes in projects. The computer then checks the database to find the most suitable piece of wood. The result never entirely resembles what you drew – but is that even necessary? Anders asks rhetorically.
Being serious about the properties of wood
In modern house construction, the approach is different. Here you call the factory that makes glued laminated timber, they then glue some straight boards together to make a curved shape. You need to insert steel components into these elements, to keep them from unravelling. And you typically also assemble the beams using steel brackets. Instead, you could perhaps have used a piece of hard beech wood. Which can obtain the same rigidity as steel, Anders says.
‘If, in the future, we are going to be building many structures in wood, we will have to think about resources. The need will become so massive that we need a more nuanced approach to which type of wood we use – and we need to consider the properties of the material more carefully.’
Today, we, for instance, reject huge quantities of wood from the rainforests because it smells of ‘tree sweat’ for some time after it has been cut. The typical Danish family wouldn’t accept their new garden furniture smelling like that.
‘We want to rethink architecture: If the forests are to be our primary resource, they need to be able to make an impression on the way we live. What other actors are there in the forest? There are the animals, the air and the soil. Will one single type of tree work for them?’
However, the most profound result of Anders’ research is going to be a reduction in the amount of discarded wood.
‘We attack the problem using high tech tools: we use computers and digital fabrication to understand the complexity of wood. Today, we cannot really understand this complexity, which is why we just cut boards and throw away the rest.’
The rings and the twists
The trick is to allow the shapes of the wood to help define the pieces of wood we need.
‘A tree grows in a certain way because growing in that way is good for it structurally. It twists, it has rings. Nothing in this suggests that squares extruded lengthwise are best. This is something we came up with because it was easy,’ Anders says.
The timber industry is extremely advanced, so the reason is not any lack of technology in production. 3D scanning, GPS tagging and drone monitoring help optimise the processes. You assess the quality of the wood and produce slices and squares, while optimising things based on statutory standards.
‘But no one discusses these standards or whether our current machines and materials match the ways we want to live.’
However, from 2023, it will be mandatory in Denmark to carry out life cycle calculations (LCA assessments) for all new buildings Another step towards using more wood in the building sector. In other words, the world is slowly moving towards the place where Anders Kruse Aagaard already is: a place where wood is more dominant and is utilised far better than is the case today. Where the knots and branchings of the wood are not enemies we need to eliminate but rather conditions we have to work with.
‘The next step will be to expand our collaboration with design studios and with the wood and construction industry. We want to change ideas about how we ought to build – and from which materials.’
The revolution is bound to come – it is simmering in the workshops of Aarhus School of Architecture. And it will be good news for the air, the earth, the animals, the people – and the trees.
See Anders’ research profile in the Pure database.
Anders and Niels Martin Larsen are fonders of the Arctic Wood Architecture Network.
Read more about the Material Imagination project, which has just been concluded; a project which, apart from wood, also involves concrete and marble.
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