Performative Wood is a seminar held by Prof AnnaLisa Meyboom at School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture at University of British Columbia in the Summer of 2022. The seminar investigaes what innovations in robotic fabrication could mean for design in this material. As technology advances and drawing in architecture becomes more closely engaged with fabrication through digital design tools, how we conceive of architecture and the role of the designer become more closely entwined.
Innovation in material and fabrication have changed the language of architecture in the past and will continue to do so. Wood can be seen as the material of this century because of its sustainable and renewable properties. To look at the synergies of the characteristics of this material in a new way and combine this with robotic fabrication may bring some interesting developments in design language.
The pedagogical objectives of the seminar are to introduce students to the potential of the robotic fabrication technology and to have them work on a design which engages this technology so as to obtain fluency with the technology.
In experimenting with new technologies, it changes our understanding of fabrication and this in turn changes how we understand the limits of what can be designed. In addition, this seminar will introduce students to designing with wood in ways that are less conventional – using the natural bending properties of the material and thinking of wood to wood connections. As such, we will be engaging with a new emerging language of wood and the potential of current innovations to change how we design in wood.
CONTEXT: FUTURE MATERIAL
If we were to put forward the criteria of the material of the future from the viewpoint that we hold today, we would require it to be sustainable, lightweight, structural, multifunctional, compelling, and receptive to the new parametrically driven forms that are enabled by digital design. The material, answering to many of these criteria, is wood. Wood can perform in tension as well as compression due to its natural fiber build-up. It can be employed as structure, finish or furniture and as a final attribute, it is generally considered aesthetically pleasing because of its organic grain and depth of tone and color. In its natural occurrence wood already exhibits high structural strength, a positive carbon footprint (Kolb 2008), and very low embodied energy (Alcorn 1996). Moreover, its local availability in moderate climate zones makes the material particularly suitable for the development of more sustainable construction methods (Krieg et al 2015).
This seminar seeks to extend knowledge on the implications of advanced robotic fabrication and its integration into design processes which also integrate cross-disciplinary knowledge into architectural software.
CONTEXT: HISTORY OF MATERIAL INNOVATION
Developments in steel manufacturing revolutionized building construction in the 19th Century – its strength increased significantly with new smelting technologies and it, along with advances in elevator technology, freed the building from load bearing walls and allowed new forms such as high-rise buildings. Reinforced concrete allowed for a similar revolution in the 20th century – it was malleable, could take tension and allowed new forms to be built due to the casting process. Designers such as Maillard, Nervi, Fisac, Corbusier, Eero Saarinen, and Oscar Niemeyer took advantage of this material innovation and were foundational in creating a new architectural language for the time, which engaged the properties of the material and the innovations of the construction process – clean, curved, large scale structural forms – a language recognized as representing contemporary design in the mid-1900s. Wood is emerging as the material of the 21st century due to its sustainable nature in combination with developments in fabrication technologies, engineered wood products and engineering analysis.
CONTEXT: TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION
Research on innovation has pointed out that the building industry, while on par with other industries in relation to incremental innovations with minor changes in the product, are laggard adopters when it comes to systemic innovations (product and process innovations that require multiple firms to change their processes) (Taylor 2006, 16). Systemic innovation diffuses slowly in project-based industries such as the construction industry today (Taylor 2006, 9) since it requires multiple firms acting together to implement the change, known as an interorganizational network (Taylor and Levitt 2005, 9). The reason for this is that “[w]hen organizational variety is high and the span of a systemic innovation increases to impact two or more specialist firms, extra coordination is required for inter-organizational knowledge to flow and accumulate.” (Taylor and Levitt 2005, 15) Systemic innovations such as the one being discussed here – a major change in the conceptual approach to wood design – would thus require not only an innovation in the actual development of the technology but also a re-examination of the process of design and building in order to avoid the friction inherent in the conventional building industry of today.
Part of the innovation brought to the construction industry by the new technologies is the speed of construction brought to projects through the prefabrication of building elements. The speed of construction can be significant if elements are factory manufactured and brought to site with instructions for fabrication embedded within the elements – i.e. the pieces have connections which have angles and connector locations precut and so when they are brought to site, it is clear how they go together. Another aspect of innovation with robotic fabrication is the accuracy of the technology: the tolerances for robotically fabricated wood are within millimeters, allowing minimal seams and better performance of the constructed building.
Robotic fabrication thus has the ability to change the construction industry and how we build our buildings. While this seminar does not expand into this topic extensively, it is important for the context of why the knowledge is critical in the field.