The “aha!” moment at the University of British Columbia’s HiLo Lab came when researchers, intent on bending strips of wood veneer into unusual forms, stepped back to look at their elaborate setup. “We realized we could use the formwork itself as the member,” says Blair Satterfield, chair of UBC's architecture program and an associate professor.
That breakthrough led to zippered wood, which leverages ordinary construction methods to create extraordinary structures with the humble 2x4. “We thought about the project both formally, in terms of what we can achieve cheaply and quickly with standard studs, and also in a performative way, in terms of efficiency and strength,” says Marc Swackhamer, Assoc. AIA, who chairs the architecture department at University of Colorado, Denver and co-founded HouMinn Practice with Satterfield.
Starting with a cross-cut saw, the team created kerfs along 2×4s, enabling them to bend and twist. Using Grasshopper and the Kangaroo plug-in, they modeled the results and then wrote software protocols to map tooth patterns to specific curvatures. They upgraded to a CNC mill to cut teeth into 2×4s in such a way that two separate pieces of wood would lock or “zipper” only when they are hand-twisted together into the desired position, no wood steaming or soaking required. The mated pieces are clamped and glued to form a curving composite member with the dimensional cross-section of a 2×4. “Anecdotally, these bent and joined members are much stronger than a straight stud,” Satterfield says. "It's unbelievable how much force they can take."
To demonstrate their project’s potential and software's accuracy, the team built and exhibited two full-scale prototypes on the UBC campus in 2019: a common stud wall with a base plate replaced with a curving zippered beam, creating a hyperbolic paraboloid bulge; and a cultural pavilion that uses zippered members, some twisting 135 degrees, to obviate the wall-roof connection.
—Juror Ming Thompson, AIA
The team is further streamlining the fabrication technique by scanning each board and using a script to adjust the design to avoid knots and holes. Most exciting, Swackhamer says, is the “democratizing potential” of a technique that broadens the possibilities of stick-frame construction.
Project: Zippered Wood
Location: School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
Client/Owner: UBC HiLo Lab
Support: Ecowaste Industries; Foundation For The Carolinas; UBC SEEDS Sustainability Program
Architect/Designer Team: UBC HiLo Lab . Blair Satterfield (director), Alexander Preiss, Derek Mavis, Graham Entwistle; University of Colorado, Denver LoDo Lab . Marc Swackhamer, Assoc. AIA (director), Matthew Hayes; HouMinn Practice . Blair Satterfield (principal), Marc Swackhamer (principal)
Size, Final Prototype: 48 square feet
Cost: $45,000CAD (approximately $33,000 USD)
This article has been updated since first publication.