“Although this research is still in its early stages, its significance is in how it rethinks the use of an age-old material in completely new ways. Working with the properties of organic material, taking advantage of what normally is considered by-product waste, and incorporating newer computational fabrication methods, this research challenges our standard pursuit of ‘lightness’ and heavy timber construction.” —Juror Doris Sung
Timber is typically deemed useful when it is linear with a regular cross section, but that doesn’t mean that logs that are curved, irregular, or otherwise unfit for lumber can’t serve a purpose. Kyle Schumann and Katie MacDonald, AIA—two assistant architecture professors at the University of Virginia and co-founders of the newly Charlottesville-based After Architecture studio—along with a team from UVA School of Architecture led by student project manager Abigail Hassell, have sought to demonstrate a structural application for irregular waste, a resource that is globally available but underutilized in construction. According to the team, more than 55% of harvested timber is deemed unusable in construction due to irregularities, including trees razed from construction sites or damaged by disease or weather. This waste is typically shredded for chips or pulp, or simply discarded.
“Tangential Timber: Non-linear Wood Masonry” is a research project that proposes a construction application for non-linear wood—primarily hardwoods but also some softwoods—through the development of a digital fabrication workflow that converts cross sections of logs, called “cookies,” into interlocking, structural blocks that can be disassembled and reused.
The team developed a low-tech, parametric digital imaging workflow to photograph and trace the cookies in 2D and then translate them into 3D models. Cookies are not cut in a fixed size, but rather logs in a range of diameters can be used, and the parametric model is able to adapt the vault design to cookies of any shape or size. The thickness of cookies was standardized—3, 4, and 5 inches—for ease of translation into the digital model and for fabrication.
The digital cookies can then be sorted across a designed form and inscribed with a set of joints. Fabrication requires minimal part reduction with a five-axis waterjet, and CNC routing adds surface continuity across a patchwork of irregular structural blocks. The blocks are joined without binders or hardware, allowing for easy assembly, disassembly, and reuse. The system can be utilized on a wide range of large-scale architectural uses, including structural walls and vaults, as well as nonstructural and decorative uses.
This project began in Schumann’s undergraduate spring 2021 architecture studio. Students Hassell, Audrey Lewis, Jacob McLaughlin, Rohan Singh, and Abbie Weissman developed the computational workflow and constructed a small-scale assembly at the UVA Morven Farm’s formal gardens.
Funding from various UVA grants and the School of Architecture dean’s office will allow the project team to build a physical prototype installation demonstrating these innovative material and construction strategies while working in collaboration with a student-founded sawmilling organization and the university’s facilities operations to acquire felled logs and existing timber waste from on-grounds projects..
Organization: University of Virginia and After Architecture
Principal Investigators: Kyle Schumann (Assistant Professor, University of Virginia / Cofounder, After Architecture), Katie MacDonald AIA (Assistant Professor, University of Virginia / Cofounder, After Architecture), Abby Hassell (B.Arch '22 University of Virginia)
Wall Prototype Students: Abby Hassell, Audrey Lewis, Jacob McLaughlin, Rohan Singh, Abbie Weissman (developed in ARCH 3021: Design Thinking Studio II: Material Cybernetics, taught by Kyle Schumann in spring 2021)
Vault Research Assistants: Sonja Bergquist, Cecily Farrell, Alex Hall, Caleb Hassell, Dillon Mcdowell, Annabelle Woodcock.
Funding: UVA Jefferson Trust Flash Funding Grant; UVA Center for Global Inquiry and Innovation Faculty Global Research with Undergraduates (FGRU) Grant; UVA School of Architecture Dean's Office.