Structural Upcycling / Review

Structural Upcycling / Review

Fall 2018 / Experiments in Pedagogy

Part of the Fall 2018 Experiments in Pedagogy
Caitlin Mueller, Felix Amtsberg, Yijiang Huang, Demi Fang, Paul Mayencourt, and Daniel Marshall with Jason Detwiler and City of Somerville

Structural Upcycling: Merging Digital and Natural Materiality in the Design and Fabrication of Nonstandard Timber Structures
September 8 - October 13, 2018 

Reflecting on the past 150 years of Architecture at MIT also involves thinking forward to the major challenges and opportunities that the next 150 years will bring.  Questions of the role of the built environment in global climate change and massive resource depletion are certainly part of this picture, as are those related to the next steps of the digital revolution.  Structural Upcycling is a proposed experimental workshop that addresses both of these sets of questions. 

In most of the twentieth century, progress in architectural design and construction, especially in terms of material systems and assemblies, was marked by standardization. Structural steel sections and rebars were standardized into catalogues of set sizes and shapes, and even natural materials like timber became commodified and industrialized. More recently, advances in computational design and digital fabrication provoked an interest in variation, diversity, customization, and complexity among designers and builders.  In a parallel stream, modern culture more broadly has begun to rebel against mass production and global supply chains, favoring local and ethical sourcing in major consumer areas such as food and clothing.

In architecture, an emerging line of thinking links these two developments, connecting the computational power of digital tools with a renewed interest in nonstandard and locally sourced material systems. For example, in 2017, a long-span grid shell structure was built in Switzerland with recycled skis.  Recent work in Singapore assembles locally sourced bamboo into large-scale structures with the aid of 3D scanning and 3D printed joints. In the UK, researchers at the AA are working with forestry experts to inventory a live forest through 3D scanning with drones, and develop digital design tools to develop structural assemblies that make use of this physical material catalog. 

How should this thinking take form at MIT, a high-tech research institution located in one of the oldest urban centers in the US? The proposed workshop makes use of ongoing and established research in digital design and optimization produced by Prof. Caitlin Mueller and the Digital Structures research group, and a burgeoning relationship with the Urban Forestry division of the City of Somerville, headed by Dr. Vanessa Boukili. A growing digital inventory of Somerville street trees catalogues more than 2000 trees across more than 20 species, and includes many that need to be removed for various reasons.  Typically, removed trees are chipped at the site of removal, with the resulting material used as mulch for municipal landscaping projects. However, a great amount of functional value is lost in this process, since high-strength fibers are cut and branching geometries with built-in potential for joints are destroyed. If used structurally, upcycled street trees offer huge potential for cost savings and environmental impact reduction compared to conventionally forested timber, if they can be sourced and designed with in a systematic way.

In the past, shipbuilders looked at tree geometries and branching structures to guide designs of vessels to be made from these natural material sources (as shown below). This workshop reimagines this process for the architectural scale, taking advantage of digital tools for design and digital fabrication methods for construction.

Working with inventory from the City of Somerville, students will source, design, and build a pavilion-scale structure on the MIT campus over a series of four weekend workshops that make use of a larger research framework underway at Digital Structures. They will learn and use a range of digital technologies, including 3D scanning, design optimization, structural simulation, and robotic fabrication. Principles of timber engineering and wood science will also be taught.  In addition to technical learning outcomes, students will ideally finish the workshop sequence with a new appreciation for material sourcing streams in architecture and for the new potentials of digital tools and systems to harness them.