The Ongoing Teachings of Timber

Auckland architecture students are discovering the malleability of Abodo timbers in their final year construction paper.

Building on the success of the Learning from Trees exhibit in the Italian Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia in 2021, students at the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning have continued to design and build innovative structures for their final year theses, with Abodo timber as a main ingredient.

A great architect combines creativity and practicality in their practice - after all, a beautiful building design can only become exceptional if it is buildable. For final year students, this construction lab led by Professor Andrew Barrie, is enabling them to graduate with these practical skills in the bag.

A great architect combines creativity and practicality in their practice - after all, a beautiful building design can only become exceptional if it is buildable. For final year students, this construction lab led by Professor Andrew Barrie, is enabling them to graduate with these practical skills in the bag.

Having lived and worked in Japan, Andrew has a deep respect and admiration for Japanese timber joining techniques. This passion, along with a wish to set his students up for success, inspired him to devise this research lab, and to make timber the designated material for its delivery.

Approaches by students earlier in the lab’s history saw them using plywood for their designs but this had some limitations, says Andrew.

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Shadow Pavilion by Dylan Waddell

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Close up of the Shadow Pavilion by Dylan Waddell

“The big problem with plywood is it’s not very good in outdoor settings, so we started using the solid timber, and the Abodo really proved its worth there,” he says, referring to the robustness of the thermally modified product, which stays true even through drastic changes in moisture level and temperature.

While the plywood was easy to feed through a CNC machine, the solid timber pieces proved more difficult for this small scale work. Then-student Dylan Waddell helped to solve this problem through the design and build process of his Shadow Pavilion, which was created using Abodo Vulcan pieces.

Dylan devised a way to mill these smaller elements using a flat bed CNC machine. This methodolgy was refined for the Learning from Trees exhibit, which required modeling the elements digitally then preparing cutting files, with the 436 pieces of Vulcan each being unique due to the woven basket-like configuration of the design. Each of these pieces had to be secured in the machine and accurately milled, before being removed for assembly. The project used partial lap joints, which interlock to create a robust frame that appears lightweight.

“Previously students had used plywood to create structures for this paper, but I chose Abodo due to its inherent advantages of structural stability over a sheet material. Furthermore, due to the coastal nature of the project, I wanted to select a material that would last for many years to come, but also not include harmful chemicals such as CCA. Because Abodo wood is heat treated rather than chemically it is also a lot more dimensionally stable and shouldn’t have the same amount of movement that traditional timber would have through the season and between wet and dry.” - Dylan Waddell.

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Watari-Ago Shelter by Kanade Konishi

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Close up of the Watari-Ago Shelter by Kanade Konishi

Following on from this, the Watari-Ago Shelter by student Kanade Konishi, was created from Abodo Vulcan pieces using this same CNC cutting method, but this time with more elaborate cogged-lap joints known in Japanese as watari-ago, which required intricately detailed and precise cuts.

“Kanade’s structure was really remarkable in that it had half-lap joints where the sticks cross with a notch out of each stick,” says Andrew. “These notches were cut so accurately that we didn’t need screws to fix most of the joints — just a handful to ensure the structure’s stability.”

“As this was part of an on-going timber research project, it was natural for me to also work with Abodo timber as per past projects had. It was fantastic to work with, easy to mill on the CNC machine and cut. The straight and flexible characteristics of the timber also eased the process.” - Kanade Konishi.

Further projects have seen structures created without any fasteners at all. One recent project used a system of wedged joints, which allowed each joint to be individually fastened adjusting for any issues with the accuracy or stability of the milled timber pieces being joined. However with projects which use timbers such as cypress, students are finding the timber can deform when it is cut, sometimes beginning to warp and twist.

“Digital cutting techniques need high accuracy,” says Andrew. “With those jigs, we can hold timber in a very precise position and do things like turn it over and mill the other side, or turn it around and mill the other end very accurately, but of course that relies on the timber not starting to misbehave. That’s where we are finding the stability of the Abodo product remarkably useful.”

While architecture students in decades past have visited construction sites for this kind of hands-on experience, increasing Health & Safety requirements have caused these visits to become too onerous to organise. This makes Andrew’s final year lab project invaluable for contemporary students looking to engage practically with construction.

Furthermore, the successful delivery of these projects to public sites around the country has caused some to be recognised for awards. Both Dylan Waddell’s Shadow Pavilion, the local reiteration of Learning from Trees, and Kanade Konishi’s Watari-Ago Shelter are finalists in the Timber Design Awards 2023.

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Prepared timber for the Watari-Ago Shelter by Kanade Konishi

Both Pavilion and Shelter were also recognised in the Best Awards in 2021 in the Private, Public and Institutional Spaces categories.

For these students, learning how to work with and manipulate timber and receiving this recognition is sure to provide confidence and career opportunities down the line, while also delivering on the practical knowledge and skills they need to become excellent architects.

Photography credits:

  • First image - Marcela Grassi
  • All other images - Patrick Reynolds
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Dylan and Kanade in the Shadow Pavilion

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