Complex Form in Timber

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The combination of parametric CAD systems and computer-controlled fabrication tools makes timber the perfect material for free-form architecture.

The advent of digital fabrication technologies has opened the doors to ever-more-complex shapes in architecture. Computer-controlled mills, drills, and cutters are used to transfer the principles of mass customization to the building industry. Those CNC tools can produce thousands of individual components almost at the cost of mass production, allowing construction of complex curved shapes within reasonable budgets.

Timber is especially suited for this approach for a number of reasons. It is cheap, available, sustainable, and - most importantly - perfectly machinable. The common problem with all raw building materials is that they come in straight sticks or planar boards. This is where the materials usually associated with curvy shapes run into trouble. Bending metal or glass is a trial-and-error process, highly dependent on material properties and prone to imprecision. Milling a shape out of a raw block of material is immensely time- and cost-intensive. Cutting curved parts from flat sheets is easy and efficient but reconnecting them into a three-dimensional structure requires a lot of labor. Here, timber pulls the wild card. It can be machined by computer-controlled tools with amazing speed and high precision. The waste is recyclable. And all details like slots, bolt holes, and even complex timber connections can be fabricated directly.

But "file to factory" means more than just sending a CAD file to a CNC machine. It requires the integration of design, engineering, fabrication, and logistics into a seamless process. The complexity shifts from machining the material to managing the information. This is what designtoproduction adds to the process.

The interdisciplinary team acts as a relay among all involved parties and ensures the flow of information - transforming the designer's intention into parametric CAD models and ultimately into the code controlling a CNC tool.

Images: Zplus is a modular timber building system for free-form constructions, developed by designtoproduction in collaboration with Blumer-Lehmann AG and Création Holz.

Fabian Scheurer
8703 Erlenbach/Zürich, Switzerland