In summer 2022, UBC Architecture professor AnnaLisa Meyboom taught ARCH 571C, a graduate seminar on the role of wood in robotic construction.
UBC masters’ in architecture students investigated advancements in robotic assembly through hands-on experiences with an eight-axis industrial robot — an automated and programmable mechanical structure used in construction and manufacturing.
As part of the seminar, students were immersed in a three-day workshop where their newly acquired knowledge was put into practice. Along with Meyboom, University of Waterloo associate professor Dr. David Correa and digital fabrication expert Oliver David Krieg, hosted the workshop while teaching the students.
The workshop allowed students to create wooden structures, three of which are “Zentwine,” Blossom and “Cluster.” Cluster is currently displayed outside the Frederic Lasserre building. These creations serve as a unique take on the student’s exploration of new technologies.
The Ubyssey spoke with ARCH 571C students’ to learn more about their structures and the design processes behind them.
The material of the century
Meyboom is no stranger to wooden architecture designs, with her designs featured around campus. In 2019, “Wander Wood,” her award-winning robot-made pavilion, was displayed on Main Mall behind the Martha Piper Plaza.
“We’ve come to a point where the importance of sustainability is such that we need to engage with materials that we didn’t engage with before,” said Meyboom. With its unique organic properties, she explained that wood presents itself as a challenge to work within certain circumstances.
Wood has the potential to degrade and decompose, but it still has advantages over other materials. Richard Mohammed, a master’s student in Meyboom’s seminar, outlined wood’s important role in the future of architecture.
“[Wood] is the way we’re going to be building less carbon-intensive buildings,” said Mohammed. In comparison to wood, construction materials like concrete and steel are high contributors to carbon emissions.
“We could still use [concrete and steel], but very strategically … where they’re supporting the design system rather than overpowering it.”
Apart from the environmental benefits of utilizing sustainably sourced wood, Sarah Pitoscia, another master’s student, highlighted the psychological benefits of this material.
“It reduces stress on the inhabitants of the building,” she said.
Pitoscia’s graduate research is focused on nature-based learning in school-aged children. She has investigated the detrimental cognitive and social impacts of a disconnect with nature.
Past studies illustrate the benefits of wood in built environments. UBC PhD student David Fell found in a 2010 study that people in a wood setting had lower stress levels than those in non-wood settings. His work concluded that implementing wood into indoor settings may be able to produce positive psychological effects.
The student’s final products are a representation of wood within modern construction technology. Meyboom plans to showcase many more works in the future.
Kenneth Anggara, one of the three master’s students who designed this structure, said the group’s initial goal was to create something simultaneously simple yet complex since the piece, Zentwine, is something only a robot could build.
“We were really inspired by the mountains,” said Anggara.
He said the team broke down the concept of a mountain range, creating abstract lines layered on top of one another, which formed an assembly structure. The early conceptualizations depicted five rows of panels, with a height of approximately two metres. The final display included many similar properties, with interlocking wood panels.
“Every panel actually comes at different angles,” Anggara said. The challenge is not only designing a wood piece compatible with the robot’s abilities but also familiarizing oneself with the robot’s design language.
He has always been interested in fabrication and having taken a previous course with Meyboom, this seminar was his opportunity to learn more about robotic fabrication and data.
Anggara’s specific interests in architecture lie in bridging the gap between big data and design. Growing up in Indonesia, he was immersed by an education centred around science. When he moved to the US, and later Canada, started pursuing his passion for architecture at the University of Manitoba.
During his undergraduate degree, in environmental design, he began to notice the disconnect between the research and design processes of architects. Anggara found that much of the site analysis was lost when it came to the final product. By focusing on data science and visualization, he sees this as the facilitation towards socially-responsible design solutions.
Another structure produced during the seminar was also inspired by elements in nature, but its final product is strikingly different from Anggara’s Zentwine creation.
Blossom mimics and was inspired by a budding flower, Pitoscia said.
She noted how one side of the structure starts off quite flat, like a closed bud. The piece then begins to open and then fold down again, similar to how a flower grows throughout the seasons.
“The initial design involved explorations into the connection between a petal and a wedge,” she said. Utilizing the eight-axis industrial robot, Pitoscia explained how the group created wedge components with a set of “two teeth” on either side that connect to the corresponding “petals” on a series of angles. The final product depicts how flower petals fold over each other to create an overall arching form.
The goal of her group was to offer an educative platform on the “spatial, tactile and material possibilities” offered by parametric design innovation. Focusing on the user experience, the group wanted to showcase how new technologies can be used to construct organic and expressive forms that replicate nature.
As a “big outdoors person,” Pitoscia’s specific interests in architecture involve the disconnect between nature and built environments.
During the pandemic, Pitoscia focused on examining the barriers for elementary school educators being able to curate outdoor learning environments within the existing constraints of the school buildings.
“Every time I went outside, it just felt like going from one building to the next, not engaging with nature,” said Pitoscia. Her research presented solutions to this disconnect, creating a “gradient of learning environments from indoors to out.”
Using the Vancouver School Board curriculum, Pitoscia’s research mapped out the potential for different classes to be conducted in new settings, with an encouraged engagement with the landscape. Her new nature-based spaces allow for children to become active members in the construction and maintenance of their learning environments.
“As I go forward with my career, I definitely want to carry those ideas with me.”
The final structure The Ubyssey looked at was Mohammed’s Cluster piece.
“We were given all the extensive creative license[s],” said Mohammed. During the workshop, Meyboom let her students create anything, which resulted in “radically different” end projects, all a reflection of what each group wanted to create.
“The basic concept behind Cluster was to create this cool amalgamation with all these weird angles,” he said.
The different panels come together through a “box connection,” which is typically a difficult process in typical construction. His group’s goal was to “make use of the robot,” showcasing the advancements in technology.
Unlike other industries, construction has seen little to no improvement in productivity over the past 80 years.
“It’s really one of the slowest,” said Mohammed. He said prefabrication — the process of assembling building components offsite, and then transferring them to the construction site — is one of the ways the architecture industry is working to “keep up” with technology.
He said workshops like these, where students can conduct in-depth investigations into construction technologies, serve as a good way to expose young designers to alternative methods of building and thinking. By looking into various ways to design the simplest of things, this process builds the foundational knowledge needed for innovation.
“Design comes from creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.”