Building with wood that bends itself into shape

Researchers from ETH Zurich, Empa and the University of Stuttgart have developed a new technique involving a controlled drying process that makes wooden panels bend into a pre-set shape without the use of any mechanical force. 

Ein Turm aus geschwungenen Holzpaneelen.
Wooden building elements that bend themselves into shape on the basis of programmed settings could be a boost for the timber construction sector. Image: Urbach Tower. (Image: ICD/ITKE University of Stuttgart) 

Wood is a renewable resource and a popular, sustainable construction material. Complex architectural designs featuring curved or twisted structures, however, pose increasing challenges for the wood construction sector. Reshaping wood currently utilises large machines that consume substantial amounts of energy to press the building elements into the required shapes.

In a study recently published in external pageScience Advances, researchers from ETH Zurich and Empa presented a process that has the potential to replace these inefficient mechanical reshaping processes. In collaboration with colleagues from the University of Stuttgart, they have developed an approach that makes solid wooden construction elements bend themselves into a pre-set shape without the use of external mechanical force.

Programmed curvature

The self-shaping process is based on the natural swelling and shrinking of wood caused by the moisture content of the material. When damp wood dries, it contracts more strongly perpendicular to the grain than along the grain. This warpage is normally an undesirable effect, but the researchers have taken advantage of the property by gluing two layers of wood together so that their grain directions are opposed to each other. This bilayer panel constitutes the foundation of the new method.

“As the water content of the bilayer panel decreases, one layer shrinks more than the other. Both layers are firmly glued together, so the wood bends,” explains Markus Rüggeberg, who is affiliated with both Empa and ETH and led the study. Depending on the thickness of the layers, grain direction and moisture content of the wood, the researchers can use a computer model to calculate the precise warpage of the building component during drying. They have dubbed this process “wood programming”.

Enlarged view: The graphic shows the bending of a wood bilayer during drying.
Wooden bilayers are produced flat, with a high moisture content and opposed grain directions (L, R, T) to ensure suitable warpage during drying. The warping angles are calculated using a material model. (Illustration: Philippe Grönquist / ETH Zurich)

Once a bilayer panel has reached its target shape, it can be glued together with similarly curved panels in a process called lamination. This allows the research team to obtain the required material thicknesses for use as cross-laminated timber, which always consists of multiple layers. A wooden component produced in this manner remains dimensionally stable even in fluctuating humidity.

“Our approach enables a wide range of shapes and curvature radii. The concept of programming wood opens up new architectural possibilities for this regionally available, renewable construction material,” says Philippe Grönquist, the lead author of the study who works at both institutions and has dedicated his doctoral thesis to this topic. The researchers have submitted a patent application for their method.

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(Video: University of Stuttgart / ETH Zurich)

Curved to the skies: the Urbach Tower

The Urbach Tower proves that the method is suitable for large-scale wooden constructions. It is the world’s first wooden building made from large, self-shaping elements. Standing 14 metres tall, the striking tower was built as a landmark for the national horticultural show in Remstal near Stuttgart in May 2019. It is a joint project run by architects and engineers from the University of Stuttgart and the Swiss timber construction company Blumer-Lehmann.

Der Urbach Turm
The 14-metre Urbach Tower consists of twelve spruce panels that are composed of multiple bilayer panels with a length of 5 metres each. (Image: CD/ITKE University of Stuttgart)


Grönquist P et al. Analysis of hygroscopic self-shaping wood at large scale for curved mass timber structures. Science Advances (2019), doi: external page10.1126/sciadv.aax1311

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