HIGROW – Hygroscopic proprieties of wood used as programmable matter in lightweight construction

Luigi Olivieri, who is visiting the Form Finding Lab this week from the University of Tre (Rome, Italy) with Professor Stefano Gabriele, presents his master’s thesis work:

The project explores the possibilities of using the hygroscopic proprieties of wood as a programmable material. The aim of the research is to explore the possibilities of a temporary structure through a new method of design by studying a shell through the physical behavior of its construction material: wood. The design process is driven by a set of physical tests on the material to come up with an idea for a new pavilion.

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View of the exterior space of MAXXI, High humidity – open condition, Rome. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
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View of the exterior space of MAXXI, Low humidity – close condition, Rome. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
The process is divided in two parts, a local and global one. The local part concerns the fabrication process of the structure assembling the local parts taking in consideration the proprieties of wood. The second -global- part concerns the morphology of the pavilion according to the constructive biomimetic principles of a seashell.

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Diagram of the design space. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
Biomimetic implies the consciousness of understanding natural structures and their process through principles that can be adapted to procedure and technology in the design process. The genome of the project is given by a code that can be adapted to different contexts and through parameters that can acquire multiple variations.

From the study of the seashell, four main principles arise that bring stiffness to the overall shape. The form of seashells is curved in two directions, stiffening the body and distributing the weight efficiently. The distortion of the line in the shell furthermore modifies the distribution of the forces, preventing the shell from breaking.

Experimenting with paper models gives the possibilities to observe how the crease activated by a kinematic movement augments the resistance of a simple sheet of paper.  Transferring the physical system of folding paper into a digital environment, the range expands drastically by using a code that simulates the act of folding.

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Study model of paper folding experiment. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
By changing the shape of the folding, the result is different every time which allows to create a catalog. The result of this catalog also brings to light the possibilities of using these modules as a self-supporting structure and the ability to develop the surface in a planar sheet.

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Diagram for fabrication of modules with positive and negative Gaussian curvature. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]

The system is already self-supporting, but by adding additional force and bending in the modules, the stiffness increases exponentially. Using the biomimetic principle, behavior similar to that of a pine cone is observed: due to humidity changes an automatic mechanism is triggered generating movement.

The fabrication of the morphological system demonstrates that such a system prototype is feasible. Simple tests inside a humidified control room show that it is indeed possible to measure the curvature of different samples at different percentages of humidity.

The developed fabrication process uses a simple mechanism of absorption and resistance of forces thanks to a special bilayer of plywood. The lamination process takes into consideration how the fibers are layered in the pinecone petal to activate the kinematic mechanism due to the variation of humidity. The evolution of the test reveals that it is possible to control and reverse this mechanism. A joint is also developed in order to merge the components, to allow flexibility of the structure and to simplify the assembly process.

The functional prototype successfully demonstrated that the kinematic structure is capable of rearranging its microscopic cell organization by adapting its shape to various climatic conditions.

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Paper model of the global geometry. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
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Functional prototype of assembled modules in humidified control room. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]
The output of the project is divided in three levels. First, the hygroscopic mechanism of wood cells and how it can be programmed to achieve different results. Second, the joint that allows the modules to connect together and guarantee mechanical strength. Third, the morphology and the architectural function of the shape.

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Micro, Meso and Macro structure hierarchy of the system. [Copyright Luigi Olivieri]

Author: Luigi Olivier. Edited by Tim Michiels.

[thesis work advised by Stefano Gabriele, Luciano Teresi and Stefano Converso]

Luigi Olivieri is an architect and computational designer. He attended “La Sapienza” University in Rome, Italy where he received his bachelor degree in Architecture and Science of the City. During the course of his Master program at the University of “Roma Tre”, Luigi spent his second year at the University of Stuttgart working at the ITECH Master program for the duration of the entire year. He completed his Master’s in Rome with a presentation on material programming as his final thesis. Luigi moved on to work in different international firms from Tomas Saraceno to Fuksas Architecture and Rimond, participating in projects of different scale.

Luigi is currently interested in emergent technology, computational design, and architectural fabrication. He believes that studying emergent structure and natural principles can help architects find a better way of using technology and material to program efficient structures for the future of tomorrow.

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