Elastic Wood

For many centuries wood has been used for its structural properties and less attention has been paid to its decorative qualities.  Other fields, particularly furniture and interior design have better explored the elastic quality of wood.  Wood can be bent and molded in a variety of ways—using steam, heat chemicals or cold bending.  One of the best known examples of this might be the Eames chair and some of Herman Miller’s other designs.

Bike made of bent beech wood

More recently, architecture has started its own exploration of the elastic nature of wood.  The ability of wood to bend varies by species. Redwood has one of the highest elasticity’s at .089 and balsa at the lower end at .015.  However, as mentioned above, wood typically has to be coaxed into these more elastic states.  By increasing the moisture content of wood it becomes more flexible and then compression or other forces can be applied to create the wanted curvature.  Recent examples of this include Studio Gang’s installation in Lincoln Park.  Research at Stuttgart University has also focused on this little explored topic of the elastic nature in wood. This resulted in a wonderful little pavilion that impressively weaves wood to create a curved structure.

Pavilion at Stuttgart University

Studio Gang’s Pavilion at Lincoln Park

Seeing as many of the examples present today are very small scale it seems worth questioning if this is something that could be translated into a larger form.  Most of these projects required large lengths of wood.  The 10 meter long pieces used in the pavilion at Stuttgart are almost at the limit of what you can get today. Additionally, when contorting pieces of wood as these structures have done, the bearing capacity of the wood is greatly decreased.  Therefore the ability of translating the form into larger structures seems unlikely.

An answer to this may be using laminated wood.  While elegant and warm it is able to take on many more shapes.  It also takes advantage of bonding agents to increase its strength and maximum length.  Unless laminating pieces of wood together is our solution to this problem, it seems unlikely that large scale projects exploring the elasticity of wood could be achieved.  Ultimately the question becomes if we cannot achieve the elasticity we want with natural pieces of wood are we cheating in using fabricated pieces of glulam?

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