MIT creates “library of tree forks” to use natural wood as load-bearing joints

Image courtesy of Felix Amtsberg
A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found a way to turn wood waste into load-bearing structures by taking advantage of natural properties of trees.

Sections of wood that contain knots and forks are usually ground up and turned into fuel pellets, however an MIT team has found a way to turn them into structural components.

Caitlin Mueller, an associate professor of architecture at MIT’s Building Technology Programme, worked with the university’s Digital Structures research team to focus on a five-step “design-to-fabrication workflow” for the wood.

Mueller, said ( the project was “at least potentially scalable and potentially achievable within our industrialised materials processing systems. Many iconic buildings built in the past two decades have unexpected shapes.

“Tree branches have a very specific geometry that sometimes lends itself to an irregular or nonstandard architectural form – driven not by some arbitrary algorithm but by the material itself.”

The idea is that Y-shaped tree forks are similar to Y-shaped nodes in architectural drawings. The wood would be reused without excessive cutting, which is expensive and may compromise the wood’s natural geometry and grain.

The workflow is as follows:

  1. The team creates a digital library of their collection of tree forks, allowing for them to be assessed for structural integrity
  2. An algorithm is used to evaluate their usability
  3. Further tests are carried out to match design intentions with structural performance
  4. The wood is put through a further custom algorithm to determine the cuts necessary to create a useable structure
  5. The forks and linear elements are assembled to create the finished product.

Research on the project is continuing, with the team expanding its material libraries and adding a 3D-scanning technique with computerised scanning technologies.

The findings have been published in the autumn 2021 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.

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