With this prototypical cabin design, innovators at the Cornell University Faculty of Architecture are using diseased ash wood, 3d printing technology and repurposed automotive robotics to forge a new path for future sustainable building. The innovators themselves are Leslie Lok and Sasa Zivkovic, assistant professors at Cornell and co-principals at the firm HANNAH.
To set the stage, the Emerald Ash Borer Beetle is an invasive species currently devastating native ash trees across North America. The species is thought to have been first introduced to the continent in 2002 and since then has put more than 8.7 billion trees across the United States are under threat.
Until now, trees infected by the Borer Beetle were considered unusable for construction purposes due to the irregular geometries that result from their infestation. As such this wood is typically left to decompose or is burned for energy - an unfortunate loss of a common and versatile wood species.
Using robotics and 3D printers, the Cornell team saw the potential to make use of what was otherwise seen as waste material. “The team at RCL built the robotic platform specifically for processing irregular ash trees. Basically, we begin by creating 3D scans as a basis for translating and digitizing the complex and irregular geometries of the mature trees. The robot is then programmed to cut and process irregular wood geometries — it is through these current technologies that we can work with this material," explains Zivkovic.
The robotic arm used by the team was discovered on eBay and was previously used to build cars for General Motors. Zivkovic and the RCL team repurposed the robot, reprogramming it to methodically saw and shape damaged ash wood at a scale usable for structural and design elements.
In response to the use of concrete, one of the most widely used building material on earth, the Cornell researchers developed the full-scale 3D printing system that requires no formwork and uses the absolute minimum amount of concrete in the production process. This saves a significant amount of material, thus also improving the CO2 footprint of concrete construction.
“We believe this prototype offers a new way to think about the future of home construction,” says Lok. “The cabin is a combination of our design research and thinking in response to the urgent condition of our natural environment and possible modes of intervention — and, it demonstrates our potentially replicable use of relatively new technologies that allow us to advance both formal and technological innovation in the [architecture] discipline."