PJ Dick Innovation Fund Project Grant: (de)Mass(ing) Timber

Project 2024
Matthew Huber, Special Faculty
black and white photo of a group of people driving a car through a tunnel in a large tree

(de)Mass(ing) Timber: Geometric and Tectonic Strategies for Material Resource Reduction in Timber Construction
Matthew Huber, Special Faculty, Carnegie Mellon Architecture

In collaboration with: Juney Lee, T. David Fitz-Gibbon Assistant Professor of Architecture, Carnegie Mellon Architecture; Azadeh O. Sawyer, Assistant Professor in Building Technology, Carnegie Mellon Architecture

Mass timber, boosted by industry marketing, is heralded as the construction industry’s emerging savior from climate catastrophe. Yet little is understood about the implications of widespread adoption: are Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools accurately accounting for logging industry emissions and the sequestration potential of forests in carbon calculations? What is the impact of forest fires and climate fluctuations on the timber industry's capacity? How will increases in production impact ecologies and land use? The World Resources Institute identifies growing timber demand as a critical pressure on land use and global carbon, challenging the optimism projected by mass timber manufacturers. Answering these questions is not within the scope of this proposal, but they inform a desire to critique mass timber in favor of lighter weight solutions.

Emerging from the work of Frie Otto and others, and greatly increasing with the advent of widely available digital tools, computational structural design and optimization have become a rich field of study in architecture schools. However, the vast majority of these studies look at techniques such as gridshells or other three-dimensional systems suitable for pavilions or roofs that aren’t applicable to typical floors in multi-story construction, the target use for mass timber. We propose studying a typical structural bay as a use case for lightweight timber assemblies using form-finding techniques to critically reform mass timber assemblies with reduced resource intensiveness as a way of mitigating impacts on climate and ecology. We see this proposal as a seed grant to identify three pathways of tectonic/geometric strategies that can be further elaborated at full scale with future funding and industry partnerships. Emerging technologies, such as AI-driven generative design and optimization, AR enhanced construction, and other computational processes will be essential to developing the work. 

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About the Project Lead

Special Faculty

  • Project grants support projects that address the school’s three pedagogical challenges: climate change, social justice and artificial intelligence. The grants support the diverse work of Carnegie Mellon Architecture’s faculty in creative practice, professional practice, artistic practice, funded research, participatory design, design build, curation, scholarship, critical and digital humanities, and more. The intention of the PJ Dick Project Grants Program is to provide support for a variety of projects including faculty seed funds to start a project with the aim of getting external support, to continue work on a project that may not have the option for sponsored research, and to support organizing symposia and conferences at the school.

  • The Faculty Grants Program will award a total of $400,000 over four years and is open to all full time faculty at the school. The 2024 proposals were evaluated by a committee comprised of school head Omar Khan; associate heads Joshua Bard, Mary-Lou Arscott and Kai Gutschow; Erica Cochran Hameen, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Theodossis Issaias, Special Faculty; Jenn Joy Wilson, Assistant Dean for Research Development and Sponsored Projects; and Aaron Martin, Associate Director, Institutional Partnerships, College of Fine Arts.

    The Faculty Grants Program, established in 2023 by PJ Dick Trumbull Lindy Group, supports faculty research and teaching innovations that address the school’s three pedagogical challenges: climate change, social justice and artificial intelligence. The proposals were assessed on their impact in furthering a faculty member’s research and teaching, their contribution to interrogating the school’s challenges, and their viability to garner further research support, make an impact on the discipline and expand the pedagogy of the school.