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Innovations in Wood

Innovations in Wood

Faculty member Yugon Kim finds new inspiration through his research into environmentally sustainable contemporary timber construction.

Thanks to a RISD Bridge Grant, faculty member Yugon Kim has been developing a sustainable wooden version of the concrete construction block.

Interior Architecture Critic Yugon Kim has always loved working with wood, but he didn’t quite expect that his recent research into contemporary timber construction techniques would totally reinvigorate his design and architecture practice. “I was feeling a bit lost,” says the cofounder of IKD in Cambridge, MA, “and this research brought new meaning to my work. My partner and I are now applying design thinking and adaptive reuse principals to [universal] problems like climate change and sustainability.”

Thanks to a RISD Bridge Grant, Kim has been able to do the necessary research to develop Timber Waste Modular Units (TwMU’s)—environmentally friendly building blocks made from lumber mill waste that essentially double the material output of each harvested tree. IKD has already used the material to design the Outside In bench, which won Core 77’s Built Environment Award earlier this year and in June earned an honorable mention in Architect magazine’s R+D Awards.

“We basically created a wooden version of the CMU, or concrete block,” Kim explains. “We’re using the waste that comes from making a round log square.” By cutting the C-shaped sections of trim created in commercial timber processing, rotating each piece so that the milled side is out and the bark side in and then reassembling the pieces with standard screws, IKD creates attractive, stackable, load-bearing blocks.

“We're experimenting with environmentally friendly finishing techniques [...] and we're testing the material to see how it endures over time. That's the challenge for modern designers: the long game.”
Interior Architecture Critic Yukon Kim

“We’re still experimenting with different environmentally friendly finishing techniques, such as beeswax, pine tar and charring,” Kim adds. “And we’re testing the material to see how it endures over time. That’s the challenge for modern designers: the long game.”

Another professional development grant from RISD enabled Kim to develop an exhibition on timber construction for the Boston Society of Architects a few years ago. Based on that, IKD is now putting together an updated, “Serra-esque” version of the show called Timber City: Innovations in Wood, which will open at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC in September. The exhibition highlights cutting-edge innovations in timber technology along with the surprising strength, fire resistance and sustainability of the often-overlooked material.

As Kim explains, building with timber-rather than steel and concrete-reduces carbon emissions and actually removes existing carbon from the atmosphere by locking it into the built environment. “Young trees are best able to collect carbon,” he notes, “and unmaintained forests are vulnerable to forest fires, which release carbon into the atmosphere.” The goal, he says, is to harvest trees at the right moment, when they stop collecting carbon.

“Teaching at RISD is wonderful. [...] My teaching evolves along with my practice, and I"m always trying to get students to think about they impact of the decisions they make in the studio.”

Timber is perfectly safe for large-scale urban construction, Kim says—even for buildings as much as 18 stories tall. The trick is sizing the boards appropriately by creating massive CLT (cross-laminated timber) panels up to 70 feet long. In the event of a fire, the panels char on the outside but—unlike steel girders—maintain their structural integrity. Kim draws an analogy with naturally occurring forest fires, in which small trees burn away but larger ones remain.

When he’s not designing exhibitions or taking on residential architecture projects, Kim “makes sculpture that’s disguised as furniture for clients who are willing to take risks.” This summer he’s teaching a studio on making for incoming Interior Architecture grad students that’s allowing him to pass along his deep and growing knowledge of wood. He’s looking forward to teaching a studio this fall on adaptive reuse and critical thinking in collaboration with Landscape Architecture Critic Katie Foley.

“Teaching at RISD is wonderful,” says Kim. “There is an amazing level of support for research here. My teaching evolves along with my practice, and I’m always trying to get students to think about the impact of the decisions they make in the studio—especially when it comes to the materials they use and where those materials came from.”

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