We were asked to expand the entry lobby of a school in Massachusetts and create a new environment for informal learning and collaboration. We discovered that the existing brick structure included a series of remarkable Guastavino thin masonry vaults--which we restored and illuminated. The Gustavino vault system became our inspiration for the design of a new unifying spatial element--a bent wood vault. The wood vault combines aspects of architectural room making, structure, infrastructure and furniture. As a new spatial element, the new wood vault spans between the renovated main circulation corridor, lobby and entry, unifying spaces which were previously sub-divided by walls. The wood vault also provides seating, lighting and distributes electrical power and WI FI.
We’re interested in how design and computation can transform industrially processed plywood, enabling soft wood to exceed its standard structural capacities and received form as a ‘flat’ sheet product--to create new form without mold making investment. Digital “grid shell’ construction for curved geometries wastes material, as curved bents are cut from flat sheets. We created an innovative flat-to form design process, using computation, 3D modeling and an intensive empirical study of plywood’s natural bending capacity. Our design developed parametric constraints that enabled us to “reform” thin, 3/8” plywood sheets through bending and tension, while still retaining the affordability of flat pieces cut from standard flat panels. The design bends and weaves plywood strips in a shell vault geometry-- expanding the principals of reciprocating force and layering, in sympathy with the School’s Gustavino vaults. Design cutting and assembly logic are catalysts for the formal transformative processes of this project—rather than reliance on non-standard material pieces or more wasteful ways of materializing complex geometries in architecture, such as routing and grid shell. We built the vault on site in 4 days.

Date: 2012
Status: Completed
Client: Beaver School
Location: Chestnut Hill, MA
Design Team:
Photographer: John Horner

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Bent Wood Vault