BreAnne Fleer / Sun News Editor

The LOG KNOT installation is composed of irregularly-shaped logs connected in a twisting design.

September 4, 2018

Robotically-Built LOG KNOT Installation on Ag Quad Optimizes Wood Usage

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Looping around itself on the Ag Quad stands LOG KNOT — On Perpetual Wood Cycles and Forest Processes, a new installation built with robotic technology and made of wood that would usually be discarded.

The project, located near Caldwell Hall on the Ag Quad, features a collection of irregularly-shaped logs linked together in a twisting design that reaches high above the ground. LOG KNOT was created by the Cornell Robotic Construction Laboratory in collaboration with Cornell’s 4,200-acre Arnot Teaching and Research Forest and is part of the Cornell Council for the Arts 2018 Biennial.

Prof. Sasa Zivkovic, architecture, director of RCL and the main leader of the project, explained in an email to The Sun that the project’s goal was to “create an infinite singular loop of wood, taking a tree (a line) and ‘bending it’ around itself to form a spatial experience.”

“At the most basic level, our goal was to ‘bend’ tree trunks,” he said. “Also, we like pretzels!”

Zivkovic noted that the project began in January 2017 in a studio course he taught in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. The studio, he said, purchased an $8,000 used KUKA industrial robot on eBay that would be used to cut the logs.

According to Zivkovic, the system connecting the ends of the logs was developed by Brian Havener M.Arch. ’17, project co-leader and research associate for RCL. Zivkovic said that inspiration for the work was taken from structures created by 20th century architect Isamu Noguchi.

After applying for a grant from CCA and receiving an invitation to participate in the 2018 Biennial, Zivkovic and Havener spent the spring and summer of this year working on their project, Zivkovic said.

“It takes a large and dedicated research team to design and complete an architectural installation like LOG KNOT,” he told The Sun. “Final assembly on the Ag Quad was comparatively fast and took only three days.”

Todd Petrie ’19, a research assistant on the five-person RCL project team for LOG KNOT, focused on the process of robotically milling each log. According to Petrie, cutting all of the joints in the estimated 65 to 70 logs took over two weeks, even with a morning and night crew working every day.

Petrie estimated that “the process of centering the log on the metal stand, checking the [robot] files, copying them over, and then running the files took about 3 hours per log on average,” adding that the crew could finish about five logs “on a good day.”

Petrie told The Sun that he found it “most rewarding” to learn about the robot, which he had not used before.

“It was a challenge to work through this time-intensive process because the robot requires a great deal of attention and focus,” he said. “It’s an extremely powerful machine and we had to be sure it was working safely and cutting the wood effectively.”

As part of the CCA 2018 Biennial, the LOG KNOT installation falls under the theme of “Duration: Passage, Persistence, Survival.” According to the CCA website, for this year’s biennial, “the aim is to stage artistic environments that might provoke conversation about the persistence of passage, from environments to communities, while emphasizing the challenge of survival in hostile socio-ecological climates.”

Zivkovic explained that LOG KNOT “addresses this theme on multiple levels,” connecting the project to natural processes like “environmental cycles, birth, growth, and decay” that take place in forest ecosystems.

“The infinitely looping sculpture is an interplay between archaic natural geometry, advanced computation, and state-of-the art digital fabrication,” he said. “By questioning how we currently use the forest as a resource, the LOG KNOT project provides a critical commentary on various perpetual wood cycles: economic, environmental, and cultural in nature.”

Drawing attention to the limitations of sawmills currently used to cut logs for construction, Zivkovic pointed out that an average of only 35 percent of a tree’s wood ends up being used. For him, “robotic fabrication technology” like that used to build LOG KNOT offers a way “to process highly irregular tree geometries which are normally discarded or used as firewood.”

Both Zivkovic and Petrie agreed that the technology used to create LOG KNOT could be applied in the future.

“In terms of how the project aims to advance and optimize the usage of trees in construction, my take is that this project is an early step in what could become a really interesting and intuitive way of constructing buildings or other structures,” Petrie said.

He called Log Knot a “sort of trial run” that tests what is “possible” in robotic cutting.

Zivkovic added that, while people might consider wood a familiar construction material and “assume that we know its possibilities and limits,” technological advances can change perceptions.

“New technological paradigms such as robotic-based fabrication radically challenge our understanding of wood as a building material,” he said. “Wood is an exciting and highly advanced building material and we have yet to take better/full advantage of wood as a sustainable and smart material for construction.”

LOG KNOT is sponsored by CCA, the architecture college, the AAP Department of Architecture and FARO Technologies. According to Zivkovic, the installation will remain in its place on the Ag Quad through December until the end of the CCA 2018 Biennial.