Legacy Trees and LiDAR: Q&A with Roald Gundersen (BS Arch ‘84)

Roald Gundersen (BS Arch & Environmental Science ‘84) founded WholeTrees Architecture & Structures in 2007, but has been revolutionizing the use of un-milled timber for his entire career. WholeTrees uses small diameter timber in new construction projects, which improves the health and productivity of regional forests while boosting local economies.

This year, WholeTrees, in partnership with the US Forest Products Laboratory, received grants from the USDA Small Business Innovation Research program to test new digital tools to scale the supply, grading, design, engineering, fabrication, and installation of non-uniform timbers sourced from the cullings of sustainably managed forests.  

The new web platform they developed will enable anyone to upload and download 3D trees hosted on a digital tree catalogue. Builders and designers will be able to use this catalogue to source, design, engineer, fabricate, and install trees into buildings. An accompanying software will automate the pre-engineering of trees using WholeTrees’ algorithms based on testing of branched timbers at the Forest Products Laboratories in Madison.     


Did you encounter any hiccups or surprises?  

An early surprise came when the first round of testing found the crooks of trees to be stronger than the trunk or branches. This is significant because wooden connections were all thought to be weaker than the parts they connected. Instead, we found the branch-failure-mode to be shape-dependant, leading to the use of Photogrametry and LiDAR as preliminary digital engineering tools. That was fortunate as these 3D trees can also be used in design and fabrication.   


Which steps of the construction process will this software change? How?   

The web platform can connect the wood to the hood by allowing the designer to uniquely specify a particular tree. The tree could be a legacy ash from down the street, or matched closely for a near symmetrical branching tree paring, or fitted to a specific design load. We did all of the above for the Festival-Galaxie Store in Madison.

It didn’t change the construction process much, as it went together as fast as steel and was installed by iron workers. But it did change the architecture, making a big-box feel more like a forest. (And a locally-sourced, 120 ton, carbon-sequestering box at that.)       


What do you imagine the overall impact of the software suite will be?   

At a minimum and in the near-term, this web platform will allow WholeTrees to accelerate and scale the innovative uses of trees in buildings. When we launch it for the public, I imagine that it will allow others to explore a new design medium, not wood or timber, but the beautiful branching and curved structures of trees.  

My ultimate hope would be for its use as a restorative tool for forests, turning sustainable forest cullings into beautiful buildings. We can help forests harvest more carbon from our atmosphere. That carbon can be beautifully stored as the architecture of our growing cities.  


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