How WholeTrees Leverages Technology to Innovate with Timber

WholeTrees Structures® round timber products can be found in museums and educational facilities, the headquarters of tech companies, tribal infrastructure, zoo habitats (for both humans and a wide range of other species), and on the playgrounds of America’s parks. Whether structural columns and trusses in multi-story buildings, branching and beautiful decorative trees in the atriums of mixed-use developments, solar carports, bandshells, or soaring natural playscapes, WholeTrees products often elicit feelings of awe and delight, quickly followed by curiosity.

How are we able to bring intact round timber structural components from the forest to modern building design? The answer: By leveraging a medley of cutting edge technologies and weaving them together to form a seamless and intelligent Supply Chain from Fabrication to Installation. WholeTrees innovation creates a direct connection between the natural and the built environment

Image
Image

WholeTrees has streamlined and scaled the use of round timber in commercial construction with the goal of restoring the awe and delight of our woodlands. The company, started in 2007, does this with a combination of decades of expertise, highly innovative use of technology, and efficient coast-to-coast logistics.

Read on as we explore the intertwined elements of WholeTrees technology, forestry, and design.

Image

Design: Bringing Organic Forms into 3D Design Platforms

Building projects that utilize WholeTrees products start with a vision. Innovative owners, designers, and architects contact WholeTrees seeking the biophilic forms of Structural Round Timber (SRT), its innate strength, and its high levels of carbon-sequestration, as quantified by the dramatic results of its published EPD.

Modern design methods then mandate that the “Vision” is then translated to the “Digital Realm.” Without effective digital design tools such as BIM families and parametric models, structural building products cannot be specified at any scaled level (even when that product is as ancient and time-tested as round timber). WholeTrees predicted this market mandate as early as 2012 and began developing an expertise in 3D scanning of trees, the creation of round timber BIM families, and the use of rendering software to realistically communicate vision into practical shop drawings. Ten years later, WholeTrees launched a beta-platform where architects and engineers can access WholeTrees design tools. The WholeTrees Inventory Platform, or the “Timbers Platform,” provides architects and engineers a searchable digital inventory of actual tree scans, as well as an ever-expanding catalog of generic BIM models and connection details for column, beam, truss, pergola, and play element specification. 

Image

Scan: How a tree’s geometry predicates its structural capacity and facilitates specification

Image

The WholeTrees “Timbers Platform” (currently in Beta) creates a central location for a vast range of data required  to effectively source regional timber from decentralized forests to use in commercial construction nationwide. Data sets include mechanical properties by species, location, and date of data entry, photo-images, geometric tube models, and when applicable, 3D scans of standing and felled timbers available for use in construction projects. The Timbers Platform inventory can be queried for a variety of aesthetic and structural properties, and private portfolios of tree selections can be established and added to over time.  

WholeTrees collects tree data for this platform in two ways:

  1. Inventory is scanned in the forest or at the inventory yard with a 3D scanner to capture geometry. The scans produce point clouds, which are converted to mesh files and then compatible formats for Revit, sketchup, and other design platforms.
  2. Foresters can also provide spreadsheets of hand-measured inventory. This data can be uploaded to automatically generate 3D tube models for future design projects.

The utilization of scanning technologies is at the heart of what makes WholeTrees so unique. Our team collaborates with forest managers and fabrication yards to bring lidar scanning equipment to the trees themselves, developing a three-dimensional shape for designers to play with, and for structural engineers to examine and confirm necessary geometries.

VP of Operations, Derek Mayhew, explains some of the benefits of this process:

“Scanning allows us to have a more accurate and useful conversation with our designers. They can select the most ideal trees for their project and have a full and complete understanding of what they are getting at the design point of the process, not after installation. We also use the technology to track our “diva trees,” (decorative trees that will not be used for structure, but instead, sculpture). It essentially serves as a ‘bar code’ once it is scanned for potential future project needs.”

The WholeTrees design team is exceptionally skilled at modeling with the organic shapes of trees. It isn’t easy to visualize the majesty of a tree, but our experts leverage these 3D models and catalog of standard connections  to ensure the fulfillment of a project’s design intent.

Source: How Rigorous Specifications and Data Collection Allow Sourcing from Decentralized Forests

There are several points during a design project where WholeTrees can incorporate scanned trees. Designers contact WholeTrees during any of the design stages from Schematics all the way through Construction and Bid Documentation.

WholeTrees works with our clients to assess timber species recommendations.  Species selection depends on Design Intent, region of eventual job site, interior or exterior application, and other contributing factors. Once a project’s timber species is ascertained, WholeTrees moves timber along the supply chain by communicating highly specific purchase requests to foresters. Our inventory order forms can include 3D timber models which demonstrate necessary geometries, timber grade requirements, and top and base dimensions.

As access to remote-capable technology has improved over the last decade, WholeTrees has integrated in-forest video reviews as a necessary part of our national supply chain logistics. In the near future, we are confident that hand held scanning will become so accurate that foresters will be able to verify geometries to our design teams from any forest landing with cellular service. We also predict that as demand for SRT grows, our “Timbers Platform” will grow into a network of data from sustainably managed forests, collected by foresters nationwide, communicating–and even brokering–timber inventories to the AEC community.

Image

What’s on the Horizon: Constrained Inventory Management and Circular Construction

WholeTrees has paved a pathway for a wide range of sustainably harvested species to be newly transformed into structural products, while passing value back to foresters in the form of higher timber price points. We are proud of our contribution to the new frontiers of Mass Timber Design and Construction, as well as the increased economic stability we offer the forests from which we purchase timber. However, we are only a small part of a global movement toward circular construction: the implementation of sourcing, fabrication, in-situ use, and recycling of building products to achieve a regenerative and/or closed-loop utilization of natural resources.  

Circular construction at scale requires immense and flexible data collection for “constrained inventories,” or inventories of resources with unique characteristics and parameters, the nature and constraints of which must be cataloged and verified before they can be reused.  

By weaving together rapidly improving technologies, WholeTrees hopes to contribute to a renaissance in forest management, one where the highest value trees are “gardened and harvested” toward their highest value structural markets, affording more methodical and sustainable long term forest management plans. This will be achieved with affordable data collection, comprehensive yet streamlined inventory systems, real-time quality control across locations, 3D data capture for design and mass-customized fabrication, and a design community committed to innovating with the most optimally sourced, sustainable, and beautiful timber products available.

Anyone can use our inventory platform at timbers.wholetrees.com.  

  • Download 3D models to integrate into designs
  • Access the CAD library for standard components
  • Review available models including beams, columns, trusses and assemblies, and
  • Finalize shop drawings using the connection catalog

Technology in Action

ImageImage

Blakely Elementary, Bainbridge Island, WI

In 2019, WholeTrees, in collaboration with the architecture firm, Mithun, brought the organic shapes of trees to a local elementary school. For the outside colonnade, WholeTrees’ consulting engineers gave parameters  of timber angle and diameter. WholeTrees then scanned all the trees to make sure they fit those parameters, to allow the engineering team confidence in our inventory selections, and to provide 3D models for the architects to place within their overarching BIM system.

Here are examples of the interior of Blakely Elementary. This is a view of the structural columns moving up along the interior staircase and several branched structural columns in the library interfacing with steel I-beams. You can see the high detail of the scanned trees, a column waiting to be installed, and then the columns in their final place. Beyond the environmental benefits, from an aesthetic perspective, these columns dramatically surpass any concrete, steel or even square glulam columns. This may contribute to the multiple national and international accolades received by this project, such as these articles by Architect and Architectural Record.

Children's Museum of Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire is the first ever application of a mixed-species SRT 2-story building from single-origin forests, and with complex structural loads that contributed toward its 2023 award of “Outstanding Structure of the Year” from the NCSEA, the National Council of Structural Engineers Associations.

The trees for this impressive structure came from our forest partners in the Pacific Northwest and Maine as well as local Wisconsin trees. The foresters were given the unique specifications from the project’s engineers, trees were selected, brought to a landing, scanned using 3D terrestrial lidar, and then fabricated with steel connections to be installed in the museum.

Our scanning technology and tools can support sourcing site specific trees. Below are a few examples of projects where we were able to incorporate locally sourced trees with a tie to the original site.

ImageImage
ImageImage

Festival Foods Grocery Store, Madison, WI

Festival Foods is a Wisconsin-based grocery store chain that wanted to improve brand recognition through local advocacy.

For the columns, WholeTrees worked with the architects, engineers, and city of Madison to bring in ash trees from a local park that were marked for removal because of emerald ash borer damage. The ash trees were prepared near the site and engineered green to dry and cure on site. For the trusses, the red pines were harvested from a suppressed stand along the Wisconsin River about 60 miles away from the site.

The ash columns and red pine trusses interface with the steel girders and the entire structure holds over 200,000 lbs. The “wing-trusses” won Architect Magazine’s 2017 R&D award.

Engineers from around the world who visit the Forest Products Lab come and visit Festival Foods to see this testament to what structural round timber can be.

Lakeridge Middle School, Lake Oswego, OR

Existing trees slated to be removed from the project site were given a new life as pre-engineered structural columns in the new school. Oregon White Oak, Sweetgum, and Scarlet Oak trees are used along the exterior covered entryway and in the interior common space. WholeTrees used 3D scanning technology on each tree before and after removal to facilitate the design process and ensure the best possible use of each tree. The end result is a modern yet natural environment, ideal for a learning setting.

Image
ImageImage
ImageImage

FDR PArk, Philidelphia, PA

Playground design consultant Studio Ludo came to playground distribution partners Specified Play Equipment Company (SPEC) with a fully accessible and inclusive treehouse concept complete with rope climbing, natural wood, and a massive swing set. SPEC was able to take this vision and work directly with Berliner and WholeTrees to bring this vision to life. Our scanning technology supported the inclusion of trees that could fit the large “bird cage” style treehouses. 

The finalized playground includes three separate 25’-35’ tall tree houses, a mega-swing with 20 total swings, embankment slides, log climbers, and spinners. This innovative playground has created endless options to practice risk, failure, and mastery and drawn the attention of major media.

Image

From inspiring design with existing 3D models to indemnifying carbon-efficient uses for site-sourced trees, WholeTrees uses 21st century technology tools to help the AEC community build a resilient future. Incorporating intact round timber structural components furthers biophilic design, provides low embodied carbon systems, and creates a direct connection between the built and natural environments. 3D models provide key data points for architects and engineers while helping decision-makers see the vision. Together, we can do more with less impact and build a resilient future.
Image
Image