Identifying the challenges of bringing the predictable unpredictability of natural materials together with mechanical processes, Aish introduces wedge joints to fine-tune connections. The expression of the marks of making gives the project’s story its current-day presence.” — Caro Robertson, rōpū
When Ethan Aish was installing his Wedge Pavilion shelter at Summerhill, a sheep and cattle farm in Papamoa with a number of mountain bike and walking trails, the reaction was mixed.
“We had a lot of cyclists asking if we were making a dunny, which was sort of insulting, but kind of funny, whereas lots of others were really into it and interested in the detail,” says Aish. “The reaction has been people asking lots of questions, really, and wanting to know how it was made. And that was the intention from the start.”
He sums up the project – made as part of his thesis Wood, Wedges, Joints, and Jigs through the University of Auckland – as “a timber structure that investigates a different way of building”. It’s somewhere “between a piece of furniture and a building” and combines the craftsmanship of the past with the precision of the present.
As he said in his thesis: “Japanese carpentry is considered by many to be the best traditional example of woodworking there is, and as such seemed to be a good place to begin my study into timber fabrication technologies.” Meanwhile, the use of modern CNC milling technology meant that hundreds of complex parts – which would have been extremely time-consuming to produce by hand – were able to be fabricated quickly and accurately.
Summerhill had previously worked with University of Auckland students, allowing them to build similar structures on its property, with a requirement that they use wood sourced from the farm. That created obvious challenges, Aish says. “Timber is a natural material, and it’s not always straight. It does what it wants.
While there are ways to treat timber to reduce shrinking, swelling, warping and twisting, he decided to focus on designing new wedge joints that had a degree of tolerance and could be tightened as the timber shifts and settles over time.
“In a digital space using CNC milling we neglect the relationship between the design and the materials,” Aish says. “The wedge joints in a lot of ways were about allowing the CNC to respond to the material so that it can cope with the discrepancies.”
As a bespoke project, Aish admits it was a design-heavy process and involved a year of exploration and experimentation, but it only took three days to erect and required little more than a mallet and a wrench.
The shelter also delivers from a sustainability standpoint. There are no nails or screws required (excluding the polycarbonate roof fixings), nor does it require a concrete foundation. This significantly reduces the embodied carbon and means it can be disassembled, reassembled and recycled easily.
While he doesn’t think the approach will go mainstream, Aish hopes there are some techniques that could potentially gain traction for other small projects. He’s now working on a similar structure, outside of his day job at Edwards White Architects in Hamilton. “There are a lot of benefits to building this way that we overlook,” he says.