The Wood Materials Science department at ETH Zurich in Switzerland is pioneering new ways of utilizing timber and wood construction by imbuing the traditional material with extraordinary properties using its new Vision Wood apartment prototype.
The multidisciplinary team—guided by department head Tanja Zimmermann and wood materials science professor Ingo Burget, and joined by a slew of industry partners—developed the prototype apartment in an effort to find new uses for the continent’s abundant, but mostly underutilized, beech lumber. Beech lumber is a hard and versatile wood with superb structural capabilities, but it is also prone to sun damage, rot, and warping. To combat these maladies, the team developed a slew of experimental applications of beech wood building components that have been waterproofed, magnetized, and mineralized in order to broaden their residential applications.
The team, for example, subjected the wood to laccase-catalyzed reactions in order to derive a wood fiber–based insulation that eliminates the need for synthetic binding agents. The fully sustainable biopolymers—made from lignin compounds and modified starch naturally found in wood—were molded into tongue-and-groove-shaped insulation blocks that can be packed into building cavities, providing a nontoxic insulation material.
Another innovation came in the form of an exterior-cladding coating application developed from gelatinous nanofibrillated cellulose. The varnish improves UV protection, waterproofing, and resistance to microorganism infestations and cracks for exterior wood treatments.Interior of the experimental beech apartment. (Courtesy ETH Zurich)
The apartment interiors—which will be occupied by a pair of doctoral students—are rife with new applications, including antimicrobial wood surfaces treated with an enzymatic method developed by university researchers that utilizes a bacteriostatic iodine coating to kill bacteria. The application has been used on door handles in kitchens and bathrooms in the unit in an effort to improve indoor hygiene.
The apartment features hydrophobic wood sinks in the bathroom that have been treated in situ with polymerizing agents that not only repel water from their surfaces but are also designed to give the appearance of untreated wood.
The researchers inserted iron oxide nanoparticles into wooden blocks to develop a magnetized task board that utilizes the natural structure of wood to create a material that can be selectively magnetized as well. On top of that, the team developed a fire-resistant mineralized wood panel system that can be used for doors and other interior applications in lieu of toxic flame-retardants. This panel system can be entirely sourced and fabricated in Switzerland and features reduced dimensions relative to traditional lumber construction due to the wood’s structural capabilities.
In all, the test apartment points a way forward for wood construction that relies on abundant and local wood sources, while also pursuing sustainable and nontoxic material applications.