Zum Hauptinhalt springen
TU Graz/ TU Graz/ Services/ News+Stories/

Digital design and construction with wood, clay and system

07/18/2019 | Face to face

By Ute Wiedner

Is computer-aided design and construction with natural materials a contradiction in terms? Not for TU Graz architect Urs Hirschberg, who sees digital planning as an opportunity for sustainable architecture.

To think holistically and implement research projetcts with students is a passion of Urs Hirschberg, head of the Institute of Architecture and Media and coordinator of the Field of Expertise Sustainable Systems.

News+Stories: You conduct research in the field of digital construction, or to put it more precisely, “augmented architecture”. What’s this all about?

Hirschberg: We see augmented architecture as a critical guiding concept for the application of digital media in architecture: from designing with digital design tools to new forms of networked collaboration to building with robots or sensors and actuators in buildings. Augmented architecture means that a genuine added value is created, an extension of architecture. At the Institute of Architecture and Media (IAM) at TU Graz, we develop many things in virtual space, which means we simulate things on the computer. But we’re also very keen on implementing our ideas in prototypes. Materiality with its one to one is a completely different thing to the abstraction on the computer. That’s why digital fabrication is a special challenge. You can develop new, sustainable construction methods, but only when you think about the material and the machinery right from the start.
In addition to developing novel construction methods, we also deal with special forms of visualisation. At the moment we are conducting research in the Austrian Science Fund “Nagara Architecture” project and among other things how cultural monuments can be digitally explained, preserved and communicated. Our research spectrum at the IAM is broad, but in all cases it is about digital media opening new doors.

The Fridays for Future movement is calling for concrete climate protection measures with a new urgency. Does environmental protection play a role in digital planning?

Hirschberg: Current methods of optimised planning, such as building information modelling (BIM) contribute to sustainable construction. Architects can use this tool to process much more complex information from design to completion than they could earlier and check the energy efficiency of buildings right from the design stage. In this way, we set a course that saves resources and costs right from the beginning – before the important decisions have been made and the effort to change something would be much greater. We have also worked on this in the Austrian Science Fund project "Augmented Parametrics".

The Austrian Science Fund project “Augmented Parametrics: Simulation and Expert Knowledge in Parametric Design" aims to integrate missing decision support systems into a digital design programme for wooden architecture. In this way architects can deal more creatively with new, more complex energy-efficiency regulations during the normal design process.

How do these methods find their way into architectural studies?

Hirschberg: as wood or clay. An example of this is the wooden pavilion “Twist” which we developed as a prototype for an information stand for the Austrian Murau region in the architecture master’s programme and which we set up in the grounds of the "Old Campus". It was also about inventing a new way of dealing with wood. The new digital techniques were not the focus of attention, but the result – from the design of the supporting frame made of twisted wooden slats to the implementation – was only possible by making use of them. The fact that, using so few resources, everything could be joined so cleanly and steel connections and large screws were not visible as they usually are in wooden buildings of this size, is due to the fact that computer-controlled milling was used. We are never interested in showing off with new technologies, – they are never an end in themselves.

State-of-the-art digital planning and manufacturing methods, such as the use of the Hundegger ROBOT-Drive joinery machine, which carried out high-precision wood cutting from the CAD drawing to the finished component, made it possible to implement the design for the larch pavilion.

Were there any specific projects using clay as a building material in the programme?

HIrschberg: In the last semester we dedicated the master's studio in the architecture programme to building in clay, erected a small pavilion on the Taggerwerke site and tried out a lot with the material. For the project we mixed clay and building rubble in the correct grain sizes and rammed clay together. Before that, we made many material samples and tried out different ways of working. In the master's programme in architecture, students thus learn how to deal with a material that has gained a great deal of relevance in the course of the sustainability discussion. As far as grey energy is concerned – i.e. the amount of energy used including production, transport, storage and disposal – clay is almost unbeatable. Usually it is possible to use the material excavated from the pit for construction. And it’s nearly everywhere. Because building using clay is relatively time-consuming compared to other building forms, in recent times people have thought it absolutely impossible. There are now buildings by large architectural firms such as Herzog & de Meuron or the experimental projects surrounding the ceramicist and sculptor Martin Rauch in Vorarlberg, Austria. We did an excursion to Morocco in the master’s studio and had a look at the traditional clay buildings there. This tradition also exists here. Knowledge about it, however, has been lost in time.

Optimized planning, sustainable materials – are these the central aspects for you when it comes to sustainable construction?

Hirschberg: At the beginning I mentioned the research on the topic of cultural heritage at the Institute of Architecture and Media. In my view, the cultural aspects of sustainability are discussed too little. Buildings have to offer possibilities of identification.
The project of the information pavilions for the Murau region is a good example. Timber was specified as the building material. But we deliberately used larch wood, which people identify with in the Murau region – and processed it using our know-how in a contemporary way. And it worked. Two students and a supervisor implemented the pavilions. There shouldn’t be any separation between what “those crazy guys at the University” do and what is popular in rural areas.
When people think of sustainability, they often think only of energy indicators, but an architecture worth living in, which I feel at home in, is also a good piece of sustainability.

When people think of sustainability, they often think only of energy indicators, but an architecture worth living in, which I feel at home in, is also a good piece of sustainability.

You have already told us a lot about projects in the architecture programme. Does teaching inspire you in your profession?

Hirschberg: I enjoy a lot of things – like speaking at a conference about the connection between architecture and music, which we tried out in our “Scripting Class”, a course in introductory study period of the Bachelor's Degree Programme in Architecture. But most of all, I love researching topics that I can put into practice one-to-one in the architecture programme courses. Of course, a clay building that we implement with students in one semester is not really comparable to the depth of debate that we achieve in an Austrian Science Fund project. Nevertheless the approach is a research-based one. The nice thing about architecture is that we have the opportunity to conduct research and teaching relatively close together. In architecture, there has always been a design-led research that does not move in established academic forms. There have always been very few doctoral theses and these have dealt either with historical topics or technical questions. This is slowly changing. There are now also dissertations on design guided topics. I’m the coordinator of the Architectural Research European Network Association (ARENA), which deals with promoting architectural research. Today, architecture is more and more challenged worldwide to research and publish its research.

Urs Hirschberg coordinates research on sustainability in the Field of Expertise (FoE) "Sustainable Systems" at Graz University of Technology. “I see here the possibility of integrating holistic, systemic thinking, which takes social, creative and cultural criteria into account in addition to technical parameters, from architecture more strongly into other research areas – and our experience with collaboration in networks,” explains Hirschberg. Major sustainability issues – how do we build our cities, how does mobility work – can only be resolved through cooperation across the boundaries of scientific disciplines. This is exactly what happens in the interdisciplinary structure of the Field of Expertise.

You have dealt intensively with creative cooperation in networks in your research. Doesn't it correspond more to the professional profile of architects to design autonomously and creatively?

Hirschberg: This is a widespread idea that completely misrepresents the everyday life of an architect. It's always called “a Frank Gehry building" or “a Zaha Hadid building" or “a Norman Foster building”, but ultimately hundreds of people are involved in each of these buildings. Much is created in exchange. From the mid-1990s, when I was an assistant at ETH Zurich, I started working on database-supported platforms for teaching that allowed students to learn better from each other from the very beginning of the World Wide Web. After I came to TU Graz in 2002, we tried out networked cooperation in a variety of ways and developed it further as a teaching tool. The idea behind it is that there is an added value if we show each other openly how and what we are working on, and not only that – you can also steal ideas. The only rule of the game is, when I incorporate the work of colleagues and develop it further, I have to declare it. I wrote my dissertation about collective creativity. Basically, I wanted to apply the way free operating systems were taken up and further developed in the early days of computer science to the creative processes in architecture.

Nobody starts from scratch. We made that explicit and said even Mozart cribbed. We learn a lot more if we don't try to create everything from within ourselves, but consciously adopt ideas and – this is of course very important – develop them ourselves.

The open source idea related to creativity?


Exactly. The open source idea although lived in the so-called creative disciplines such as architecture, is outwardly negated. Everybody is a genius. Nobody takes anything from anyone else, but of course you know that the truth is very different. Everyone uses journals and architecture websites. Pictures and ideas are not always consciously stolen, they take on a life of their own in our minds, especially in architecture education. Nobody starts from scratch. We made that explicit and said even Mozart cribbed. We learn a lot more if we don't try to create everything from within ourselves, but consciously adopt ideas and – this is of course very important – develop them ourselves. Exchange platforms we use in teaching help the students to be able to assess themselves better in comparison with others. But they also raise the overall level: where there is more exchange, there is more progress.
This also applies, of course, to the work on the problems of sustainability. We are almost obliged to seek solutions together across professional boundaries. And our chances of success increase if we do that.

IIn the year of the 15th anniversary of the Institute of Architecture and Media (IAM), Urs Hirschberg and colleagues from the Arbeitskreis Architekturinformatik (architectural computer science working group), an association of German-language CAD, architecture and media professorships, will finalise an atlas of digital architecture. In addition, a publication on 15 years of research and teaching at the IAM will be produced.

Urs Leonhard Hirschberg

Born in 1966 in Zurich, Urs Leonhard Hirschberg studied architecture at ETH Zurich and completed his doctorate. From 1993 to 2000 he conducted research and taught there in the field of architecture and computer-aided architectural design (CAAD). Together with a partner, he founded a start-up company based on the idea of open architecture databases. In 2000 he closed down the start-up and went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design as an assistant professor of design computing. In 2002 he was appointed Professor of the Presentation of Architecture and New Media at TU Graz, Austria, where he heads the Institute of Architecture and Media founded in 2004. From 2004 to 2013 he was Dean of the Faculty of Architecture. Since 2013 he has led the Field of Expertise “Sustainable Systems” of TU Graz. He relaxes privately by playing the violin, viola or piano, cycling, hiking, swimming or skiing.


Univ.-Prof. Dipl.-Arch. Dr.sc.ETH
Institute of Architecture and Media
Kronesgasse 5
8010 Graz, Austria
Phone: +43 316 873 4728