Using Trees in the City

ARC3020Y F
Instructor(s): Zachary Mollica |
Meeting Section: L0109
Tuesday, 9:00am - 1:00pm, 2:00pm - 6:00pm

Architects and engineers habitually design isolated building systems that either make people sick or that degrade near and distant ecologies. In each of the aforementioned cases, they have routinely done so in the name of environmental progress and performance – Kiel Moe

Research Agenda

People and trees have a long history together: we breathe thanks to the hard work of forests; nearly every major technological advancement has relied in some way on trees and the products we derive from them; and in architecture and building, wood has been a central material to cultures across the world. Despite ancient origins, it remains one of our most advanced materials, and as the one basic resource humans can renew, wood will be essential as we build in the face of crises.

Concern must be raised though that we source ever-growing volumes of it from fewer tree species, to produce limited products, and in doing so skip a crucial fact: the kind of wood buildings we erect have a consequential impact on the form of the world’s forests. Despite wood’s sustainable reputation, an increasing separation between forestry, design and manufacturing has produced wood buildings and objects that contribute actively to the degradation of forest ecosystems.

Students joining Using Trees in the City will explore unusual ways of working with trees. Guided both by traditional knowledge and new digital processes such as 3D scanning, they will seek to develop alternative ways of building led by the found forms and properties of trees. Beyond discrete buildings, students will speculate on distributed manufacturing systems which enable maximum value to be added to raw material near source. The work will demonstrate ways better wood buildings can be made – with less material – to directly contribute to the growth of vibrant ecologies.

While most wood buildings feel ‘local,’ modern practices encourage the shipment of trees and their derivative products around the world. By this and other energy-intensive acts, we undo much of the positive benefit that working with wood offers before even arriving to site. In contrast, this year’s research will take Toronto and its nearby suburban and rural regions as the focus of study. The city boasts a growing stock of over 10 million trees distributed along and through its roads, parks and ravines.

The tall green neighbours on our streets clean the air we breathe, regulate heat and moisture, and provide countless ecosystem services for non-human species in the city. This must continue, but shouldn’t prevent examination of how the city’s trees might be put to better use than mulching or live edge tables at the end of their life. The studio will address both how we can harvest sustainably from within the city limits, and what a new generation of wooden buildings for the city of Toronto might be like.

Students will be led to approach design nimbly, leveraging both advanced and coarse methods with an ad hoc ethos. Whether examining a piece of furniture left on the street or the twisted limb of a tree, you will become adept at approaching objects and materials as they are and exploiting digital tools to harness, rather than to create complexity.


T1 will be structured as an intensive training, focused on new knowledge and techniques. Seminars by the instructor and guests will cover topics including how trees grow, how building materials are produced from them, the properties of wood, and the ways in which we have used wood in buildings and other artifacts. In parallel, technically focused seminars will introduce digital design and fabrication tools with an emphasis on 3D scanning methodologies. These tools and knowledge will be mastered through a series of short studio assignments in T1, and each student will end this term with a brief outline of their proposed subject of individual study for T2. Starting back in January, each student will undertake individual research supported by tutorials and reviews throughout the term. The final deliverables of each project will vary in response to the precise subject matter chosen, but all projects will be expected to demonstrate research through both physical and digital means.


Travel for this studio is expected to be limited to southern Ontario, much of it in Toronto and surrounding communities. We will visit exceptional wood buildings, manufacturing facilities, and a few nearby forest stands (including aiming to spend a few nights at the forest site in Haliburton that our faculty has a relationship with). In T2, students may identify further travel supportive of their research. 3 of 3


STOOP (Ind) – Starting from a piece of found wooden furniture, students will document/describe and then reimagine/produce a new artifact. The process will include drawing, 3D scanning, digital modeling and analog fabrication methods.

ANIMATE (Ind) – By engaging thoroughly with 3D scanning techniques, each student will produce a short animated video based on data captured of trees somewhere in Toronto.

FREE DESIGN (Ind) – Working from found tree and wood pieces, each student will design and produce an architectural component of desktop scale. These are not required to be functional, but must demonstrate ambitious technique, and are an opportunity to challenge the capability of familiar tools like the CNC.

CATALOGUE (Group - ongoing) – Together the studio will develop a shared library which includes documentation of the tree species which grow in the city, traditional uses of these, good wood buildings nearby and documentation of innovative business models currently present, among others.

FORMULATE (Ind) – In response to T1, each student will work throughout the term towards developing a brief research proposal for the work they will undertake in T2. These will be submitted before the holiday break for review and comment.

RESEARCH + DEMONSTRATE (Ind) – T2 will consist mainly of research projects taken on by students individually. These projects will vary in their structure and process in response to each area of focus, while lectures will be added through the term as valuable to the wider group. Each student is expected to produce interim physical artifacts, vibrant 3D point cloud data, and to use film and animation as a tool for representation/documentation throughout.



• Adhocism – Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. The MIT Press, 2013

• Into the Woods – Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 45, 2018

• Manifest Destiny – Jason Griffiths. AA Publications, 2012

• Shelter (first and second editions) – Lloyd Kahn and Bob Easton Shelter Publications, 1973

• The Architecture of Trees – Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi Princeton Architectural Press, 2019

• There’s more to timber building than trees – Kiel Moe., 2021

Google me

• 20K House – Rural Studio

• Advanced manufacturing facilities – Blumer Lehman and Structurecraft

• Cambio exhibition and publication – Formafantasmaa

• Dymaxion House – Buckminster Fuller

• Eames House and Leg Splint – work of the Eames Office

• JB Blunk House

• Prototype House – first project built in Hooke Park

• Ripetere il bosco (Repeating the forest) – work of artist Giuseppe Penone