Watari-ago Shelter: Modernising Traditional Japanese Timber Joinery in the Contemporary Timber Architecture Scheme

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Watari-ago Shelter at Kaipara Coast Sculptural Exhibition 2021

In architecture, timber is one of the oldest mediums used for construction and has been developed extensively through modern architecture schemes. However, in the digital aspect of timber design, highly specialised machines have been developed to mill large timber, while simple milling machines have not advanced past cutting sheet materials or smaller scale detailed designs.

This thesis challenges the crevice between the small scale digital fabrication tools and timber architecture by using a simple three-axis CNC machine to achieve a sophisticated solid timber joint that would otherwise require an expensive and time-consuming procedure. 

Previous timber design projects completed at the University of Auckland, the most recent being Dylan Waddell’s 'Shadow Pavilion' (2019) and 'Venice Biennale' project (2020), have confronted this same idea. These projects replicate a simple lap joint on the CNC machine to create a beautiful lattice structure made from complex joints.

In my thesis, I have developed their ideas further by using one critical Japanese connection joint to produce a structure that uses minimal details to create a large complex structure.

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Traditional Watari-ago joint (Left) and developed angled Watari-ago joint (Right)

I have specifically focussed on Japanese timber joinery, one of the finest and most beautifully crafted architecture methods in history, as an example to showcase how such intricate joints, generally crafted by hand, can be replicated precisely by a simple CNC machine.

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Abodo timber milled on a three-axis CNC milling machine
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Outcome of the Watari-ago joints
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Accurate interlocking joints achieved by digital fabrication
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The project uses a low-cost timber fabrication methodology that can potentially be applied to timber architecture by using modern fabrication technologies. This method was tested through various concept designs, with a chosen design being fully developed as a 1:1 case study on a selected site.

This process of physically constructing the final design will allow all matters to be explored with full implementations. The final structure makes up most of this thesis and is a worked example of how to apply the fabrication methodology. This project aims to invent a method for efficiently modelling and milling complex elements using widely available flat-bed three-axis CNC machines.


How can one particular Japanese timber joint, such as the Watari-ago joint, be adapted to suit modern fabrication techniques to construct a complex timber structure?

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