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A wood-textile thermal active architectural envelope


The development of a thermal form-active composite, based on Oak-Paulownia-Flax materials is presented, including new knowledge and methods for material-driven responsive envelopes in an architectural scale. The study investigates, examines, and propose an experimental wood-textile structure that directly address questions on reducing embodied and operational energy in the built environment by a novel use of CO2 absorbing regenerative materials. Thermal-active wood bi-layers are combined with organic textiles to create a responsive and modular envelope element. This element is nested into a new lightweight load bearing BoxBeam-Zollinger structure, with flax textile surface connections. Both form active composite and load bearing structure is inspired by skin-on-frame material-structural concepts observed in vernacular boat cultures. The structure alone is measured to 1 kg/m2, with a combined weight of the entire responsive envelope of 4.3 kg/m2. The studies are based on experimental prototypes and computational simulation studies before a full-scale demonstrator project is constructed to test and disseminate the knowledge and methods for designing material efficient, thermally active architectural envelopes.


German architect and theorist Gottfried Semper defined in his seminal work The Four Elements of Architecture a fundamental and structural hierarchy based on the relations between the hearth, the mound, the enclosure, and the roof. The defining parts of architecture. With the hearth and mound being grouped into the Stereotomic base and the enclosure and roof forming the Tectonic structure [1, 2]. While Semper’s studies were formulated almost 175 years ago, they remain central in how we can understand and construct building assemblies today [3, 4].

Contemporary ideas, studies, and understandings of how to create sustaining buildings, and building parts, has investigated principles and design methods for assembly and disassembly, allowing reuse and recycling of materials. Such studies relate principally to the above descriptions by Semper through the designed articulation of elements and their cohesive structural parts and relations, and links to research in the domain of architectural tectonics, with a focus on element design, fabrication procedures, joining, detailing and nested compositions [5,6,7,8,9].

Focusing on the tectonic enclosure, this research studies how we can understand and use lightweight wood-textile structures as part of the enclosing building layer, and where this membrane construction is thermally reactive, driven by microclimatic temperature variation. The study therefrom proposes a new material active structure and associated findings from bespoke prototypical investigations of material structural compositions, by the development of a lightweight thermal adaptive envelope.

The background for this study is two distinct domains of skin-on-frame structures and wood-based thermal responsive material composites.

Skin-on-frame structures

Skin-on-frame structures are material composite assemblies, where frame and skins are combined to form a structurally efficient construction that can be formed freely, and where structural and enclosing surface conditions can be highly differentiated across the system. These qualities were originally developed and advanced through material scarcity by the Inuit and Siberia people, making sea going kayaks that used minimum material, while securing high functionality and durability in demanding conditions during sea hunting. By cross-layering simple driftwood elements, bonded and lashed with rods and knots, and then wrapped in stretched and sewn seal skins, a form and material composite were created for the specific purpose, Figure 1. Different human cultures have developed varied material composites, for canoes and other lightweight structures, constructing durable life demanding vessels. Such innovations of material use and assembly form both the basis for effective material structures, high usability and applicability, and such structures associated elegance [10].

Fig. 1
figure 1

Plan and elevation drawings of vernacular Skin-On-Frame structures, the Umiak, Canoe and Kayak

In architecture, skin on frames have been applied in contemporary high-profile, high-cost buildings, such as the Beijing Olympic Swim Stadium by PTW Architects + ARUP and the Allianz Arena by Herzog de Meuron + ARUP. Common for the architectural applications are the use of metals for structural members and EFTE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) films as skin surfaces, both of which are based on geosphere extracted non-renewable raw materials with high processing demand associated with high CO2e production. In vernacular architecture, we find related skin-on-frame structures, in Arabic tent structures, and how this has inspired high-performance structural ideas and solutions, such as minimum surface textile structures advanced by the pioneering work of Frei Otto [11]. Related research-led demon- strators of stretched synthetic textile structures can be found in recent studies [12,13,14,15].

Adaptive envelopes

A classification of adaptive building envelopes can be made by a segmentation in three categories: mechanical-driven, human-driven and material-driven. Automated mechanical-driven envelopes have been implemented in many buildings, largely as variations of solar screens, towards thermal comfort and sunlight glare control [16]. These are based on in-direct motor-based (linear/rotational/gearing) kinetic mechanisms [17,18,19,20], where the occupant does not have direct physical contact with the envelope and its configuration, and where the force allowing the change commonly is based on fossil-based energy sources [21]. These mechanical systems are typically not material responsive, because they do not include material-driven properties, in relation to the human affected. Such approaches may lead to a decoupling of the human and the building [22, 23], while being costly to make and maintain.

With a focus on material driven responsive architectural envelope studies lie material-induced form- changing structures that adjust their configuration in response to a defined environmental based stimulus. These are developed as responsive architectural systems [24,25,26,27,28,29], that aim to increase human environ- mental sensations (herein comfort) and reduce the operational and embodied energy of the building envelope. The general concept of such material-environment driven structures is to use the available amount of energy in the local environment to do work, also known as exergy system processes [30,31,32]. The research on material-environment driven research using wood for responsive architectural envelopes divides into hygroscopic (moisture) and thermodynamic (heat) investigations. The path of hygroscopic studies was in- itiated [24, 33, 34] and developed along a series of similar studies using the same principles of woods ability to absorb and release moisture from the environment [35,36,37]. Steering of the hygroscopic properties has been further examined in additive manufacturing-based prototype studies, where moisture- driven responsive geometric changes in an element is steered by the placement of wood material [38]. The presented studies for responsive envelopes have been based on small, thin elements, that are presented as singular elements, or as arrayed elements in an underlying support structure. Focusing on heat-driven responsive envelopes, experimental studies with metals, paper and plastics has been presented [39,40,41,42,43] illustrating the relations between material composite layers with varied thermal expansion. Focusing on wood’s anisotropic properties of thermal expansion variance depending on grain direction, heat-driven wood-based studies have shown how wood layers with varied fibre-directionality can be steered during design and fabrication methods [44, 45] and how such methods can be expanded with advanced under- standing, mapping and configuration of wood-fibre-compositions [25, 46,47,48]. The combination of hygroscopic and thermodynamic factors have been studied [49] in small thin elements, and material studies on the relations between moisture content and thermal expansion properties has been presented [50]. The latter study finds that thermal expansion of wood under common indoor relative humidity variations does not influence the behaviour of thermal expansion properties in wood.

In previous material-driven responsive envelope studies is the thermal-active material, expanding/contracting parts, also the part mediating environmental changes, such as creating shade, permeability, and enclosure. This utilise the advantage of a responsive elements capacity to be both an actuator (by its material-environmental exchange processes) and a mediator for environmental modification, for instance as solar shading. However, this strategy also entails that an environmental responsive performance of the material-active system is confined to the actuating element. In the presented study, the thermal active actuator is extended with a thermal insulator. This enables the material-environment driven responsive actuator element to become a dimensional larger and deeper dynamic mechanism with more features than open/close properties. Through adding material layers to a thermal-active wood composite actuator, this study focuses on factors of insulation and visual expressive characteristics that can be developed in coordination with the thermal material-active part. This opens for new pathways to develop thermal-active membranes with more degrees of freedom and performances to advance specified thermal capacities as part of the material-form- active envelope element.


The research design is based on experimental research-by-design methods, including material prototyping studies, material thermal simulation studies and full-scale demonstrator assembly and observation studies.

Material prototyping studies

Paulownia Tomentosa wood species is chosen as one wood part of the composite structure, with its low density (280 kg/m2), its fast-growing 8-year production cycle, producing a straight conical 8–10-meter trunk, with 0.3m diameter, without trunk branches. Through its rapid growth, with its large leaves, the Paulownia absorbs high levels of CO2 as it reaches almost 1 m3 material volume after 8 years. Woven flax (170gr/m2) is used for textile structures for its combination of fiber strength and CO2 absorption capacities [51,52,53]. Material prototyping studies are segmented into three; (a) the thermal form-active actuator of the responsive membrane system that changes the enclosure properties, (b) the insulating layers of the form- active element, and (c) the structural load bearing system. The three envelope parts form together the embodied and operational energy conditions, the material use and the visual expressive character of the architectural envelope.

Studies (a) for the thermal form-active actuator is based on a wood bilayer method where one material layer expands more than the other during thermal changes, described analytically by the thermal expansion coefficient. With wood being an anisotropic fiber-based structure, the material expands asymmetrically depending on fiber/grain direction. The expansion property is unique to each wood species, and is particularly pronounced for Oak, with a high expansion difference relative to perpendicular and tangentially to the grain. For the experimental prototyping studies, the selected oak veneer has a high thermal expansion coefficient tangentially to growth rings (aT =11, 9%), high material strength (E=343 Nmm2) and homogeneity of samples, presenting an almost linear grain topology. By these natural characteristics, elements are made as crossed fiber structures with orthogonal fiber orientations, utilizing oak’s large variation in thermal expansion properties along the fiber grain direction. In extension to thermal expansion of the material are layer thickness, dimension, strength, and elasticity parameters that determine the resulting form-active bending behaviour of the bespoke composite. The bending curvature of the wood bilayers is calculated using the Timoshenko formula [54]. The key parameters of the calculation are the temperature change (c-co), the thermal expansion coefficient for the active (a2) and passive layer (a1), the thickness ratio between active and passive layer (m), as well as the longitudinal (E1) and tangential (E2) stiffness of oak and paulownia [55]. Through this formula, we can derive the radius (ρ) of the oak-paulownia bilayer curvature when ex- posed to temperature flux. This value can then be applied to derive the change in curvature angle. Additional methodological description of experimental studies with bilayers for architectural envelopes using wood structures (and other composite structures), herein bonding agent between layers, can be found in [22, 44, 56]. Advancing beyond previous Oak-Oak based bilayers, experiments are conducted with Oak-Paulownia composites, combining the thermal-active Oak species, with the thermally stable Paulownia.

The use of Oak and Paulownia as a wood composite offers the added structural properties of strengthening by crossing fibers, the same qualities found in plywood, albeit here with the intent to allow form- active geometric behaviour. The dimensional large continuous oak veneer piece keeps the smaller paulownia pieces together when glued (PVA binder) and thereby support the use of smaller wood pieces in the larger form-active actuator assembly. Such an approach enables use of waste-wood, reclaimed wood or other small trunk species. In parallel to physical material studies of constructing the bilayer are computational studies used to investigate the estimated deflection characteristics of a composite by modification of the layer thickness, Figure 2.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Cross sections of 1 m thermal active wood bilayer structures (oak-paulownia composite) with variations of geometric thickness and its relation to actuation condition when the microclimatic temperature is changed ± 10 degrees Celsius from the composite neutral temperature point

Studies (b) insulating surface membrane is studied by combining paulownia frames with flax textile surfaces with air gaps between the layers. Prototypes of the layered textiles serve to understand assembly methods, and as a basis for computational thermal simulations, Figure 4.

Studies (c) for the load-bearing structure of the envelope is based on a BoxBeam element assembly method combined with a Zollinger structural principle. A BoxBeam is created by making of a structural element with a rectangular cross section by assembling four planar plank pieces, Figure 3, thereby forming a hollow structural element. The four pieces are glued together (PVA binder) without a grove or other edge treatment between the pieces. This enables a minimum of material use, similar to other hollow frame tube structures and a subsequent lightweight structure, which can be constructed of smaller/narrower wood pieces. A Zollinger structure, invented by Friedrich Zollinger in 1921 and patented in 1923 as a reciprocal structural system, uses short members to create larger spans [57]. Shifting between short and long members of the system, a structural weave is created where the end face of a member always meets a crossing element. The members can be organized in different angles, from orthogonal weaves to parallelogram structures. Combined, the BoxBeam and Zollinger methods support the approach, use and investigation of small wood pieces, which can be found in fast-growing smaller trees, like Paulownia and Poplar species, or as reclaimed or waste wood, recycled from larger timber structures. To connect the BoxBeam members together into a Zollinger structure, flax textiles are used, employing the textile’s ability to become a surface- based skin-on-frame joint. This is different to conventional Zollinger structures with bolted metal joints. By connecting the BoxBeam members in the Zollinger organization through textile surfaces, forces travel in larger connected areas, rather than through points, just as it omits the removal of material in the BoxBeam member, reducing the risk of weakening the joint. The load-bearing structure is developed with 6mm thick Paulownia planed pieces.

Fig. 3
figure 3

The principle and organization of the bespoke weaving BoxBeam-Zollinger structure with flax textile joints

Material thermal simulation studies

To examine and understand the insulator properties of membrane wood/textile composites, a computational model is developed by a geometric versioning of combined layers coupled with a heat flux simulation. The aim is to investigate how heat flows through the wood/textile structure and how it can be combined with the thermal-active actuator. The digital samples are 0.4m wide, with a paulownia casing (inside/out- side/sides) and an internal structure with textiles stretched between paulownia elements, fixing the textiles position. This material organization is based on physical prototyping samples to create modular, simple to assembly structures. The internal paulownia elements position the textiles so that air cavities are created between each textile layer, intending to increase the thermal insulation properties, Figure 4. The geometric modeling and thermal simulation software used is Rhino/Grasshopper + Ladybug/Therm. A delta temperature of 20 Kelvin is used during simulations (20-40 degrees Celsius) from one side (theoretical outside) to the other side (theoretical inside). Each geometric/heat flux model outputs the W/m2 and temperature gradient within the digital material samples, Figure 4. Three material compositions, with each three variations are shown below. The first, left column, includes flax textiles (1mm thick) with 6, 8, 10 layers (A1, A2, A3). The center tree includes wool as non-woven textiles (5mm thick) with 6, 8, 10 layers (B1, B2, B3) and the right three includes flax tiles with 6, 8, 10 layers (C1, C2, C3), but without paulownia back casing (theoretical outside). Again, the two former assemblies (A, B) are contained in a complete paulownia wood casing, with all samples having static unheated air between the textile layers.

Fig. 4
figure 4

Material thermal simulation of wood/textile/air composite. The upper figure of each set shows tem- perature gradient from 40–20 degrees Celsius (theoretical inside to theoretical outside); the lower figure shows the heat flux within the material composite structure

The simulated samples have a varied thickness, with A1 and B1 = 72mm, A2 and B2 = 88mm, A3 and B3 = 104mm, C1 = 64mm, C2 = 80mm, C3 = 96mm. Simulated material specifications for Paulownia: emis- sivity = 0.9, conductivity = 0.09 (W/mK), absorptivity = 0.5, Flax: emissivity = 0.9, conductivity = 0.064 (W/mK), absorptivity = 0.5, Wool: emissivity = 0.9, conductivity = 0.035 (W/mK), absorptivity = 0.5, Air: emissivity = 0.9, conductivity = 0.028 (W/mK), absorptivity = 0.5.

While wool performs better than flax, the difference is marginal considering that the wool non-woven textiles are 5 mm, compared to a flax textile thickness of 1 mm. Unsurprisingly, heat travels faster in wood segments, despite the low density of Paulownia, which also suggest the reason for the low difference be- tween A and C samples, where C is without paulownia casing towards the cold side. From the heat flux (W/m2), distance between boundary surface (m) and temperature difference (20 Kelvin), we can calculate the thermal conductivity (W/mK) of each sample composite by Fourier’s Law. A1 = 0.027 W/mK, A2 = 0.028 W/mK, A3 = 0.029 W/mK, B1 = 0.0277 W/mK, B2 = 0.0285 W/mK, B3 = 0.0293 W/mK, C1 = 0.0294 W/mK, C2 = 0.0297 W/mK, C3 = 0.030 W/mK. Mineral wool with comparable dimensions has a thermal conductivity of 0.02 W/mK.

Experimental design studies

The form-active composite, Figure 2, is explored computationally through its internal composition by variations in thickness, geometry, and temperature change, and, by adding non-rigid compressible material layers that comply with the thermally activated oak-paulownia composite movement, Figure 5. This forms a new deep composite structure, where both form change, and insulation properties are situated in one material-active hybrid structure. Four of these deep membrane composites are included here, with (A) five layers of parallel flax textiles, (B) structured as a hinged lattice, (C) organized as deformable cylinders and (D) with varied depth of displaced flax layers. Based on the thermal simulation studies is a combination of iteration (A) and (D) further developed and constructed as part of the advanced prototype, Figures 6, 7 and 8.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Cross sections of four variations of the thermal-driven form-active oak/paulownia composite with different insulating layer structures and visual surface characteristics. Form-active simulation by iterative change of temperature from -10 to + 10 degrees Celsius, relative to the neutral position of the composite

Fig. 6
figure 6

The version carried forward for full scale prototyping based on the ability to allow the bilayer change unhindered, forming insulating air pockets, a simple fabrication process and possibility for adding textile layers to modify insulation characteristics of the specific element. Form-active simulation by iterative change of temperature from -10 to + 10 degrees Celsius, relative to the neutral position of the composite

Fig. 7
figure 7

Complete computational design model with BoxBeam-Zollinger and form-active elements inte- grated. The series to the left show the form-active elements movement when temperature is changed 20 degrees (-10 to + 10 degrees Celsius). The series in the center show the solar radiation falling onto the ele- ment’s surfaces during form change. And the series to the right show the transferred solar radiation pat- tern through the envelope

Fig. 8
figure 8

Prototype development of deep thermal form-active composite with flax textile draped layers. Ele- ment dimensions 920 × 420 × 55 mm. The hybrid actuator/insulator element weighs 1.6 kg

By modelling the dynamics of the form-active element it is possible to experiment and explore varies geometric and material configurations, and to understand, through material and environmental simulation how radiant solar energy is falling onto the surfaces, and how energy is transferred through the openings when the form is changed. The solar radiation simulations, Figure 7, is accumulated values for June in Copenhagen, envelope facing south. Thermal radiation simulations are done within the Rhinoceros/Grass- hopper/Ladybug software environment.

The computational experiments are tested and advanced by the making of physical full-scale elements, Figure 8, where flax textiles are positioned as layered skins on the form-active composite by paulownia displacement pieces mounted orthogonally to the tangency of the form-active composite. The resulting element is a lightweight, 1.6 kg actuator/insulator composite element that can be configured in the modu- lar BoxBeam-Zollinger lattice, where only one of the two short sides are fixed to allow the element to move freely.

Results and discussion

The results are described qualitatively and quantitatively, in three sections of material lightness, thermal performance and material-structural variability.

Material lightness

Each actuator/insulator element weight is 1.6 kg, making the 6.5m2 envelope demonstrator a resulting total weight of 28 kg, or 4.3 kg/m2. The developed prototypes are Oak, Paulownia and Flax, all with carbon sequestration properties. The studies and result is directly improving the embodied energy of responsive envelopes compared to heavier structures from geosphere raw materials, just as it arguably indirectly reduces CO2e by lowered transport/construction emissions, and reduces the material used for general building load-bearing and foundation work.

Thermal performance

The thermal simulations are suggestive of how thermal performances can be achieved by layering of textiles with air chambers. However, while the thermal simulations are indicative of good performances as a material-environment driven architectural envelope, further studies, with a particular focus on measured results in higher and diversified samples are a priority in future studies.

Material-structural variability

At the assembly scale of the presented demonstrator project, the envelope is structurally self-bearing. While not quantitatively tested for structural properties, the BoxBeam- Zollinger structure allows for high degrees of local structural variation by increasing the cross section of the BoxBeam members, changing the material thickness of the pieces (currently 6mm), adding internal BoxBeam cross sections, increasing the lattice resolution by shorter BoxBeam elements, increasing the flax density (currently 170 gr/m2), weave character, layering of textile surface joints and dimensions thereof. In similarity can the form-active element be configured in varied compositions through its material parametric organisation. Hence, this study opens to a new series of studies based on wood-textile skin-on-frame responsive structures and the performances associated with such bespoke structures.


This research demonstrates how skin-on-frame concepts can be parsed to architecture for low embodied and low operational energy material structures. The results contribute to existing studies of thermal form- active bilayers based on wood composites by extending the actuating responsive elements with insulating layers, albeit in a research development stage, and variations thereof. By development of a paulownia-flax load-bearing structure together with the form-active elements, is a complete envelope structure presented and evaluated. While still in a research development phase, the studies are suggestive of how a wood-textile structure can become CO2e neutral by use if carbon sequestering materials combined with the operational energy based on the local solar/heat environment. The project opens pathways to a series of new studies for hybrid thermal form-active elements, where the insulation, permeability of air and light is designed by material composition and programming of its composite behaviour.

The study presents new knowledge and specific propositions on how responsive envelope architectures can be developed in the future, addressing simultaneously the need for reducing both embodied and oper- ational energy in buildings, and defining the thermal and visual expressive characteristics in the same process (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9
figure 9

Full scale prototype as demonstration and testing for complete assembly, combining the lightweight Paulownia/Flax BoxBeam Zollinger structure and the form active Oak/Paulownia/Flax layers


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We are grateful for the support enabling the studies by research grants received from the Realdania Foun- dation and The Obel Family Foundation. The published study is part of the research project Thermal Adaptive Architecture.

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Correspondence to I. W. Foged.

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Foged, I.W. A wood-textile thermal active architectural envelope. Archit. Struct. Constr. (2022).

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  • Wood-textile composites
  • Thermal active envelope
  • Thermal simulations
  • Material studies