Annular Further – Finland – Timber Engineering, Materials and Architecture

University and other state funded researchII

Research in University based Architectural Schools

Alongside the introductory overview, these pages introduce the three Finnish architecture schools, their departments and specialities in the context of timber, and provide a brief overview of research occurring within each.  

Introductory overview

Wood related research in the academy plays a disproportionate role in Finland compared to most European countries. These include architecture and engineering schools and departments, through to chemistry, wood technology, and in the last decade a wholesale emphasis on bioeconomy related research. This is often in partnership with the wider forest industries, the pivot towards the government’s National Forest and Finnish bioeconomy strategies is most evident in the cross-disciplinary focus found across various parts of Helsinki’s Aalto University.

There are three architecture schools in Finland, at Aalto University (previously Helsinki University of Technology), Tampere and Oulu, the last laying claim to being the most northern latitude architecture school on the planet. Unsurprisingly each includes a focus on wood related studies and research:

Aalto University

Wood Program 2018/10 project – A-Lava – Photo Philip Tidwell/Wood Program

Aalto University’s Architecture Department

Sits within the School of Art, Design and Architecture, and is the largest of the school’s three departments. It is also involved in interdisciplinary collaborative projects across a diverse spectrum of departments and initiatives within the University.

The department is home to the well-known Wood Program the main wood focused research group, and to Aalto Wood, the principal network researching wood across the university. There are other collaborations with departments within the School of Engineering and School of Chemical Engineering, the latter including the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems and the interdisciplinary CHEMARTS Lab.

Wood Program – organised around its one-year design and build masters is the principal architectural school unit dedicated to timber. Led by Professor Pekka Heikkinen, Wood Program is the oldest academic live projects course in Europe, practical building and construction research emerges from each year’s live projects. Other projects and research are also part of the Wood Program.

Recent Projects include Kohta; a rail station shelter (the name means ‘soon’ in Finnish) in Koria/Kouvala (2018/2019), A•lava; a summer performance stage (2016/2017), and Kokoon; modular temporary housing for Asylum seekers (2015/2016).

Aalto Wood – Set up in 2016, Aalto Wood is Aalto University’s hub for research, education and  knowledge in wood construction, bringing together architecture, structural engineering and wood science. Preceded up to 2016 by the PRA Network, Aalto Wood includes faculty and research members of the School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Chemical Technology and Engineering, and builds on over twenty years of research and knowledge development within the university.

School of Architecture research:

Timber Joints at the Aalto University Wood Program: Designing Through Experimentation (2019), Heikkinen, P., Tidwell, P., Chapter in Rethinking Wood: Future Dimensions of Timber Assembly ed Hudert, M. Pfeiffer, S, De Gruyter.

Past research:

Wood2New – Competitive wood-based interior materials and systems for modern wood construction. This pan-Nordic research was co-ordinated by the School of Architecture and Design, Aalto University (2014-2017). Report here.

Further – Wood Program overview feature in Unstructured 6 extra here, and a feature by course director, Pekka Heikkinen in Fourth Door Review 7 here.

Finnish waste wood yard, part of the InFutureWood research

Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems (Bio2)

The department is home to a number of groups, with an applied focus on wood, cellulose, and bio-based materials, using ‘green’ chemistry and biotechnology to research bioeconomy led materials, products, systems, and services. Several of its schools are directly engaged in lignocellulosic focused research and projects. These include Wood Material Technology, Wood Material Science and Technology, and Wood Chemistry. Other related schools are referenced below. Wood Material research groups’ activities are particularly relevant to wood construction materials and two further groups are also involved in overlapping research arenas.

Wood Material Technology – led by Professor Mark Hughes, the school’s research includes extensive focus on wood, specifically in healthy and climate smart building, and bio-based fibres in high performance polymer composites.

Current research includes:

InFutureWood – contributors to the pan-European research programme on Design for Disassembly, wood re-use and upcycling across EU Europe (YouTube introduction here).

Past research:

CircWood exploring Design for Disassembly (2019)

SMARTA Wood (Sustainable MAterial-Resource & Technology Application of Wood) – developing data sets and tools supporting efficient use of most sustainable woods. Led by Chalmers University of Technology.

Charred ThermoWood – one result of the CHARFACE research – Photo Aalto University

Wood Material Science and Technology

The group’s research spans thermal modification processes, improving wooden construction materials properties, and the microbiology and chemistry of wood and wood components.

Single surface charring – A modern bio-based take on the Japanese Yakisugi charring tradition process, this one-sided surface charring aims to broaden ThermoWood related processes to develop durable, sustainable and maintenance-free construction material for wall claddings etc.

Thermal and chemical modification of wood – Different modification methods, including hot water modification of solid wood.

Research paper:

One-sided surface charring of beech wood (2019), Kymäläinen, M., Rautkari, L., et al. Journal of Materials Science volume 54, p 9497–9506

Bio-Based Materials Technology (BIOMAT)

Research is focused nanopaper, nanocellulose composites and graphene.

Wood Chemistry – Alongside its core role in the CHEMARTS programme (below), the Wood Chemistry group contributes to other research activities, e.g.:

Willow Bark utilisation – expanding willow bark uses through research into the bark’s chemical structure and its fractionation to extractives and fibres.

Research paper:

Morphology and Overall Chemical Characterization of Willow (Salix sp.) Inner Bark and Wood: Toward Controlled Deconstruction of Willow Biomass (2016), Dou, J., Holopainen, U., et al in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering, Vol. 4 (7), p3871-3876.

Shimmering Wood and related materials – Photo CHEMARTS/Aalto University

Shimmer like wood – Noora Yau’s shimmering wood CHEMARTS project – Photo – Noora Yau/CHEMARTS/Aalto University

CHEMARTS Cookbook cover – two hands holding Bioslime


One of the programme’s latest results is Noora Yau’s Shimmering Wood, a cellulose based shiny wood surface pigmentation previously only possible through plastic and metal foil material.

Aalto University’s long term joined-up research programme fusing arts, science and technology in developing bio- and cellulose-based materials, products, and concepts. Part of the country’s initial turn to the bioeconomy up-and-running since 2011, CHEMARTS is jointly run by the School of Art, Design and Architecture and the School of Chemical Engineering, alongside other partners.

In 2020 the Lab published The CHEMARTS Cookbook featuring recipes for ‘hands-on experiments with wood-based materials, including cellulose fibres, micro- or nano-structured fibrils, cellulose derivatives, lignin, bark, and wood extractives’.

The book is available through Aalto University here.

One of main research outcomes from the CHEMARTS programme to date is the Design Driven Value Chains in the World of Cellulose (DWoC); a five-year interdisciplinary research programme (2013-2018). Much of the research was both speculative and veering towards design rather than construction materials. The full report is here.

Nanocellulose on a petri dish – cellulose nanofibrils produced by TEMPO mediated oxidation (left) and carboxymethylation as the pre-treatment. – Images Tiina Pöhler, et al. VTT.

DWoC included the supporting Cellulose from Finland project, which provides further green chemistry information on cellulose, nanocellulose and related lignocellulosic materials. There is also a cellulosic materials library here.

Further departmental research:

Bio-based waterproof coating technologies – research into a nanoparticle based lignin coating material demonstrating anti-corrosion, anti-bacterial and UV shielding properties. Research being undertaken by Alexander Henn. A short YouTube video is here.

Research paper:

Colloidal Lignin Particles and Epoxies for Bio-Based, Durable, and Multiresistant Nanostructured Coatings (2021), Henn, K. A., Forsman, N., Zou, T., Osterberg, M., in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 13(29), pp.34793-34806.

Oulu University, School of Architecture (OSA)

Hila (2014) – one of the OSA’s digiWoodLab’s design and build projects – Photo OSA

Ligna Pavilion renderings of the digital design – Digital Wooden Architecture

The completed Ligna Pavilion – Oulu Architecture School

The Pudelma Pavilion, a sculptural gridshell – Photo Digital Wood Lab/OSA

Oulu School of Architecture (OSA) – the planet’s most northerly architecture school, also presents itself as Arctic focused. Fused into the University’s Faculty of Technology in 2018, OSA research is themed around the ‘changing northern built environment’. There are three research groups, though only Smart Architecture & Construction is directly involved in wood related research (the other two are Smart City and Cultural Transformation).

Digital Wooden Architecture research (within Smart Architecture & Construction)

The Digital Wooden Architecture research group’s focus is algorithmic and digitally informed architecture, working with the Oulu FabLab and emerging out of the school’s DigiWoodLab (2009-2014), which produced a series of algorithmic architecture experiments. Led by Professor Matti Sanaksenaho, researchers included Toni Österlund, Eero Lunden & Tuulikki Tanska, who have gone on to influence the Finnish and wider digital and architectural scene. A resume of DigiWoodLab can be found in PUU 3/2013.

During DigiWoodLab, several algorithmic design live pavilion projects were completed including:

Ligna (2009) within the architecture school courtyard, Pudelma (2011) in city hall park, Turku (an overview of construction process at Design Playground) and Hila, in 2014 beside Kiikeli island, Oulu.

Published research includes Generate: From Algorithms to Structure (2009) DigiWoodLab publication and Algorithmic Wood Structures (Algoritmit Puurakenteissa – in Finnish) (2014) by Toni Österlund & Tuulikki Tanska.

Tuulikki Tanska’s diploma thesis was ‘Geometric optimisation methods in architectural design’ which included a wood-construction swimming pool for Linnanmaa in Oulu designed ‘with the aid of algorithms’.

Luminous – is a joint research programme between Smart Architecture & Construction and Smart City with a focus on knowledge gaps between planning, design, production and use of the Northern built environment. 

Further – Unstructured 6 extra includes a themed section on Northern Finnish architecture of Ostrobothnia, and the Oulu Architecture School, including features on Sajos – the Sámi cultural centre, Oulu’s young new architectural generation, and Oulu Architecture School itself.

Tampere University, Faculty of the Built Environment

School design out of wood is a research topic at Tampere Architecture School – the recent Kuhmo School in eastern Finland by alt Architecture – Photo Ville-Pekka Ikola/alt Architecture

The Urban Planning and Design Research cluster Seinäjoki Urban Lab, with a focus on the circular bioeconomy. A current research project, led by partner Vaasa’s Novia University, is Circular Economy: A Game Changer for the Wood Building Industry supporting the regional wood sector in transitioning to circular economy approaches.

Research report from the Circular Economy Game Changer research:

Comparison of a concrete and wooden school – examinations based on carbon footprint (2021) by Malin Moisio and Satu Huuhka, Tampere University.

Circular Economy Game Changer report circular graphic

All reports page here.

Previous research:

Future in Wood? Timber Construction in boosting local development by Ari Hynynen, European Spatial Research and Policy 2016, Vol 23. No. 1, (open access)

The History of Architecture and the Built Heritage group includes a focus on tradition and historical timber buildings, and the application of circular bioeconomy thinking to energy renovation, retrofitting, and additional floors to mass housing.