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Wooden Tower Incorporates Traditional Design

A Korean skyscraper skeleton structure with wooden beams, columns, and griders
Following traditional design, a skeleton structure with wooden beams, columns, and girders is built first. Elaborate latticework is then woven into the structure using various wood joinery techniques to create walls, windows, and doors. Yong Ju Lee

A seven-story wooden tower that contains no metal fasteners or nails and is based on a traditional Korean design has won a skyscraper design competition.

April 8, 2014—The winner of this year’s eVolo magazine skyscraper competition is a tower designed in an unusual material for modern skyscrapers: wood. Seoul, Korea-based architect Yong Ju Lee’s tower, dubbed “Vernacular Versatility,” relies on traditional Korean methods used to create one-story wooden post-and-beam “Hanok” houses. The seven-story mixed-used structure extends 39.5 m in height, contains a basement level, and instead of metal connectors, nails, or fasteners relies upon complicated wooden joinery.

The existence of modern computer modeling software made the design possible, according to Lee, who is the principal of Studio Yong Ju Lee and is currently teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul. Lee is also a partner in the New York City architecture firm E/B Office. Lee wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

“I’ve always been fascinated by [the complexity of] Asian traditional wooden structures,” Lee said. With the relatively recent advent of computerized parametric tools and software, Lee took the opportunity to push these traditional wood designs into a more radical, and vertical, form while staying true to the method’s traditional joinery and core elements, he explained. 

 A conceptual wooden tower dubbed “Vernacular Versatility” is a seven-story tower that is free of any metal fasteners or nails

 A conceptual wooden tower dubbed “Vernacular Versatility” is a
seven-story tower that is free of any metal fasteners or nails,
instead using the wood joinery techniques contained in traditional
Korean “Hanok” houses. Yong Ju Lee

In traditional Hanok designs, a wooden beam, column, and girder structure is built first, and then elaborate latticework is woven into the structure to create walls, windows, and doors using various wood joinery techniques. “Old craftsmen applied this technique by their natural sense in [the] field, neither from sketch nor, of course, from computer,” Lee said. “Moreover, one single material—wood—should handle most of structural loads without any other material additions.”

Lee’s tower appears from one direction to be a stack of seven traditional Hanok houses. However, on the opposite side of the tower he has taken the beams, girders, and columns of a traditional curved Hanok roof and reconfigured them vertically to create an enormous stabilizing structure that extends alongside the entire inhabitable portion of the building—and then extends above it.

Lee explained that most people are aware of Hanok designs only through stories and drawings, but the methods of how such structures were created have been lost. “I want to bring [such nail-free designs] back to the contemporary world,” he said.

After finishing the manipulation of his vertical structure, which is founded upon a one-story concrete basement, Lee conducted a structural analysis of the design using Karamba, a three-dimensional design package that is being developed by Clemens Preisinger in cooperation with Bollinger-Grohmann-Schneider ZT GmbH, of Vienna. The Karamba program was embedded within the graphical algorithm software Grasshopper, which was then integrated with Rhinoceros, a program produced by Seattle-based Robert McNeel & Associates. These modern methods proved the viability of the design.

 The tower stands 39.5 m tall and contains what appears to be a stack of seven traditional “Hanok” houses on one side

 The tower stands 39.5 m tall and contains what appears to be a
stack of seven traditional “Hanok” houses on one side. These are
stabilized on the other side with a traditional curved roof that has
been elongated and reconfigured as a vertical structure.
Yong Ju Lee

Although the computer programs were able to check the stability of the building, “the traditional connections are too complicated geometrically even to [fully] manipulate through the computer,” Lee said. For this reason, he said, it would be difficult to push such a design to current skyscraper limits, such as 50-plus stories.

Traditional Hanok buildings began to be overwhelmed by modern apartments about 40 years ago, says Lee. But in the last decade or so, people have desired the return of such structures because of their ecofriendliness and “healing effectiveness,” he said. Traditionally, each Hanok house is designed for a specific site, with roof angles and edges chosen to control sunlight exposure and the house’s placement on the site arranged to maximize air flow through the structure. With designs that so carefully manipulate the environment, the structures are now seen as a way to help those suffering from such problems as asthma or atopy, he said.

Lee believes that by demonstrating that Hanok designs and methods can be adapted for taller, mixed-use buildings, future structures can be created that offer the best of the past and the present, using traditional architecture to meet contemporary urban needs.

 EVolo magazine is dedicated to technological advances in vertical design, sustainability, and innovation in archtiecture. Its skyscraper competition, which has been held for nine years, recognizes outstanding ideas for vertical living through “the novel use of technology, materials, programs, aesthetics, and spatial organizations,” according to material on eVolo’s website. This year’s competition received 525 submissions from 43 countries, representing every continent.



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