From Burning Man to Berkeley - Revolutionary Construction Technology Gets First Real World Application

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After four years of planning, research, patents, and permits, AVAVA Systems is building its first application of an entirely new way to build wood framed structures from one to five stories in height. A third story is in construction on the home of David Wilson, a cofounder of AVAVA Systems, civil engineer, and inventor, using only plywood and manufactured wood I-joists. The addition will be framed in one day using only power hand tools and relatively unskilled labor. First demonstrated at Burning Man in 2006 in a 20' by 20' by 20' art project called The Sugar Cube, the open floor plan design will now be adapted to a residential addition to an contemporary house in Berkeley, California, next door to the architect Donald Olsen. This sustainable, economical, and elegant method of construction will drastically reduce the use of concrete and steel normally associated with wood framed homes and other buildings.

After four years spent navigating the United States Patent and Trade Office and two years being vetted by the Berkeley Planning and Building Department, AVAVA Systems is currently building the first real-world application of their newly patented construction method. AVAVA Systems uses the mechanical properties of manufactured wood I-joists and interlocking joist-locksTM as the frame, combined with plywood sheathing to construct economical and sustainable buildings up to five stories high.

David Wilson, a civil engineer, and Michael Kozel, an architectural designer, both of Berkeley, California, originally designed and tested the system in 2006, the same year they created a Burning Man art project called the Sugar Cube. The Sugar Cube, a 20’ by 20’ by 20’ open-ended structure with ladders leading to a mezzanine and roof observation deck, was built once in a backyard in Berkeley, dismantled, shipped on a flat-bed truck to the Burning Man event, erected there using volunteer labor, and then disassembled to be used again.

This project proved the efficiency and elegance of the system, based on Stuart Brand’s (editor of the Whole Earth Access and author of How Buildings Learn) concept of separating buildings into various specialized layers with different life spans and functions. The frame and skin of the AVAVA Systems building can be erected by relatively unskilled labor using no more than ropes and power hand tools creating a free-standing building shell with completely open floor plans in days, rather than weeks or months. The plywood and I-joist materials are sustainably harvested or recycled wood and up to 90% of the concrete and steel traditionally used in building construction can be eliminated in this design, thus giving the AVAVA System home or building the smallest possible carbon footprint. This construction method also allows for insulation values up to R50 in the walls thus appealing to the most stringent green building requirements. The flat roof inherent to the design is ideal for the installation of solar panels thus further reducing the building’s dependence on the grid.

While the interest of many architects, builders, and developers has been stirred, mostly through word of mouth, the next step is bringing AVAVA Systems to the construction industry and to apply it to a real project. For this next demonstration David volunteered his home in Berkeley to be the test case. Luckily the proposed house, a mid-century flat-roofed home designed by Donald Olsen, has just the right architectural style to use as the base for a third-story addition essentially consisting of the upper half of the Sugar Cube. The design was simple, a master bedroom with glass at both ends and a closet and bathroom along the same side as the interior stairs. Half of the existing roof will be transformed into a large roof deck with panoramic views of the bay. Donald Olsen will be able to watch the construction from his famous glass house next door.

Permitting the project was especially challenging due to the recent enforcement of the Berkeley Creek Ordinance. According to David, this might have been one of the only projects receiving a creek permit in Berkeley in 2010. The city’s engineer also had to be convinced that the new system was worthy of a building permit as the first of its kind, using I-joists instead of traditional 2x timber studs for the walls. The joist-locksTM are precision components made of specially cut laminated veneer lumber called LVL with mortise and tendon joints. These were manufactured by a Canadian specialty wood shop that had one of the very few wood milling machines capable of creating the required shapes.

When the crew is ready, sometime in the next two weeks, the framing will be erected and sheathed with plywood in one day. The process will look like a very rapid tinker toy assembly that will be easily woven together. The process will be documented from start to finish and both photos and video will be available on the AVAVA Systems web site ( You will also find links to the company’s Facebook page and Twitter feed for instant updates.

Robert Criviner of San Francisco joined Michael and David in 2009 and became a partner in AVAVA Systems in 2010. He brought to the table the subsequent project that is now awaiting approval from the San Francisco Building Department consisting of an 800 square foot, 2-story rear house addition utilizing the joist-lockTM technology at all three levels; construction is currently scheduled to begin in late 2010).

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