This year, a total of 12 projects made it to the international finals of the Huts and Habitats competition, part of TAB (Tallinn Architecture Biennale). 
Steampunk was the unanimous favorite of the jury right from the beginning.   

To date, Steampunk it is the largest and most ambitious project in the world implemented using augmented reality… and it’s entirely made of wood. augmented reality future architecture 3

Building with no drawings

Steampunk courageously made fun of a process which, today, is followed blindly: the need of translating a spatial project into 2D drawings before construction. 

Steampunk was built without any printed drawings. The whole project was developed in 3D and was implemented entirely using augmented reality glasses. 

45 people worked on the construction over two months. Most of them were volunteers who came to Tallinn from abroad just to be part of the process – indeed a unique opportunity for them.  

Having to build without drawings, builders used augmented reality to view digital, holographic construction information in three dimensions directly within the context in which it is needed. augmented reality future architecture 10

Steampunk challenges the idea of building. It explores a different path for going from a project to a physical object. It is a bold and innovative solution which indeed bear some risks. 

In fact, without the use of 2D drawings, the final result depends on the skill of the person who is actually doing the work (interpreting the 3D model and building the physical object).

Today, the object sits on top of a small hill in front of the Museum of Estonian Architecture, in Tallinn city center.

The creators of Steampunk are:

  • Gwyllim Jahn and Cameron Newnham, from Fologram, Australia;
  • Soomeen Hahm Design and Igor Pantic, from Great Britain.

Gwyllim Jahn and Cameron Newnham are investigating how the use of augmented reality in construction opens up new possibilities for designers and constructors. augmented reality future architecture 18

When constructors, who normally use traditional working methods, use the tools created by Fologram, they can create structures that are more varied in terms of detail, form, and/or texture; making otherwise expensive design solutions simple and affordable all the while reducing risk. Complicated design projects can, therefore, be implemented on-site quickly, with no expensive know-how or project documentation.

Gwyllim Jahn said: "this construction was new and exciting for us too. It meant constant learning throughout the whole process. We had to adjust to the natural material which never reacted in the way we would have liked it to". augmented reality future architecture 19

An ancient technology

What’s more interesting, Steampunk uses the ancient technologies of bending wood with steam in conjunction with the novel spatial projection methods of virtual reality.

Combining the augmented reality with steaming techniques resulted in a long construction process. The team arrived in Tallinn in July to look for the perfect material for the construction of the installation.

Thermory, an Estonian wood manufacturer who happens to be the largest producer of thermally modified wood in the world, was of great help when searching for materials and conducting experiments. 

Thermory makes modified wood which is 100% weather-proof, using no chemicals at all. Having the wood weather-proof is important for the installation because it will remain in front of the museum for the next two years. augmented reality future architecture 6

One of Thermory’s warehouses was turned into a laboratory where birch, larch, and spruce were steamed and bent. The installation was finally completed using ash, which proved to be the most suitable material for this method. 

Thermally modified wood becomes durable in outdoor conditions, but at the same time, it also becomes easier to break during bending. In the end, the external layers of the installation were covered with thermally modified battens.

"Thermally modified wood is genuine wood, the properties of which become significantly improved using high temperatures and steam without any additional chemicals. As a result, the material is environmentally friendly and visually attractive. It’s also more durable and has more stable dimensions than untreated wood,” said Andres Kangur, the marketing director of Thermory. augmented reality future architecture 11

The workshop in Tallinn was established in Raja Street in one of the buildings belonging to the Estonian Academy of Arts

The only modern change made to this ancient method was that the detail to be bent was wrapped in a special plastic stocking which is then filled with steam. 

The fact that 10m long planks were needed to create the arches of Steampunk made the construction of the installation more complicated as planks of this length were not available. Even if there were any, they would not have bent easily, which is why each arch is assembled from two or three planks that were bent separately. augmented reality future architecture 16

In addition to the construction method of the installation being unique, the design of Steampunk is also just as unique. Jahn commented that something has been built in Tallinn that - until now - could only be seen digitally

Mihkel Tüür, an architect member of the jury, pointed out that Steampunk’s construction changed the notions of simplicity, simplification, and complexity. 

"The installation is openly looking for the answer to the question of how to build a space with diverse geometry in a simple and economical way."

The project proves how collaborating digital possibilities with human brainstorming can birth new spatial forms. augmented reality future architecture 6

The method explained 

Architects design in 3D and buildings are built in 3D. Why do we need the translation to 2D drawings in between? Drawings struggle to describe non-planar geometry, are ambiguous, out of context, difficult to read, and also expensive to produce.

Steampunk is built without a single 2D drawing. It instead uses augmented reality to view digital, holographic construction information in three dimensions directly within the context in which it is needed. By overlaying holographic information on construction sites, we can eliminate the need for measuring tapes and greatly simplify 3D set-out, placement, and assembly tasks. Viewing holographic information within fabrication workshops allows us to add digital precision to analog tools and guide workers through sequences of fabrication instructions. augmented reality future architecture 15

Where do you find are the biggest opportunities and challenges for the method in the future?

Holographic Construction has the potential to transform the way we design and build by reducing the time, cost, and risk of complex construction. It can also improve the quality and training of more traditional material craft. A significant challenge facing anyone wishing to work with augmented reality for design and construction today is how to translate design models to interactive holographic construction information efficiently. This is a problem Fologram is working to solve by building software to help designers create holographic applications within typical CAD packages. augmented reality future architecture 8


This project proved that it is indeed possible to build physical objects without going through the process of 2D design.

In a way, we always knew this…  sculptors have been working like this for millennia.

Anyway, the use of augmented reality and 3D technology might allow ordinary people to create physical objects without having to be Michelangelo.

We are getting closer to a future where structures will be built directly from computer-generated images. 

Is this the future of building?



Article by Silvia Pärmann

Photos by Tõnu Tunnel

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