Fighting Chance

Wood construction professor Fink feels that timber is not getting fair treatment by construction industry.

Gerhard Fink, the upcoming wood construction professor for Aalto University, sees no obstacles for Finland’s ambitions of becoming a “wood construction powerhouse”. 

“The starting point for success is a good one. There is vast potential in the forests here”, says the 33-year-old Fink who is briefly on a visit to Kouvola, a city brimming with timber construction plans. According to the young Austrian, many of his continental colleagues are of the same opinion: Finland definitely has a chance to make its mark in the international arenas.  

”Still, the fact that potential exists does not mean anything by itself,” Fink comments. As a scientist, Fink does not go much for hype – and when he starts his Aalto professorship in January, he’s determined to let the work do the talking.   

Kouvola Field Trip

Plenty of straight talk is heard during the visit, however. No, the professor-to-be does not know much about Finnish architecture or construction and he doesn’t arrive to Finland – his first time – with a readymade agenda.  

”In the first phase, it’s important to have a discussion with the industry partners and find out what needs they have. This might take a few months, but it will help to clarify what research areas are worth pursuing.” 

In Kouvola, the start of this academic venture is observed with a keen eye, since the City is paying a part of the professorship – and expects good value for investment. In a little get-together at the City Hall in September, Fink learned all about local timber construction plans – and liked what he was hearing.

“Obviously, there is a commitment here to promote wood construction.”     

Dream Job

Having received his PhD from ETH Zürich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) only a year ago, Fink was a project leader at the Swiss EMPA institute for six months before going for the opportunity up north. The young academic does not hide the fact that a Professor’s chair from his favorite field is a dream come true. Fink talks about “once in a lifetime” chance to put together his own research team and zero in on interesting research topics.   

”All this is highly motivating,” he says.

Fink was chosen from a short list of quality candidates. In June, he faced tough competition from Cristiano Loss from University of Trento and Adriaana Dutu from the Technical University of Civil Engineering in Bucharest as each of the candidates gave a sample lecture on main challenges for the design of wooden buildings. From Fink’s perspective, the topic is an inspiring one – then and now: 

”In a way, the only challenge in designing wooden buildings is how to make them as efficient and reliable as possible. But the question is, how do you reach this goal,” he says, adding that there is a tremendous number of issues to be addressed, before the objective is met.

Get the Story Straight

One problem in the field is that industry companies – and the construction engineers on their payroll – don’t know enough about wood. The qualities of steel and concrete have been memorized by the engineers so well, that they rarely look elsewhere for materials. Fink wants to change this:

”I’m not saying that wood is always the best and only construction material out there. Nevertheless, the engineers need to familiarize themselves with wood and its opportunities.”

According to Fink, every engineer should be able to approach the issue objectively: he believes that it is short-sighted – and more than a tad bit unprofessional – to go out and limit the field of alternatives right from the start. 

”We want to raise awareness with regards to timber construction and make sure that wood receives fair and equal treatment.”

Wanted: Dynamic Data

Previously, Fink has studied the application of quantitative methods in existing wooden structures – i.e. how one could utilize the data from, say, a wood renovation project more effectively.    

”Presently, you can only say whether the renovation is needed or not,” Fink says, calling the present methods “useless”. 

”New quantitative tools are needed.”

 Fink believes that in the future wood will be the construction material of choice more and more – both in Finland and abroad. Many factors are pointing towards a wooden renaissance:

“Climate change is directing all construction to a more ecofriendly direction as the attention is focused on carbon footprint. Thanks to prefabrication, wood construction is faster and less inexpensive than before.”  

Feel the Spirit

And then there’s that feeling that only wood can deliver. Fink muses – and this is coming from a scientist – that whenever you step into a room that is wood through-and-through, there is something very special about that moment.

As a material, wood has a powerful aura which resonates intensely with people’s wellbeing. The professor-to-be – who likes to spend his free time in nature – is convinced that “the soul of wood” is strong enough for the challenges ahead.