August 16, 2022
As part of the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning’s (GSAPP) summer 2022 workshop series, the Natural Materials Lab directed by Assistant Professor Lola Ben-Alon hosted a two-week workshop titled The Farm to Building Project: Design/Build Using Raw Earth Construction on Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Campus in Palisades, New York. The workshop was led by Ben-Alon and Tommy Schaperkotter, Adjunct Assistant Professor at GSAPP, and included participation from students across Columbia GSAPP’s programs. Together, they designed, detailed, documented, and constructed a small-scale installation.
Using Raw and Natural Earth Materials in Construction
Design disciplines are today entangled by both determination and determinism stemming from the scale and severity of the environmental destruction caused by our professions, and concurrent appeals for ecological transformation requested of them. We are motivated to act, yet often paralyzed by the confluence of competing agendas, shifting metrics, and market forces that create incongruous philosophies of sustainability. This workshop offered students a chance to confront and question these conditions of architectural education by studying terrestrial processes of material extraction, raw earthen construction, and human labor.
Structures of raw earth, built without cement or synthetic stabilizers, have the potential to minimize embodied fuel and carbon emissions from chemical, industrial, and thermal processing. Indeed, raw earth construction mixtures, often mixed with crop by-products and living additives to gain structural integrity, can be adapted to local geophysical and thermal environments. This adaptation may be termed Farm to Building: a holistic interrogation of environmental, social, and economic sustainability of a building process, not merely a building product. This analysis reveals earthen building processes — contemporary versions of ancient knowledge — to be promising components of climate-friendly design that require further exploration and demonstration.
By implementing Farm to Building materials and techniques, this project catalyzes the following inquiries: How might we rethink the act of building by not only consciously confronting ecological extraction and the capabilities of human labor, but by designing the means to ameliorate harmful effects of these metabolic flows? In doing so, can we see buildings and their construction materials not as static assemblages, frozen in time, but as unending flows of matter and energy?