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Natural Materials Lab Unveils Design/Build Installation

Press Release
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?

The Workshop and Student Experience

These questions were explored through an immersive design-build workshop with students and faculty from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning (GSAPP) who designed, detailed, documented, and constructed a small-scale installation using raw, un-stabilized earthen construction techniques on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory campus.

This design/build course, a collaborative hands-on workshop, offered students an opportunity to experience unmediated construction practices that employed a range of textures, constituencies, and plasticities within rammed earth construction techniques.

Students were also asked to investigate the locality of Farm to Building supply possibilities, material origins, routes, and procurement, as a function of site-specific urban metabolism within the Hudson Valley and its working waterfront. This documentation helped students generate critical questions about the flows of materials, equipment, and people as well as the consequences for labor practices and environmental parameters.

The Installation: Design and Vision

The earthen installation, located at the entrance to the Geoscience Building, was designed to provide insight during its construction, its occupation, and its dissipation. During fabrication builders and spectators alike were able to situate its movements of material extraction, procurement, and labor as metabolic flows in which extracted layers of earth were relocated, remixed, and returned to the earth as a habitable, exterior space on campus.

In its constructed state, the installation acts as an occupiable sitting area. While structures are typically considered to be something other than the earth, merely placed on top of it, this installation offers students, staff, and visitors a chance to inhabit the earth itself. The installation will continue to teach, perhaps most significantly, during its erosion. The solubility of the project provides an expedited simulation of how built environments dissipate over time, providing visceral and tangible lessons about maintenance and care.

The project offers insight into inherently terrestrial techniques of construction that are, in many ways, commensurate with and reflective of the ecological research undertaken in various fields at Lamont-Doherty. Ultimately, this short summer workshop offered students and faculty from both schools an academic playing field in which to watch and debate how we ought to make things in the world, and what might or should happen to them when they’re gone.

Instructors: Tommy Schaperkotter, Lola Ben-Alon, Sami Akkach, Lorenz Kastner
Students: Zina Berrada, Fukunda Mbaru, Wenjing Xue, Shuyang Huang, Xiyu Li
Volunteers: Grace Schleck, Penmai Chongtoua, Lynnette Widder
Collaborators: Organic Recycling, Tomczak Excavating, JD Backhoe, Stateside Forming, Tulnoy Lumber, Durante Rentals
Location Support: Dean Maureen Raymo and the administrative staff at Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, including Janice Savage and Angela LoPiccolo
Photography: Florianne Jacques