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Natural Materials Lab


The Natural Materials Lab promotes equitable design using natural, low-carbon, and nontoxic building materials.

Our work fosters academia and community connections by integrating research assessments and design-build teaching methodologies that include evidence-based and post-occupancy evaluations.

Our research and teaching craft new ways to understanding and imagining socially equitable and environmentally sustainable futures, by fostering connections across the arts, humanities, and engineering.

Current Opportunities
Applications are currently being accepted for a Graduate Research Lab Assistant starting in Spring 2022 for a range of building science and digital fabrication activities using earth and bio-based materials with a required starting date of January 15, 2022. Currently enrolled students are invited to learn more about this position and apply via GSAPP Gateway, Columbia GSAPP’s Career Services Platform.

Research

The primary focus of the Natural Materials Lab is on building materials and the design of building envelope systems and, more specifically, the development of user-centered methodologies for socially and environmentally sustainable buildings. Our overall goal is to investigate the following research topics:

  • Advance innovative research on the intersection of natural materials, social equity, occupants health, and making.
  • Develop critical steps to integrating natural and living building materials into innovative architecture by developing advanced fabrication and digital 3D printing methodologies.
  • Develop environmental and social LCA (ELCA & SLCA) tools that analyze societal impacts such as health and wellbeing, local employment, circular economy, community engagement, and access to resources.
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Catalyzing the use of low-carbon and community-engaging building materials through systematic LCAs
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The Environmental Impacts of Thermal Experience
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Using biophilic design to promote recovery, health, and comfort in healthcare environments
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Grounded Chairs is a 100% organic biodegradable low-carbon seating system.
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Advancing Eco-friendly Materials through Building Policy and Education
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Advancing the science and geometry of 3D printed earth

Teaching

In education, we introduce innovative topics on environmentally responsive architecture, equipping students with computational tools to understand and analyze environmentally sustainable and socially equitable futures.

One of our main goals is to create greater opportunities for students to collaborate and apply their classroom knowledge into realistic scenarios. To achieve this goal, our electives often incorporate both theoretical knowledge and practical experiences such as team exercises, giving rise to real-world applications and peer collaboration.

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Introducing architectural design responses for energy, climate, and comfort
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A project-based seminar that provides both theoretical and hands-on building experience
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Understanding and managing embodied and operational energy through Life Cycle Assessments (LCA)
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Prototyping and experimenting with materials to learn how the act of making forms an integral par...
Who We are

The Natural Materials Lab is directed by Lola Ben-Alon, Assistant Professor and Sequence Director of the Building Science and Technology curriculum at GSAPP.

Current Team
Mariami Maghlakelidze ‘21 MSAAD, Graduate Research Assistant
Bisher Tabaa '22 MSArch
Sarah Hejazin '21 MSAAD

Recent News and Publications

09/10/2021 Prof. Lola Ben-Alon was awarded a $2.3M Research Grant through NSF’s Future of Manufacturing Program! The project will investigate “The Process-Structure-Property Relationships of 3D Printed Earth Materials and Structures” in collaboration with Co-PIs Shiko Kawashima and Wil V. Srubar. Read more about the project here.

05/07/2021 Our installation, the Edible [EAT ME] Brick, will be commissioned at the Tallinn Architecture Biennale 2022. The installation, developed in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Yavo Ayalon, will be exhibited in September – October 2022, at the Estonia Museum of Architecture.

03/01/2021 Our presentation and paper were accepted to the 2021 ACSA/EAAE Teachers Conference: Curriculum for Climate Agency. The paper, entitled “Down to Earth: Using Natural Building Materials for Community Resiliency”, reviews the use of natural materials in architectural pedagogy, and offers a new framework for teaching hands-on material explorations. The conference will take place virtually on June 24 and June 25, 2021.

01/07/2021 Our paper was accepted to the 4th International Conference on Bio-Based Building Materials! The paper, entitled “Overcoming the Perceptual Gap: Worldwide Perceived Comfort Survey of Earthen Building Experts and Homeowners”, will be presented at the conference in Barcelona, 16-18 June 2021.

12/17/2020 Prof. Lola Ben-Alon was awarded the Columbia Provost’s Grants Program for Junior Faculty who Contribute to the Diversity Goals of the University. The project will investigate “The Environmental and Social Life Cycle Potential of 3D Printed Earthen Buildings”

12/15/2020 Our paper was accepted under revisions to Elsevier’s Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews Journal: Ben-Alon L., Loftness V., Cochran Hameen E., Harries K. A. (2020). Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Earthen Vs. Conventional Building Materials.

12/12/2020 Our proposal was accepted for the Living Future 2021! The proposal, NATURAL BUILDINGS: Integrating Earthen Building Materials and Methods Into Mainstream Construction, will be presented at the conference on April 20-23, 2021.

Previous Scholarly Publications in Referred Journals

L. Ben-Alon, V. Loftness, K.A. Harries, E. Cochran Hameen (2021). Life cycle assessment (LCA) of natural vs conventional building assemblies, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Vol. 144.

Ben-alon, L., Loftness, V., Harries, K. A., & Hameen, E. C. (2020). Integrating Earthen Building Materials and Methods into Mainstream Construction. Journal of Green Building, 15(1), 87-106.

Ben-alon, L., Loftness, V., Harries, K. A., Hameen, E. C., & Di-Pierto G. (2019). Cradle to Site Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of Natural vs Conventional Building Materials: A Case Study on Cob Earthen Construction. Journal of Building and Environment, 160, 106150.

Ben-Alon, L. & Sacks, R. (2017). Simulating the Behavior of Trade Crews in Construction using Agents and Building Information Modeling. Automation in Construction, 74, 12-27.

Book Chapters

Harries, K. A., Ben Alon, L., & Sharma, B. (2019). Chapter 4: Codes and Standards Development for Nonconventional and Vernacular Materials. In K. A. Harries & B. Sharma (Eds.), Nonconventional and Vernacular Construction Materials: Characterization, Properties and Applications, (2nd ed.). Woodhead (Elsevier) Publishing Series in Civil and Structural Engineering.

Refereed Papers in Conference Proceedings

Gupta P., Cupkova D., Ben-Alon L., Cochran Hameen E. (2020). Evaluation of Rammed Earth Assemblies as Thermal Mass Through Whole-Building Simulations. Forthcoming at the Building Performance Analysis & SimBuild Conference by ASHRAE and IBPSA-USA, Chicago IL, USA.

Ben-Alon, L., Johndrow L., Magill A. (2019). Providing Building Skills While Respecting Culture, Community, and Tradition – Overview of the TERRA Collaborative, Inc. and The Pueblo Project Organization’s mission and activities. Earth USA 2019. Santa Fe, NM, USA.

Ben-Alon, L. (2020). Down to Earth: Design Build Methodology for Academic and Community Connections. Community Built Association: Fostering Human Connection. San-Gregorio, CA, USA.

Ben-Alon, L., Loftness, V., (2019). The biophilic power and environmental urgency of earthen construction. Presented in Central Europe towards Sustainable Building, Prague, Czech Republic. Published in IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science (Vol. 290, No. 1, p. 012006).

Ben-Alon, L., Loftness, V., Harries, K. A., & Hameen, E. C. (2019). Integrating Earthen Building Materials and Methods into Mainstream Construction Using Environmental and Policy Measures. Earth USA 2019. Santa Fe, NM, USA.

Ben-Alon, L., Loftness, V., Harries, K. A., & Hameen, E. C. (2019). Integrating Earthen Building Materials and Methods into Mainstream Construction Using Environmental Performance Assessment and Building Policy. Presented in Sustainable Built Environment, Graz, Austria. Published in IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science (Vol. 323, No. 1, p. 012139).

Harries, K.A., Ben-Alon, L., and Sharma, B., (2019). Grand Challenge or Oxymoron? Codes and Standards Development for Nonconventional Materials. The 18th International Conference on Non-Conventional Materials and Technologies, Nairobi, Kenya.

Ben-Alon, L., Loftness, V., Harries, K. A., & Hameen, E. C. (2017). Integrating Earthen Building Materials and Methods into Mainstream Housing Projects Throughout Design, Construction, and Commissioning Stages. In Earth USA: 8th International Conference on Architecture & Construction with Earthen Materials, Santa Fe, NM, USA (pp. 16-25).

Fordice, J., Ben-Alon, L. (2017). Cob Technical White Paper for the International Residential Code Appendix U on Cob Construction. In Earth USA: 8th International Conference on Architecture & Construction with Earthen Materials, Santa Fe, NM, USA (pp. 27-36).

Ben-Alon, L. & Sacks, R. (2015). Simulating and Visualizing Emergent Production in Construction (EPIC) Using Agents and BIM. In 23rd Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC). Perth, Australia. (pp 371-380).

González, V. A., Sacks, R., Pavez, I., Poshdar, M., & Ben-Alon, L. (2015). Interplay of lean thinking and social dynamics in construction. In 23rd Annual Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC). Perth, Australia. (pp. 29-31).

Ben-Alon, L., Sacks, R., & Grobman, Y. J. (2014). Similarities and Differences between Humans’ and Social Insects’ Building Processes and Building Behaviors. In Construction Research Congress 2014: Construction in a Global Network, Atlanta, GA USA. (pp. 51-60).

GSAPP Conversations:
Natural Materials Mini Series with Lola Ben-Alon

Over the Fall 2020 semester, Assistant Professor Lola Ben-Alon hosted a mini-series on natural and living building materials as part of the GSAPP Conversations podcast. The Natural Materials mini-series consists of conversations with designers, builders, and product developers of clay, bamboo, fibers, and bacterial concrete. Natural materials are defined as minimally processed, readily available, nontoxic, healthy, and engaging materials. They are critically needed to reduce carbon emissions and extractive harmful impact associated with conventional building materials.