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Down to Earth

Course Description

Natural building materials offer a minimally processed, non-toxic, and community self-sufficient alternative to conventional building materials. Constructing with these materials engages local communities, regardless of skills, including families and children, while maximizing the potentials of freely available resources.

In this course, students gain both theoretical knowledge and hands-on building experience related to a range of natural materials including rammed earth, cob, clay plasters, and straw bale construction. Performance and environmental benefits of both residential and commercial earthen projects in a wide range of climates are introduced. Guest lectures and workshops provide insights from the field and give students the opportunity to gain hands-on expertise of alternative natural materials, an emerging field in sustainable architecture.

As a final deliverable, students collectively design and build a small-scale project while making a sensitive choice of materials, technical details, and participatory processes. The project will be intended to foster the local economy, create know-how to improve living conditions in the local context, and support a bottom-up form of capacity development for and with communities. A community celebration finalizes the construction process, followed by an in-campus exhibition.

Learning Objectives

By completing this course, students will be able to:

  1. Identify history, current practices, and technical performance of various natural building techniques, including rammed earth, cob, adobe, light straw clay, straw bale construction, and clay plasters.

  2. Assess the technical performance of case studies of natural building projects.

  3. Formulate appropriate natural building materials and mixtures.

  4. Work effectively and collaboratively in an interdisciplinary team that include design, engineering, and construction professionals.

  5. Design and build an actual small scale project to benefit the local community.