Concrete Wall
Dirt Forms (Thesis)

Location:
Pittsburgh, PA

Category:
Design, Fabrication, Community, Experience

Type of Project:

Architectural Design-Research Thesis

Date:
Spring 2019

Winner of an Award for Artistic Excellence & runner-up for the Undergraduate Environmental Research Award as part of Meeting of the Minds 2019, Carnegie Mellon University's Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Made possible through the support of the American Institute of Architecture Students through the CRIT Scholar Program.

 

This project was funded [in part] by Carnegie Mellon’s Undergraduate Research Office. These results represent the views of the author and not those of Carnegie Mellon University.

Thank you to Mary-Lou Arscott, Joshua Bard, Lola Ben-Alon, Cyrus Dahmubed, Jeremy Ficca, Charles “Scooter” Hager, Kent Harries, Lauren Herckis, Noah Theriault, and Matthew Zywica for the unwavering guidance and support. Special thanks to Arthur Notaro for the dirt.​

The inspiration for this project comes from the experiences and lessons of seven weeks in Ghana as part of a build workshop implementing earthen construction techniques for the building of a rural clinic. Aside from the abundance and cultural role of dirt in the region, its beauty lies in its ability to be transformed by the hands of the everyday person to suit a wide variety of needs and usages through the addition of water and manpower. No one questions its appearance, integrity, or possibilities; it is embraced as a reliable material that many are familiar with using, and the goal of creating an earthen structure brings people from neighboring areas together for a collective effort. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, one thought stuck with me: “Why not make with it here?” 

As one of the oldest construction typologies in existence, earthen construction serves and impacts billions of individuals worldwide. It has stood the test of time, nature, and usage across continents, and can be seen as a material to pave the way for a more sustainable and equitable future. However, as a material that has served as the basis for civilizations, lifestyles, and spaces to be built upon for centuries, earth has seen waves of (ab)use, shifting, and trauma by humans. We now associate it with pollution and laden it with toxicants, only to then excavate and dump it, cover it up, and hide its imperfections beneath layers of asphalt and concrete. The values of societies have shifted, as well as our relationship with materials, making, and building. A consumerist mentality and system of specialization have decreased not only collective sharing of knowledge and skills but also individual awareness and familiarity with construction. We are desensitized from the earth that surrounds us. 

Dirt Forms looks to connect people back to their surroundings, one another, and the material world around them through the power of the earth. The project highlights earth as a means for space and place-making: a way to inform thought, action, and collaboration through the creation of an introductory guide to adaptive earthen construction techniques. The aim is not only to show the public the advantages, versatility, and simplicity of working with such a material, but also to propose the power individuals and groups may have by adapting the qualities inherent in earthen construction to their needs and comforts for collective use. By looking at implementation in Pittsburgh, an opportunity arises to widen the impact, usage, and audience making with dirt can have: by navigating the unique challenges of working in a post-industrial context, the research shows how one can start to influence spaces by reclaiming dirt despite its imperfect nature. Through a hands-on process of making with the material, Dirt Forms encourages individuals to share their processes and experiences in order to add to the evolving lexicon of earthen construction and further the potential of the earth as a material for sustainable creation in architecture and design, now and in the future.