Dirt Forms | Bachelor of Architecture Thesis

Materials: Dirt, Straw, Plaster, Wood, Metal Pipe, Water

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Video of the project here

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.​

Through a series of unexpected events in 2017, I found myself spending seven weeks in Ghana learning earthen construction techniques as part of a build workshop with the NKA Foundation for the project Weft. Aside from the abundance and cultural role of dirt in the region, its beauty lied in the ability to be transformed by the hands of the everyday person to suite a wide variety of needs and usages through the addition of water and manpower. No one questioned its appearance, integrity, or possibilities- it was embraced as a reliable material that many were familiar with using, and the mission of creating an earthen structure brought people from neighboring areas together for a collective effort. As I looked back, there were five key points of earthen construction that stuck with me:

1. No matter one’s skill-level or age, anyone can learn and participate
2. Versatile and manipulable, it can be used for almost any form and function
3. A cyclical process, the material is completely reusable

4. Brings people together in a hands-on way
5. Makes use of an ample yet neglected resource - dirt


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 tests 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 with their surroundings, one another, and the material world around them through the power of 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 through navigating the unique challenges of working in a post-industrial context and showing 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 process and experiences in order to add to the evolving lexicon of earthen construction and further the potentials of earth as a material for sustainable creating in architecture and design, now and in the future.

How can we use earth and processes of making with it to (re)connect people with construction, materiality, and collaboration?
How can those connections, in turn, build collective capabilities for an empowered population?

Work on the thesis began during the summer of 2018 as part of a research fellowship focused on hands-on exploration of making and reconnecting with earth in the city of Pittsburgh.  One of the first hurdles for the research was the simple question of where one would find dirt to use.  I first looked to construction sites for soil samples to experiment with, as the system of cut-and-fill in the construction industry would theoretically offer an abundant source for future public use.  By tapping into contacts with various architecture firms around the city, I was able to collect a total of 5 samples from 3 different sites.  

After collecting the various samples, I tested their suitability for earthen construction techniques through simple field tests such as Consistency Tests, Pancake Tests, and most importantly Jar Tests, which helped to show the proportion of the different soil components of a sample (gravel, sand, silt, clay).  From these tests, it was deduced that the most suitable sample was that of a site in Lawrenceville, a basement of a friend’s house.  Not only were the proportions favorable for various earthen techniques, but its location also allowed for obtainment of samples throughout the course of the year. I experimented with earthen techniques that I deemed the most diverse, convenient and least material-intensive for easy public implementation: Adobe, which made use of a reinforcement fiber (straw) - Poured Earth, which used a stabilizer (calcified gypsum) - Rammed Earth, which relied simply on the compression of natural earth.

As I started to collect more soil for further tests, it became quickly apparent through the finding of brick, coal, glass, and ceramic that the soil we are working with in Pittsburgh is not “natural” or untouched.  Factors such as the dirt’s history, geology, chemistry, safety, and cultural makeup started to become prevalent issues to address.  It was soon discovered that this area of study was a gap in the field of earthen construction, and thus the research had the obligation to address this missing hole in the working methodologies of earthen construction. In order to better understand current soil conditions, samples were sent out to two labs for Chemical Testing and Soil Analysis as well as a lab for Compression Testing according to ASTM C67 standards to test impacts on performance and suitability for local regulations.


Based on the compression testing, one of the Lawrenceville samples consistently met ASTM C67 standards and could be used naturally for construction without the need for added elements. However, chemical testing showed moderate levels of contamination that aligned with a city trend was of soil contamination called, “The Pittsburgh Four” (Lead, Arsenic, Chromium, and Cadmium). Since no previous earthen construction project ever had to deal with such an issue, a safety protocol was drafted that addressed the steps for working with soil samples in such a context.  Due to the reusable nature of earthen construction, the entire process could theoretically be contained in its own cyclical process from obtainment through fabrication and post-usage, and simultaneously removing toxic soils from contaminating other organisms and water systems. 

As I looked more into the map of Pittsburgh to better understand its history and soil tendencies today, a trend emerged of these past sites that contributed to the current nature today of being abandoned or destroyed.  As sites located in key areas with large amounts of space that could be transformed, the idea emerged of investigating the potentials for adapting these historic shrines of Pittsburgh’s past to modern needs by using earthen construction.  By retrofitting them with the same earth that they impacted throughout history, we give earth and Pittsburgh’s history the opportunity to speak.  By placing such earthen works in interior conditions, they are protected from weathering and erosion, and the possibility of contaminating other natural systems decreases.  

For an earthen future to be possible, everyday people need to start becoming familiar with dirt's properties and characteristics. I realized that the hurdles and steps I had faced throughout the project would be the same for someone else if they were to pursue earthen construction.  From sending soil samples to various labs to scavenging abandoned neighborhood areas, my challenges became part of a narrative of how one would go about working with such a material in a city such as Pittsburgh, the opportunities it affords, and how to start reconnecting the public back with earth. I began searching for public resources such as testing labs and speculated on a shared field guide on earthen construction that would help to teach and foster an interest in making with dirt.  The idea came for a website that would not only teach people the basic steps, but would also grows with time as people added their own foyers and teachings to help others.

A grassroots movement of a collective effort of engagement with earth was needed to better understand the capabilities for construction and transformation of a city. In order to help others and create an actual impact through the power of dirt, I realized two steps were crucial to undertake this mission: dissemination of my findings, and demonstration of earth’s capabilities.  Looking at its usage in Pittsburgh and specifically in existing structures, the idea of groups of people being able to come together and collectively start to adapt spaces started to form.  Illustrating such possibilities would help in disseminating the idea of the potentials of a collaborative reclamation of space using dirt.  I looked to show that if we as a society were to come together under the banner of earthen construction, we could collectively reclaim forgotten spaces, our familiarity with construction, and our city’s history by using the very dirt upon which it stood. 

In order to put my findings and ideas to the test, it was important to demonstrate the collective capabilities of a group alongside dirt. I began sharing my knowledge on earthen construction with others and introducing them to the material through hands-on sessions, and what was directly made through the collective efforts of individuals during the workshops stood as a testament of their collective effort. Hands-On Earthen Construction Workshops were held and conducted with 25 students from across campus, also serving as an inspiration for each participant on what could be done further. Many found the techniques to be calming and fun and hearing their thoughts and future speculations gave hope to the idea of an earthen construction future.  In order to best showcase the potential of a group of people coming together alongside earthen construction, an adaptable wall assembly was constructed that showed a possibility of earth in an interior space. 

The project was exhibited in the Miller Institute of Contemporary Art at Carnegie Mellon University from April 18 - 24 as part of the School of Architecture Thesis show, "Metathesis."  As the showcase of my senior thesis, the exhibition included drawings, models, photos, and video to convey research points and basic knowledge on earthen construction to the everyday gallery viewer.  The exhibit also showcased the entire process of construction from its historical roots and soil mechanics, to soil obtainment and testing, and finally its implementation in fabrication and installation. The exhibit not only showcased the findings and process of the entire project, but also stood as a testament and test-case on what it was provoking.  The space was also used to hold a “Making with Earth” workshop in the gallery, as well as a formal review of the work.  

“Your research insinuates that the primary benefit and source source of potential for the entire method of building is in the process, and that challenges the entire industrial movement by being situated in Pittsburgh.”

“It is empowering to know that I can make a shelter out of these simple resources. It feels old. The process also proves how important community is and how we can accomplish so much together.”

“People hold their time and energy very dear, and so I think that the larger community-building potential depends on how one can connect dirt with other features of the local post-industrial landscape to afford making opportunities whose use-value extends beyond the act of making itself.”

“Dirt Forms highlights the veracity of matter- it encourages us to pull the most from the minimal.”