Rammed earth construction at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.


MudWorks is Making News

MudWorks is getting press around the country. Here’s a story about the project from Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. You can read the whole story via this link: And…

A version appeared on Architectural Record’s website:

Last, but not least, Tom Stoelker of Architects Newspaper filed this report.

Great Place for a Party

MudWorks proved itself as a party place Friday night during the opening reception for the installation and accompanying exhibit in Gund Hall. The true test of a public space is how it handles a crowd. Below are comments from Nick Rivard’s remarks.

The scene

Hello. I am Nicolas Rivard, a first year Urban Design student.
This project has offered us all a much needed chance to get our hands dirty, and we are happy that many of you have embraced that opportunity.

As designers, we need to re-engage the act of making the things we design. Thanks to people like Martin and Anna, making will continue to enjoy an integral role in Harvard’s design pedagogy. Job sites call for a creative problem solving approach that is best learned from hands on experience, and so often the design intent we communicate on paper
is adapted on site to limitations unforeseen in the studio.

Without these experiences, how are we to prepare for the bumps in the road that shape our work? I think the way we adapt to site constraints has much to do with the final quality of our projects, and understanding the practicalities that prefigure our work is essential to our formation as designers. Exposure to construction and fabrication while in
school uniquely prepares us for success as practitioners. Hands on projects like MUDworks address the growing rift between designers and their partner professions. While the ascendancy of digital design
tools offers incredible potential, it can also distance us from the physicality inherent to building. Earthen construction is visceral enough to dissolve this rift more quickly than any other form of construction. And as we continue to pursue design excellence in our research and professional practices, it is imperative that we engage this portion of our professional territory.

I speak for many of us when I say that this project has been one of the most refreshing experiences of my year at the GSD. And I want close
by saying thank you to everyone who made it possible. Thanks.

Meta Moment

I photographed the dashing, peripatetic Iwan Baan photographing MudWorks yesterday. He’ll give a talk at noon today in Gund Hall, room 122.

Iwan Baan photographing MudWorks

Iwan Baan photographing MudWorks

Readying MudWorks for the Limelight

MudWorks’ fame is already beginning to spread. On Monday, reporter Tom Stoelker from the Architect’s Newspaper was at the GSD to interview Anna Heringer and Urban Design student Nick Rivard about the project’s implications for rammed earth construction. That story is supposed to appear in print April 7, but may show up earlier on the website. Meanwhile, a Boston website, Futures + Design has scooped everyone. There’s still more too come: On Thursday, the renowned architectural photographer Iwan Baan will be at the GSD to document MudWorks. Baan, who will also be giving a talk at midday, has photographed the work of nearly every significant contemporary architect – from Herzog & DeMeuron to Koolhaas. Volunteers are needed to help with last minute details so MudWorks looks its best. If only there was a way to clean up the weird shadows under the Gund Hall canopy.

AN's Tom Stoelker shooting Anna Heringer

AN's Tom Stoelker shooting Anna Heringer

It’s not done till everyone can sit down

The MudWorks wall and sail have mellowed to an elephant gray since the forms began coming off on Thursday, but the project isn’t done yet. Lots of finishing details remain. GSD student Nick Rivard, a furniture maker in the Urban Design program, will be in the wood shop fashioning smooth bench seats out of redwood. He and Loeb Fellow Anne-Marie Lubenau took off in a pick-up truck from Zipcar over the weekend to purchase supplies at a nearby lumber yard.

Picking up lumber for seating

In other news, the MudHall blog is starting to see some serious online traffic. The rammed earth project has caught the attention of the Architect’s Newspaper, which is sending a reporter to Harvard today to write about the project.

The Forms Are Off!

It was time for MudWorks to emerge from its wooden cocoon. The earth in the main wall had been packed and rammed and packed again, so just after midday on Thursday designers Anna Heringer and Martin Rauch gave the word to take down the forms.

Carrying the forms away

Carrying the forms away

Loeb Jean Brownhill Lauer, Loeb affilliate James Lauer, and GSD student Alex Myer started gingerly prying off the boards. The forms proved a bit stubborn, so it was clear more force was needed. With the help of drills, makeshift levers and brute strength, they began removing the plywood that had been holding the mud in place for six days.

Alex removing the forms

Alex removing the forms

It was as if they’d just uncovered a buried treasure. The wet, glistening black mud was perfectly formed, with sharp, creased corners. With the wooden shroud gone, it was possible to see the work of a 100 volunteers made visible.

Anyone lose some money?

Anyone lose some money?

Orange streaks surged through the black mud, giving it the look of a geological formation. Volunteer Sarah Kantrowitz, who traveled from New York to work on the project, picked out “the eyes,” – the pine knots imprinted from the plywood. A dollar bill had somehow become wedged in one of the seating niches. No one claimed it, so it looks like it’s there to stay.
Martin and James taking off the form

Martin and James taking off the form

There were a few minor causalities in the course of taking down the forms. Some dirt broke off one corner and had to be repaired. But it was easy for Jean and Anna to patch by packing on wet mud by hand.

Anna fixes a corner

Anna fixes a corner

It was important to hurry, though. Within the next few hours, the mud began to dry. By early evening it had turned from black to a soft, pachyderm gray. That’s natural. One of the great things about rammed earth is that the material continually evolves. What a contrast to see the rich, textured mud against the stony concrete of Gund Hall.

Streaks of gray and orange as mud dries

Streaks of gray and orange as mud dries

The timing of the work couldn’t have been more perfect. MudWorks was revealed just in time for Anna and Martin to give their lectures on rammed earth construction in the GSD’s Piper Hall. Four students volunteers also talked about their participation in the design and construction of the project: Caroline James, Alex Myers, Nick Rivard, Catinca Dobrescu. The project, Alex told the audience, “has already democratized the site.” Passersby were stopping constantly to ask students questions about rammed earth. Not only had MudWorks improved the appearance of Gund Hall’s least attractive corner, it had become a way for architects to reach out to the wider world.
Jim Stockard inspecting the wall

Jim Stockard inspecting the wall

What does a wall want to say?

Mud is an extremely expressive construction material, and the MudWorks project is already making a strong statement on the busy corner of Quincy and Cambridge Streets. Still, the rammed earth wall can’t say everything that needs to be said about the project. It needs an inscription.

Since construction started on Saturday, we’ve been talking with Loeb Fellow and MudWorks designer Anna Heringer about what to say, how to say it and where to say it. We settled on a s hort, just-the-facts quartet of sentences, and decided that this pretty much sums things up:

Built with EARTH and WATER.
Fashioned by the human HAND.
As RESILIENT as concrete.
This wall can be reclaimed by NATURE.

Then we had to decide where to inscribe the text. So with the help of GSD students we organized a mock-up. Oscar Malaspina and Nick Rivard took time from their hectic scheduls to print out the phrases and try various locations. This one seemed to work:

Mock-up for MudWorks inscription

Mock-up for MudWorks inscription

But after some discussion, we decided that it was actually too prominent, and took away from the main event, the mud wall. Oscar went back to his computer and designed a new version that will wrap around the base in a single, continuous line.

The plan is to engrave the letters into the mud. That means volunteers will have to work fast. Because so many volunteers have come out to help in the last two days, work has gone very fast. The MudWorks crew expects to begin taking off the wooden forms from the main wall today.
Thanks to Loeb Fellow Ian Lockwood for these great photos:

Chris Calott & Jean Lauer working on mud sail

Loeb Fellows Chris Calott and Jean Lauer working on the mud sail


Nick and Caroline

MudWorks draws volunteers from across the country

Four days into the collaborative MudWorks project, the forms came off the first section of the main wall and it looked beautiful!

Chris Calott and Anna Heringer examine the mud slide

The project would never have made such fast progress without the help of a wide assortment of volunteers – in all sizes. Mark Goldman, a Taos, New Mexico developer and architect (trained at the Boston Architectural College), probably wins the honors for traveling farthest to participate. He spent four full days on the job site carrying pails of dirt, ramming and plastering.

Mark Goldman

Other volunteers came from nearby schools like MIT and RISD to join GSD students. One of the hardest working volunteers, Sarah, is a local resident contemplating an architecture career. Arlo, 7, and Saul, 5, Naparstek were youngest workers on the site. Hope OSHA is okay with that.

Because the work has gone so fast, volunteers have been able to start plastering of the mud sail and the mud slide. GSD students are starting to hone in on the details.

Tilly Hatcher plastering the mud sail

Smoothing the mud slide

Joanne Nerenberg and Sneha Khullar

Volunteers on the job site

Half the world lives in mud buildings

While everyone is super busy finishing the MudWorks installation at the GSD, it’s worth remembering that we’re not quite reinventing the wheel. Here’s a good blog on rammed earth construction around the world:


The dirt is starting to pile up

Building the forms

In just two days, the rammed earth project at the Graduate School of Design has made enormous progress. It didn’t seem possible at the dreary start of Sunday morning. It was cold and overcast. The forms arrived late. There were problems with the delivery of the mud. But by midday, students, Loebs and assorted volunteers had formed a synchronized bucket bridgade to deliver pails of the clay-ey dirt to the ramming teams, led by Loeb Fellow Anna Heringer and earth artist Martin Rauch.

A volunteer pours dirt into the forms

There’s a reason that shoveling dirt is called back-breaking labor. It’s hard work. But so is ramming earth, as some volunteers discovered. As the pails of dirt were deposited in the forms, the rammers went to work flattening and compressing the dirt with hand rammers. After they finished, volunteers went over the surface with the pneumatic rammer. You had to pretty strong to control that tool.

Martin tests the mud

There was a brief set-back on Sunday morning. Although the volunteers had filled up close to three feet of dirt, Martin and Anna became concerned that the consistency was too wet and heavy. An emergency mock-up was organized. GSD students produced a test form in the wood shop. After it was filled, compacted and opened, the rammed earth seemed fine.

Still, just to be sure, Anna and Martin dispatched some volunteers to pick up 10 bags of gravel – 600 pounds!- at Home Depot. By afternoon, the ramming was proceeding at a fast pace. And by the end of work, the dirt was about 18 inches short of the top of the form.

The dirt is almost at the top of the form.