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

Mud Hall Takes Shape

Tell someone you’re making a building out of earth and water, and they might think it’s as simple as constructing a sand castle on the beach. But rammed earth structures are serious architectural constructions that need to be designed as carefully as any building.

So, to prepare for this spring’s construction of Mud Hall, the 2012 Loeb Fellows gathered 25 students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design on Nov. 19 for an all-day brainstorming session.  After briefing the group on the site conditions (at the corner of Quincy and Cambridge Streets) and the design criteria (Nothing over eight feet!), the Loebs handed outs bags of clay and told the students to start dreaming. The students broke up into five teams and immediately began kneading the clay into fanciful shapes. Out came computers and tracing paper, and pretty soon the tables were piled with sketches.

While the students worked out designs, three experts in rammed earth construction circled the room to offer guidance. Mud Hall’s construction is being overseen by Loeb Fellows Anna Heringer and Chris Calott and the Austrian earthworks artist Martin Rauch. All have fashioned elegant, modern buildings out of nothing more than mud and water.  (They’ll be getting technical help from the GSD’s Mark Mulligan, Dan Borelli, Jane Hutton and Jurg Conzett. As well as guidance from Loeb Fellows Inga Saffron, Ian Lockwood, Jean Brownhill Lauer and Peter Park) Anna, who learned the craft in Bangladesh, gained international acclaim after completing a school in Rudrapur.

All the Loeb Fellows were impressed by Anna’s passion for what she likes to call mud construction. Because earth and water can be found everywhere, she believes earthern construction is the most sustainable way to build.  At some point this fall, the Loeb Fellows jokingly suggested that they should build a mud structure as a counterpoint to the GSD’s Gund Hall – a building constructed of less-than-sustainable concrete.  The casual idea quickly took on a life of its own, and the fellowship administrators, Jim Stockard and Sally Young, encouraged the Loebs to put together a serious proposal. GSD Dean Mohsen Mostafavi gave Mud Hall preliminary approval almost immediately.

During the first hours of Saturday’s charette, there was a lot of trial and error as students explored the possibilities of rammed earth.  Mud is an incredibly pliable, sculptural material and many participants couldn’t help channeling their inner Richard Serra – turning out miniature sculptures in gray clay. Anna and Chris had to gently remind the group that structure should be simple, so it can be built quickly and cheaply.

Mud Hall isn’t actually a building. There wasn’t time to get building permits from Cambridge, so it will technically be an art installation. The walls can’t be higher than eight feet and the whole thing will have to be built in six days, from March 17 to 23. The site is tricky, too.  The idea was to locate Mud Hall near the entrance to Gund Hall, at the high-visibility corner of Quincy and Cambridge Streets. But it’s such a busy crossroads that the designers must be careful not to inconvenience pedestrians or  block sight lines.  On top of that, they have to make sure the structure doesn’t interfere with an annoying, round vent at the corner.

Once those constraints were understood, the designs for Mud Hall quickly took shape. By the end of the day, the students had produced five intriguing schemes:

-A group of three sleek, canted walls featuring seats notched into the surface.

-A mysterious cove shielding an array of playful seating.

-An angled screen that would appear to pierce the corner of Gund Hall. It included openings that could be fitted with strings to tap the wind and make music.

-An assemblage of two folded, shoji-like screens that would weave together like clasped hands.

-A field of raw earth that would evolve into a scattering of totems

Now comes the hard part for the Loebs and the project advisors: Choosing the design that will become Mud Hall.

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One response

  1. Have you considered a stabilized, insulated rammed earth system? This achieves around 6,000 psi and R33. http://www.sirewall.com We’d love to have you out for one of our weekend courses to learn more. http://www.facebook.com/sirewall

    March 20, 2012 at 9:31 pm

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