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


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.

Loebs get the dirt. Time to start ramming earth.

Earth artist Martin Rauch (center) and Loeb Fellow Anna Heringer (right) with Loeb affilliate Miriam (shoulder) take delivery of 50 tons of dirt. Ramming starts today at Harvard’s Gund Hall, Cambridge and Quincy Streets. Work will continue through March 23. Come lend a hand and help us demonstrate a more meaningful approach to sustainable construction.

The Goldilocks Plan

After another intense work session on Dec. 3, Mud Hall’s designers roughed out a next-to-final design for the earthen installation at the GSD.

The rammed-earth structure at the corner of Quincy and Cambridge Streets will have three parts. Call it the Goldilocks scheme: There will be something big against the façade of the GSD’s Gund hall, something of medium height in the middle and something short in front.  But the exact shape of the three forms, and their precise location, still needs more refinement.

Anna's design

Even so, that didn’t stop several members of the design team – comprised of Loeb Fellows, GSD students and faculty – from producing evocative sketches. Anna Heringer argued that the mud wall against the Gund Hall facade should be very tall, and showed a drawing of a funnel-like shape that reminded me of Eduardo Souto de Mouro’s Portuguese museum.  Whatever form the back wall takes, architect Chris Calott, also a Loeb Fellow, said the group should embed glass test tubes to hold plants. Another idea that took hold of the group’s imagination came from Alykhan Mohamed (MUP), who suggested each of the mud shapes could be tinted bright shades of ochre and orange. The GSD’s Jane Hutton added that the earth could be color-coded to reflect its origins. She wants to include earth from different Cambridge neighborhoods.


Not all was bliss, though. A big point of contention was whether Mud Hall should invade the pedestrian corridor between Gund Hall’s building plane and its columns. Loeb Fellow Ian Lockwood, a strong advocate for liveable streets, said the corridor gets a lot of use and should be left clear. The GSD’s Mark Mulligan was reluctant to rule out the possibility of Mud Hall straying into the space, since there is still an eight-foot-wide public  sidewalk on the other side of the columns.

“You’re taking a nondescript space and privatizing it,” Mulligan acknowledged. “The point is to make people slow down.  You’re diverted enough so that you have to notice the thing.” Whatever inconvenience Mud Hall causes, it won’t last long. The installation is temporary and will be taken down by the end of the 2012 Spring semester.
-Inga Saffron, 2012 Loeb Fellow

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.

What is Mud Hall?

Mud Hall is a project initiated by Harvard University’s 2012 Loeb Fellows to promote awareness about rammed earth construction and to challenge conventional thinking about green building. Raw earth is the most plentiful and sustainable building material on the planet,  yet architects rarely incorporate it into their designs. To demonstrate the potential of mud and clay for everyday buildings, the Loeb Fellows are enlisting 25 students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to construct a rammed earth structure at the entrance to the school’s celebrated Gund Hall. Mud Hall is meant to offer an alternative to the current orthodoxy about sustainable construction. This blog will chronicle the evolution  of the Mud Hall project, and offer detailed information about the rammed earth process.