Swarthmore College Cob Wall

Cooper Grant: Massey Burke “92, Vertical Clay
Earthen Building Project, October 2011
Prof. Syd Carpenter, Coordinator and Grant Recipient

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As Swarthmore College moves forward with discussions of what constitutes knowledge and identifies initiatives representing our traditional as well as evolving values, a two week earthen building project focusing on environmental sustainability, engineering and the visual arts is proposed. The Scott Arboretum, Engineering and the Department of Art will facilitate this project enabling students to design and construct a meandering garden wall ending in a small roofed shelter. Participants include Swarthmore students and Vertical Clay. Founded by Massey Burke “92, Vertical Clay is a natural building group and school facilitating earthen building projects since 2003. The earthen building movement, includes considerations of social and environmental sustainability, minimal impact, and beauty. In accepting the invitation to return to Swarthmore, Massey wrote, “I would love to come work on such a project at Swarthmore. What you propose unifies most of why I practice earthen construction–its capacity for artistic expression, its ability to provide a tangible focus for sustainability dialogue, its interdisciplinary nature, and its accessibility to what I call “unconventional” work crews (students, volunteers, communities.) Massey Burke will be accompanied by one assistant.

Vertical Clay works “primarily with clay soils, local bio-degradable fibers, aggregate, found and recycled materials… employing the techniques of adobe, cob, earthbag/superadobe, straw clay, clay wattle, wattle and daub, earth and lime plasters, earthen floors and certain kinds of bamboo and strawbale construction..”. Recent and current projects include a collaboration with the University of San Francisco Architecture department, the UC Santa Clara engineering department, the Earthen Building Workshop series in Downtown Berkeley California, the Berkeley Tech high school project, the Lake County Parks project and the ongoing work at their urban natural building project at Villa Sobrante in Contra Costa, California. Illustrations of some of these projects are included in the proposal.

In an age of globalized production of even the most mundane commodities, students will access raw material on site, process that material, assess and insure viability through engineering, and finally design and construct a visually compelling sculptural wall. Massey Burke and participating students will select a site and develop a design to be approved by the Scott Arboretum. Construction will take place over an estimated two week period in October of 2011. The project will use recycled materials sourced from those available on the Swarthmore grounds, including stone foundation materials and subsoil earth to be formed into bricks for the adobe structure. The Facilities and Grounds staff have confirmed the availability of and access to the needed materials on campus.

Discussions including architectural design, visual compatibility with the site, collaborative design processes, community participation, proposal presentation and selection will introduce students to the public art process. Environmental impact discussions will allow students to consider material sourcing, processing, construction techniques and the affects of the structure on its site over time, its maintenance and eventual recycling of the structure itself. Research into Earthen building ,especially adobe, the most predominant building technique employed across the globe, is the basis for discussions on comparative building traditions and techniques across cultures. Aesthetic considerations will be mediated through those of engineering a structure using locally sourced materials and hand building techniques.

This project will appeal broadly to constituencies across the Swarthmore community. The project combines visual perception, engineering and selected sciences. Socio-political considerations and the economics of sustainability are also addressed in this earthen building project.