Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

After the revolution, Fidel Castro ordered the National Art Schools to be built on the site of a country club, a move to enrage wealthy capitalists.  The post-embargo material shortage resulted in the curved thin shell brick shell of the School of Modern Dance, designed by Ricardo Porro.  This shell reflected the sensuality Castro thought to be unique to the Cuban spirit. While four other … Continue reading Exhibition: Creativity in Cuban Thin Shell Structures

Adaptive Reuse: How can we make old buildings more sustainable?

One of the most important tasks engineers face today is the design of sustainable structures. Through form finding, use of efficient and/or local materials, and external systems, a plethora of new environmentally responsible buildings exist today. These advanced structures seem to be the answer to reducing the building sector’s staggering carbon emissions, but what about old, historic architecture? What role do these buildings play in our sustainable future?

Tearing down all structures that aren’t explicitly sustainable isn’t necessarily best for the environment, as additional energy is required for demolition as well as construction of a replacement structure. Furthermore, these buildings also hold cultural and historical relevance, acting as roots that tie us to the people and virtues who came before. Old post offices, banks, schools, office buildings, and retail locations may never find their place in history textbooks, but their vernacular styles, as well as the people and events that populated their interiors, make them worthy of preservation. Sustainable design isn’t restricted to the environment; social and cultural sustainability should also be of our concern.

In order to understand how to best include these buildings within our sustainable agenda, it is important to look at their current environmental impact compared to most infrastructure found today. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide, “historic buildings are inherently sustainable.” Adaptive reuse of old structures not only ensures the maximum use of material lifespans but also reduces waste. These claims are corroborated by life cycle analysis (LCA) tests, demonstrating that “reusing older buildings result in immediate and lasting environmental benefits.”

Though these structures may not be as energy efficient as new high-tech ones, LCAs found that performance is not overwhelmingly compromised, as many existing buildings already have sustainable features. With the lack of significant climate control technology at the time of their construction, the form and materials of many old buildings were inherently efficient, trapping heat in the winter and releasing heat in the summer. Features include thick walls, shutters, overhangs, awnings, and high ceilings for air circulation and light admittance. Therefore, these sustainable features will be retained when rehabilitating and renovating them for contemporary use. Thus, with their waste reducing benefits, as well as their current level of performance, the best way to make old buildings sustainable is to use them.

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The original Frick Laboratory at 20 Washington Street. (Image courtesy of Denise Applewhite, found on Princeton University’s website

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Our Summer Rammed Earth Experiments 1/3: The Golden Spiral for Forbes Garden

Introduction

Dirt—as in clay, gravel, sand, silt, soil, loam, mud—is everywhere. The ground we walk on and grow crops in also happens to be one of the most widely used construction material worldwide. Earth does not generate CO2 emissions in its generation, transport, assembly or recycling and this in contrast to more conventional building materials such as concrete and steel. In rammed earth construction a mixture of  clay, silt, sand and gravel is compressed into a formwork to create a solid low-cost load-bearing wall. Despite the renewed architectural interest in contemporary rammed earth construction in (semi-)arid climates of the USA, little is known about its potential in the erosive humid continental climate of New Jersey. Because of the great potential of rammed earth as a local building material, we decided to design and construct a spiral rammed earth structure in Forbes Garden that will be an enduring representation of Princeton’s effort to create a campus containing sustainable and elegant zero carbon architecture.

The Material:  Dirt

The Form Finding Lab’s team established the suitability of Princeton soil for earth construction though an extensive set of laboratory tests. The team, led by PhD candidate Tim Michiels and supported by undergraduate student Amber Lin ’19 and summer intern Jacob Essig, subjected a series of compacted samples with different water contents to compression tests (the rammed earth samples had an average compressive strength of 1.35 MPa). The team also experimented with lime additives  (3%, 5%, 10%, and 25%)  to test the compacted dirt’s resistance to weathering on a series of prototype walls (See image above title).  All these results informed the design of the structure that was designed for Forbes Garden as part of the Campus as Lab Initiative .

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Testing of compacted samples with different dirt compositions to establish unconfined compressive strength. The local soil was composed of 19% gravel, 42% sand, 24% silt and 15% clay.

The Site: Princeton Garden Project

The Princeton Garden Project at Forbes College is a student led initiative that supports and advances sustainability and food awareness  on Campus. Following with its mission of sustainability, the rammed earth spiral is a sustainable experiment made with local and abundantly available materials intended to enhance the existing organic garden and transform it into a space for research and learning.

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The Garden Project, the ideal collaborator for a rammed earth project (image credit Garden Project at Forbes College)

The Design:  A Site-Specific Golden Spiral

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Ash wood – catastrophe or opportunity for creativity?

Since 2002, the emerald ash bore beetle, Agrilus planipennis, has destroyed more than 20 million ash trees in the US, with only 30% of the waste timber recycled into low-end products such as mulch and firewood. High value uses could turn this “waste” material into a valuable resource and an economic opportunity, especially considering that, before the widespread development of plastics, aluminum, and carbon fiber, … Continue reading Ash wood – catastrophe or opportunity for creativity?