San Francisco-based architects and educators Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello have created experiments on earthen architecture using latest printing technologies, on a local site in the San Luis Valley – the headwaters of Rio Grande Watershed in Colorado. The project called the Mud Frontiers used a low-cost, portable robot that transformed the soil of the site itself into four 3D-printed large-scale structures.
The duo that helms Emerging Objects – a 3D printing make-tank specialising in innovations in 3D-printing architecture and building components – endeavours to demonstrate that low-cost and low-labour construction that is accessible, economical and safe, is possible. By pushing the boundaries of sustainable and ecological construction through this experiment, , the studio explores traditional clay craft at the scale of architecture.
Mud Frontiers, say Rael and San Fratello, “references both the puddled mud building traditions found in the Pueblo settlements of Northern New Mexico, most notably Taos Pueblo, constructed largely of hand-molded mud to create multi-storey dwelling, which later utilised the adobe brick, a technology introduced from Spain, as well as the pottery traditions of harvesting wild clay from the Sangre de Christo and San Juan mountains, using micaceous clay.”
The architects conceptualised the project under four themes - Hearth, Beacon, Lookout, and Kiln. The printing was accomplished using Potterbot XLS-I, developed in collaboration with Florida-based 3D printer manufacturer and ceramic studio, 3D Potter.
The 'Hearth' involves thin mud wall construction with reinforcement of local rot-resistant juniper wood. The wood sticks hold two walls together, where they extend out of the structure but remain hidden on the inside – a parallel the architects draw with the cultural differences between the architectural traditions of Pueblos and Indo-Hispanic buildings. The interiors of the circular enclosure surround an adobe bench with a fireplace in the middle that burns the aromatic wood.
The second structure in the series, titled 'Beacon', produces the thinnest possible structural solution for an enclosure using textures and undulations of the 3D printed coil. “These coils are then illuminated at night contrasting the difference between the concave and convex curves that create the mud walls,” explain the architects.
The 'Lookout' is a staircase with a dense network of 3D-printed mud coils laid out to create a structure to be walked upon. Constructed entirely of adobe, this experiment offers comfort through its wide yet airy walls that provide possibilities for insulation against the harsh contextual weather that often drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit during winter.
The 'Kiln' integrates several techniques, including criss-cross mud coiling, and it has a kiln that draws in oxygen to fire 3D-printed ceramic vessels in contact with burning hot juniper wood. “The products of the kiln, fired micaceous clay learning from the traditions of Taos and Picturis Pueblos, are hybrids of technology and technique,” adds the team.
“Each 3D-printed ceramic vessel reveals areas where carbon has not been burned out, leaving a deep black colour, similarly to Taos Pueblos traditions, and employ a micaceous slip over the surface, that when the carbon burns out completely, is a brilliant golden surface.”
Mud Frontiers is part of a two-fold investigation that began in the contemporary borderlands along the Rio Grande watershed in El Paso and Juarez in Mexico and culminated into the edge of historic border between the US and Mexico. “The entire region,” say the architects, “has employed traditional pottery and earthen construction traditions for centuries.”
The studio, which recently received tremendous acclaim for their temporary installation of seesaws (Teeter Totter Wall) held at the US-Mexico divide, believes that most of the 3D-printed objects that people know about are objects made out of plastic. Through their research-led practice, both Rael and San Fratello continue to experiment with materials that have more integrity - from salt obtained from the San-Fran bay area to clay, wheat straw, and water – to create large-scale eco-friendly buildings through small-scale 3D printers.
Project team El Paso / Juarez: Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Mattias Rael, Sandy Curth, Logman Arja, and Danny Defelici
Emerging Objects software team: Sandy Curth, Barrak Darweesh, Constantina Tsiara
Ceramic vessel production: Professor Vincent Burke (UTEP) and students from the department of ceramics at UTEP
Special thanks to Faculty and students from the University of Texas El Paso; Ersela Kripa, Stephen Mueller and their students from the Texas Tech University at El Paso; the staff of the Stanlee & Gerald, and the many, many friends who came out to mix mud on the mesa.
Project team San Luis Valley, Colorado:Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Mattias Rael, Sandy Curth, Logman Arja, and Danny Defelici
Special thanks to Johnny Ortiz and Afton Love for being our guides in the Pueblo traditions of harvesting and firing wild clays, Christine Rael, Zane Defelici and Dennis Vandergriff (3D Potter), Ehren Tool and Stephanie Syjuco (Ceramics Department at UC Berkeley), Floor van de Velde, Christina de Leon and Chris Gauthier (Cooper Hewitt), Tomás Lobato (Lobato Construction), Jennifer Wolch and Gail Stanley (UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design), and the generosity of Darrin Wood, Darrell Chan, and Ivan Chen.