An ideal material would be one that could be borrowed from the environment and replaced after use. It would be cheap and would perform well both thermally and acoustically. One particular material that comes relatively close to this description or even an ideal one is mud. As a construction material, mud has been used since the Neolithic times. It is a versatile material with several inherent advantages. It provides an array of options such as cob, rammed earth, adobe, wattle, and daub, etc. when it comes to construction techniques.
However, while mud as a material has a long history, a misconception still persists that associates it with traditional or underdeveloped areas. Construction with mud is an ancestral technique, but it has developed over the years. One such development is pairing it with contemporary technology to add a new dimension to mud construction.
The Institute for advanced architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) in Barcelona started the innovative research agenda – Digital Adobe, to produce architectural solutions that make use of natural materials and additive manufacturing or 3d printing. The technology not only allowed customization with regards to the form of a building but also allowed efficient usage of local materials to create highly performative and passive structures. By encompassing local clay mixtures, creating scaled prototypes, and making use of the technology created, the research explores built solutions to a large extent. The research started with smaller-scale prototypes that helped verify the structural assumptions and climatic performances of adobe printing on buildings. The outcome of the study was a 1:1 scale prototype that helped bring the explorations and iterations to a life-size level to experience it.
While designing the structure, two aspects i.e. climatic and structural performances were considered and studied with great focus. The wall was designed to incorporate various operable openings to reduce heat gain in summer and retain heat in the winter. The series of bumps on the external geometry created a self-shading pattern that not only optimized thermal comfort during the seasons but also took into consideration the solar radiation angles of the location it was built in.
Another factor that weighed into the design was the ease of printability, due to which the bumps were confined to cantilever angles that were less than 30 degrees. The design aimed to enhance the thermal properties of clay to moderate the transmission of heat. The internal cavities of the wall were filled with earth that acted as a thermal mass and air that acted as insulation.
The prototype was designed to be a self-standing wall in which the varying thickness and geometry help it attain structural stability. At a height of 2.6m, a wooden slab rests on the wall which allows the vertical load to go into the brick that it is in contact with. This also creates an increased level of stiffness which further contributes to the placement of the beams.
Terra Performa was another project done in 2017 by IAAC that focused on large scale printing with traditional materials. The development of the project started off with research on materiality and climatic phenomena and was followed by a series of tests that helped create a modular wall.
The prototype of the Digital Adobe research also focused on recycling 2 tons of the preciously printed material in 2017 as well as aimed to tackle the difficulties of building with such technology in the outdoors. The fabrication of the wall has a low impact on the environment as it is based on recycled material. It also allows customization of the elements to adapt to the thermal and structural needs of the location it is built-in. The final result was a 2m x 5m wall of tapering thickness, 26,254 meters of 3d printing path that was divided into 99 individual elements, and installed in IAAC’s Valldaura Self-Sufficient Lab campus in 2018. The research was further developed in the Open Thesis Fabrication program (2017-2018).
Architecture as a field is constantly evolving, be it in terms of materiality or design. The findings of the research by IAAC could not only be a step that helps erase the stigma that revolves around the material but also act as a solution to sustainable and efficient structures. The combination of technology and earth could provide harmonious results that add a new layer to local architecture and improve it. While it is indeed a daring innovation that may take time to gain its momentum, it could also be the start of a new area of development for mud architecture.