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Building on Material: Towards Circular Construction in the First-Year Design Studio

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The construction industry requires a complete paradigm shift in the way we design, build, and manage our built environment: a shift from linear resource consumption to circular material usage. This paper describes the integration of the theory of circular construction into the curriculum of a first-year Bachelor of Architecture design studio at the Department of Architecture of Cornell University, as well as the teaching methodology developed to facilitate this paradigm shift. At the heart of the development of the syllabus is our conviction that circular design and construction requires detailed material knowledge at the earliest stage of the educational process, so that it can become an almost instinctive aspect of design consideration throughout the students' education, and one that might be further developed through electives and more advanced studios. Consequently, over the course of the semester, each student was assigned two design parameters involving (1) a raw material and (2) a reversible joint typology. The significant steps of the process are illustrated through examples of student work from the Spring 2020 design studio.
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2021 ACSA/EAAE Teachers Conference: Curriculum for Climate Agency: Design (in)Acon 1
Keywords: material, circular construction, first-year
architectural design, educaon, anthropocene
The construcon industry requires a complete paradigm
shi in the way we design, build, and manage our built
environment: a shi from linear resource consumpon to
circular material usage. This paper describes the integraon
of the theory of circular construcon into the curriculum
of a rst-year Bachelor of Architecture design studio at
the Department of Architecture of Cornell University, as
well as the teaching methodology developed to facilitate
this paradigm shi. At the heart of the development of the
syllabus is our convicon that circular design and construc-
on requires detailed material knowledge at the earliest
stage of the educaonal process, so that it can become an
almost insncve aspect of design consideraon through-
out the students’ educaon, and one that might be further
developed through elecves and more advanced studios.
Consequently, over the course of the semester, each stu-
dent was assigned two design parameters involving (1) a
raw material and (2) a reversible joint typology. The signi-
cant steps of the process are illustrated through examples
of student work from the Spring 2020 design studio.
INTRODUCTION
Human inuence on the socio-economic and ecologic systems
of planet Earth has become so dominant that, in May 2019, the
Internaonal Commission on Stragraphy ocially voted for
the introducon of a new unit on the Geological Time Scale
– the epoch of humans, or the Anthropocene [1]. This develop-
ment is especially relevant to architects and engineers, since
buildings account for more than 50% of the consumpon of
global nite resources, at least 39% of global carbon dioxide
emissions, as well as 50% of global solid waste producon,
over their full life-cycles [2, 3]. All of these factors are dominant
causes of climate change. We believe that the construcon
industry requires a complete paradigm shi in the way we
design, build, and manage our built environment: a shi from
linear resource consumpon to circular material usage. And
as architects, we mus t bec ome a larger part of the soluon by
being more cognizant of the value chains of buildings.
“Circular construcon” [4, 5] addresses both the re-acvaon
of anthropogenic material stocks in today’s already built envi-
ronment as well as the design of buildings as material depots
for future construcon. Precise, detailed material informaon
combined with strategies for designing for adaptability and/
or disassembly are all prerequisites for both of these aspects.
At the heart of the development of this semester’s syllabus is
our convicon that circular design and construcon require
detailed material knowledge at the earliest stage of the edu-
caonal process.
The overall theme of the semester as we developed it is
Material+ [6], so over the course of the semester, each of the
sixty students enrolled in the rst year studio was assigned two
design parameters, presented in the form of two randomly-
selected postcards, depicng (1) a raw material and (2) a
reversible joint typology. In combinaon with a third postcard
– the site – this technique generated sixty unique results from
the same design brief: a small workshop for a crasperson
MATERIAL RESEARCH
The rst postcard began an analysis of some of the materials
we work with every day in our profession: aluminium, clay,
concrete, copper, iron/steel, glass, grass, loam, metamorphic
rock, plascs, sedimentary rock, and mber. The goal was
mulfaceted, as it aimed to supply the students with all of the
necessary background informaon to enable them to make
informed decisions, but it also aimed to smulate their cre-
ave process through the discussion and understanding of
material properes, the use of materials in precedents, the
discovery of the problems, limits, and barriers associated with
the chosen material and equally important – to bring forward
an awareness of the visual and tacle properes that can be
associated with the various materials (see Figures 1 and 2).
There are some general requirements we believe to be neces-
sary in any thorough material research. The most basic and
important is a physical sample of the material, as sensory
research for architects is oen equally important to all the
other tools we have available [7]. The second element is a list
of specicaons such as density, re rang, or other building-
related informaon that may be needed in the design process
or for building permit regulaons. Then there are aesthec
and subjecve criteria associated with the students’ personal
Building on Material: Towards Circular Construcon
in the First Year Design Studio
FELIX HEISEL
Circular Construcon Lab, Cornell AAP, Cornell University
VAL WARKE
Department of Architecture, Cornell University
2Building on Material: Towards Circular Construcon in the First Year Design Studio
rapports to the material, as well as an analysis of how others
have ulized the material, including historic precedents and
references to contemporary buildings. These can be on very
dierent scales, ranging from a specic detail to a building or
urban design. Last but not least, this assignment also required
the development of a life cycle drawing of the material and
an answer to the queson regarding whether and to what
extent the cycle is actually closed. This research step required
an invesgaon into how the material is made, where the
resources come from, how it is used in the current building
industry and what happens at the end of a building’s use me.
Can the material be reused or recycled, and if not – why?
Researched in small groups and later presented to the enre
class, these data points created the knowledge base for the
semester ahead.
Figure 1. Life cycle drawing of the material reed, and corresponding spaal analyses of crasperson’s workshop. Image Credit: Rainey Oldeld.
Figure 2. Material research on glass. Image Credit: Thena La.
2021 ACSA/EAAE Teachers Conference: Curriculum for Climate Agency: Design (in)Acon 3
The second postcard iniated the next phase of material inqui-
ries, in which the students were asked to develop – through
translaon and transformaon – a “joint”: a point of contact
or connecon between two or more components. If the rst
postcard-phase involved the invesgaon of a material as a
class of thing (a noun; a genus); this second postcard-phase
invesgates the assembly of discrete components of that
material as an acon (a verb or present parciple) dynamically
capable of exibility, variability, and mulvalency: interlocking,
piling, pressing, pulling, slong, and weaving.
One might say that concepons of jointure are fundamen-
tal to most stages of architectural development. Through
repeon and at a variety of scales, the joint can establish
bounds of inside/ outside, spaal denion, funconal
zones, massiveness/ lightness, potenal span, moon,
expansion/ contracon, and so on. In this exercise, students
connued their experimentaon in material responsibility,
while developing advanced noons of architectural space
and accommodaon.
It is important to note that, in terms of the studio’s material
theme, the second postcard described not only a concept or
method of assembly, but also suggests a reciprocal process of
disassembly. These cards purposefully did not dene a specic
technique or status quo construcon detail. The reasoning
behind this decision was to allow the students to develop a
personal version and interpretaon of the given term that
could be adapted to a subjecve material understanding and
to the specics discovered in the previous week.
CUBIC CONSTRUCTIONS
Aer this inial material research, where students aimed to
understand the chemical and physical specicaons of the
‘chosen’ material throughout several use cycles, as well as to
develop a strategy for aggregaon, everyone then produced
a construcon – a small cube, described as ‘a construcon-
object-arfact’ – using their actual materials and joint typology
from the previous exercises (see Figure 3). This construcon
was required to form a 6” x 6” x 6” cube when assembled,
although its disassembled dimensions could vary signicantly.
The cube had to be composed of at least two components
with a minimum of one joint, and it had to be able to be
disassembled and reassembled. Secondary materials were
permied, insofar as they were compable with or derivave
of the primary material.
Figure 3. Representave student work of assignment 3 which asked students to develop a 6” cube from a given pairing of material and joint.
Image Credit: Eva Standorf, Jonathan Wells, Desai Wang, Fangfang Zhang, Yu Da, and Tan Holocuglu.
4Building on Material: Towards Circular Construcon in the First Year Design Studio
MATERIAL SYSTEMS
This phase concluded the interpreve sequences of the proj-
ect in relaon to the material and its various precedents and
extensions. The goal here was to produce instrumental models
and drawings of their material systems – that is, representa-
ons that will themselves be capable of operang as vehicles
of discovery throughout the design process and that can
transform in numerous, possibly unpredictable ways while
construcng correlaons between an origin and its deriva-
ves, both actual and imaginable.
Using the cube as a given, the studio next repeatedly shied
in scale, from 10:1 to 1:500, thereby challenging while inves-
gang the spaal and construcve qualies of the given
joint typology, observing various material behaviors as the
cube was alternately considered to be a detail or fragment
of a larger construcon, a building, and eventually assum-
ing an almost ‘urban’ scale. The project brief suggested the
students consider their “cube as a building, with a small scale
gure in the size of less than 1” walking through the spaces
created by your material: a brick might be understood as a
room, a hinge as a door or a window. Maybe you can actu-
ally stand inside a bolt, experiencing the curved sur faces on a
very dierent scale.” In the second phase, the close-up draw-
ings were to be suggesve of much larger scale construcons.
This “zooming-in” and “zooming-out ” facilitated an awareness
of the spaal potenals of each material and its various con-
cepts of jointure (see Figure 4).
Over the two week duraon of this phase, the invesgaons
primarily took on the form of large (scale) drawings. While
hand drawings were denitely welcome, in the interest of the
density and accuracy of informaon, students were encour-
aged to consider ulizing all the tools at their disposal in
creang these drawings. (This included photomontage, photo
eding soware, and even basic three-dimensional modeling;
hybrid presentaons were most welcomed.) Students worked
toward ‘dense’ presentaons showing materiality, contrasng
textures, light and shade, details, and whatever else they could
consider as relevant and unique to their specic material and
methods of combined assembly/ disassembly.
Through the next series of exercises, the concept of ‘program’
was introduced, not simply as the tradional inventory of
required areas, but as a construct that incorporates elements
of site, structure, spaal conguraons, and narrave as they
might be revealed through the materials’ aptudes. Through
a rapid series of assignments, the relaonships between each
system’s implicit site as program, its spaal capabilies as
program, its structural capabilies as program, and its formal/
conceptual capabilies were invesgated and strengthened –
all as suggesves of various programmac applicaons.
Figure 4. Student work represenng the zoom-in and zoom-out of an interlocking glass cube. Image Credit: Desai Wang.
2021 ACSA/EAAE Teachers Conference: Curriculum for Climate Agency: Design (in)Acon 5
A WORKSHOP
Bringing together the lessons learned, the nal project
involved workshops or ateliers for arsans who would work
with the given materials in producing some manner of ar-
facts or components for larger assemblies (see Figure 5). These
workshops were designed to be constructed for adaptability
and disassembly, ulizing throughout and at every scale,
from furnishings to overall structure – aspects of their design’s
material circularity and reversible connecons [8].
In the third postcard that was distributed, fragments of a gen-
eral, abstract ‘site’ were presented. These site fragments could
be interpreted in a number of dierent ways: as forested, as
quarried, as a lagoon, as a desert, and so on. The variability
of the sites was intended to assist in developing the specic
narraves each student would develop for their arsan and for
the material cycle to be employed. For example, the designs of
the sites might answer relevant quesons such as: where does
the arsan get their materials? – where might the arsan store
for recycling various leover materials? could the waste
material from a nearby industry be incorporated as the base
material for the arsan? The rst phase of the nal project
involved the sharpening of their materials’ spaal capabilies
in alignment with the programmac invenons necessary for
the specic arsans’ accommodaons.
In the second phase, students were asked to verify the
constructability of their fundamental designs. They were
encouraged to focus on selecve details of their buildings
(for example, the connecon to the ground, the connecon
between vercal and horizontal elements, the roof, structural
elements, material aesthecs and waterproong) and to zoom
in on the speci c laye r s of ex terior, inte r ior, and fur nish ing, an d
on their various connecons and disconnecons. They were
asked to determine the kind of fasteners – reversible, exible,
standard, custom – needed to aect the eventual disassembly
of their construcons; to evaluate the possible necessity of a
secondary material that might be necessary to accomplish the
arsans’ work (and how might that material factor into the life
cycle diagram).
The third phase was essenally a reminder of the ubiquitous
principle of the semester – indeed of the enre rst year –
since its incepon: while the material circularity of the project
is the subject of the semester, it is the spaal quality of the
design that elevates the building above its rudimentary con-
ceptual, funconal, and ecient aributes. And that it is oen
Figure 5. Representave student work of an aluminum crasperson’s workshop and design for assembly/ disassembly. Image Credit: Cook Shaw.
6Building on Material: Towards Circular Construcon in the First Year Design Studio
ENDNOTES
1. Ant hro poc ene Work ing Grou p. “Re sults of the B inding Vo te by AWG.”
Sub com missio n on Quater nary St ra graphy, 2019.
2. Architecture 2030. “ The Carbon Issue.” ARCHI TECT, Jan uary 202 0.
3. Transparency Market Research. “Construcon Waste Market - Global Industry
Analys is, Size, Sh are, Grow th, Trend s, and For eca st 2017 - 2025 .” Pre-B ook
Rep or t. Al bany, NY, 2020 .
4. Circular Construcon Lab, 2021. hp://ccl.aap.cornell.edu.
5. Heisel, Felix, and Dirk E. Hebel. Urba n Mining und kreislaufger echtes Bauen: Die
Stadt als Rohstoager. Stu ga rt: Fra unhofer IRB Ve rla g, 2021.
6. Heisel, Felix, and Val Warke. Material+ PL ATE B1_20s. Ithaca: Cor nell
University, 2021. hps://aap.cornell.edu/plate-publicaon.
7. It shoul d be no ted that, in our aem pt not to st rai n the nancial res our ces of
the s tudent s, as well as to rei nforce the in terest s of the stu dio, we mak e every
aempt to ulize materials that are either naturally available in abundance, or
that have bee n salvag ed from th e models , constr ucons, in stalla ons, an d so
on fr om th e studio s of the pre vio us semes ter.
8. Due t o the su dden cha nge to on- line edu caon , nec essita ted by the glob al
pandemic, the n al v e wee ks of the c onc luding exer cise wer e con ducted
remotel y. Thank s to our res our cef ul and pas sionate sta  of teach ing asso ci-
ates, a number of workshops and tutorials regarding various digital and
repres entao nal stra tegies were r apidly comp iled and made avai lable, so that
the re wa s sur prisin gly li le nega ve impact on the  nal resu lts or on the en thu-
sias m of the stu dents. The se teach ing asso ciates incl uded: Jo rda n Ber ta, Hall ie
Black, Made leine Eggers, Evan McDowell, and Alexandre Mecaaf.
a negoaon between all of these aspects with the overall
concept that allows one to dene the priories necessary to
develop a unique version of these qualies in respect to the
site, the material, and the program brief, not to menon the
phenomenal aspects of light, sound, climate, texture, and so
on. (In one’s rst year, we suggest that it might be a good idea
to be bold in these negoaons.)
CONCLUSION
The goal of our experiment involves bringing to the forefront an
awareness of the crical dilemma of linear material consump-
on as well as a mindfulness of our responsibilies as problem
solvers, thereby helping us in making decisions regarding
materiality, structure, and detailing. Since the rst year gen-
erally provides the occasion when architectural educaon
focuses on issues considered to be fundamental to the educa-
on of an architect – issues such as space, organizaon, the
manipulaon and transformaon of forms, crical discourse,
collaboraon, and so on – and introduces a prociency in the
skills required to represent these issues for oneself as well as to
present them to others, it seems imperave that confronng
the realies of this dilemma should be among those issues.
For this reason, while we always emphasized the fact that the
creaon of an architecture that is funconal, healthy, and
resilient, while also being aesthecally, spaally, and intellec-
tually sasfying is central to the role of an architect, and that
circularity in construcon can never be the goal in itself, it is
nevertheless one very important scale against which we must
measure our decisions.
Developed then, from intrinsic material specicaons and
capabilies as well as from a life cycle perspecve, the nal
design proposals seemed ulmately to be both oddly familiar
and excingly innovave, while introducing each student to a
strong conceptual vector that should propel their awareness
of environmental responsibility throughout their educaonal
and professional careers.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Book
Full-text available
Wie können wir zukünftige Bauaufgaben sozial, ökonomisch und ökologisch bewältigen, um unserer gesellschaftlichen Verantwortung gerecht zu werden? Dieser wichtigen Frage widmet sich dieser Leitfaden. Dem linearen Wirtschaftsmodell und damit der Vernichtung von Ressourcen steht die Idee geschlossener Stoffkreisläufe, neuartig konzipierter Konstruktionen und (Rück-) Bautechnologien sowie innovativer, kreislauforientierter Geschäftsmodelle entgegen. Die gebaute Umwelt muss als Materiallager verstanden und für die einfache Entnahme von Baumaterialien geplant werden. Internationale Experten beleuchten aus ganz unterschiedlichen Blickwinkeln und anhand zukunftsweisender Projektbeispiele, wie den Herausforderungen einer Kreislaufwirtschaft mit ganz neuen methodischen Ansätzen begegnet werden kann. Eine Sammlung ausgewählter Materialbeispiele zeigt die besondere Ästhetik und Wertigkeit von wiederverwendeten und -verwerteten Baustoffen und Bauteilen. Der Einstieg in eine vollständige Kreislaufwirtschaft muss zum zentralen und gemeinsamen Ziel unserer Gesellschaft werden. Dieses Buch zeigt mögliche Wege zu einer kreislaufgerechten Bauwirtschaft auf.
Results of the Binding Vote by AWG
  • Anthropocene Working Group
Anthropocene Working Group. "Results of the Binding Vote by AWG." Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, 2019.
Construction Waste Market -Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast
  • Transparency Market Research
Transparency Market Research. "Construction Waste Market -Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecast 2017 -2025." Pre-Book Report. Albany, NY, 2020.