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EARTHEN BUILDER LCA

M A S T E R S  T H E S I S

ADVISOR: LOLA BEN-ALON

METHODS: GAMIFICATION, 3D MODELING, DATA VISUALIZATION

TOOLS: BLENDER, UNREAL ENGINE

Natural building materials are a critical future of a decarbonized built environment. Involving raw materials such as clay-rich soils and vegetable fibers in building processes employ a range of techniques, and hence, a range of environmental and visual features, from rammed earth, to cob and light straw clay. However, despite their advantages, natural materials are not represented in mainstream construction, perceived mistakenly as poor in their performance, low-tech, and are missing representation in training for building professionals. Earthen Builder: Life-Cycle Assessment presents a digital tool for designing architecture with natural materials and visualizing their associated embodied carbon (carbon footprint measurement covering the production, transportation, and construction of building materials). It links, for the first time, computational play and critical data with traditional recipes of designing with natural materials. The project’s primary goal was to identify how game technology can advance the knowledge base of an overlooked, historic, and sustainable practice. The result showcases a digital tool for sustainable engagement that utilizes a geological database of locally available soil-based repositories to decarbonize building materials. As an exploratory design tool, it was tested for its mechanics, graphical user interface, and perception shifts among designers and researchers. The final outcome seeks to establish a digital foundation for a more comprehensive earthen materials knowledge tool and life-cycle assessment. Click here to access paper publication.

P R O O F  O F  C O N C E P T

F I N A L  D E M O  W A L K T H R O U G H

M E T H O D O L O G Y

The purpose of this project was to develop an accessible play-based tool that engages multiple disciplines in designing structural outcomes with low-carbon soil-based mixtures serving as pre-applied building materials. The intention of integrating a playful methodology was to engage a broader user-base in designing with natural materials within a publicly accessible computational tool. Through the CRISP-DM (Cross-Industry Standard Process for Data Mining) methodology, a downscaled virtual space was created to inform users on sustainable data-driven decisions by integrating a computational play feedback system with the pedagogy of design technology. 

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P R E C E D E N T S

Precedent tools such as the Cardinal LCA Grasshopper plugin and OneClick LCA were tested to study how the pedagogy of building decarbonization could be translated into an accessible format for designers to understand their building material decisions. The schematics developed in Rhino Grasshopper informed how this type of representation could be transferred into the game engine simulation.

T E X T U R E  M A P S

The first step in digitally visualizing materiality was to photograph original soil and fiber-based textures. The Natural Materials Lab served as the hub for curating a materials portfolio: clay soil, fique, flax, hemp, light straw clay, and iterations of rammed earth were photographed. These materials were then digitized into varying texture maps: normal, albedo, diffuse, edge, height, and smoothness to be rendered as material abstractions and onto the inventory of build materials provided to the user in-tool

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3 D  M A T E R I A L  R E N D E R S

First iteration of the photographed natural materials mapped into a 3D context.

[Top row from left-to-right: gravel, rammed earth, straw; Bottom row from left-to-right: loam soil, clay soil, cob.]

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D I G I T I Z I N G  T H E  F I R S T  P O I :  S A N T A  F E ,  N E W  M E X I C O

The soil data was captured from the USDA Web Soil Survey for Santa Fe, NM. The topography of the landscape was downloaded as a BIL file from the USGS EarthExplorer interface, digitized as a digital elevation model (DEM) in the TerreSculptor software, and rendered into UE5 spanning a 129,024 meter map to-scale with a procedural semi-arid biome texture applied. This large-scale map would contribute to the sandbox aesthetic of the tool where the users could endlessly design around themselves at free-will. 

P L A Y T E S T S

A freeform base builder algorithm was scripted that allows users to place architectural elements onto the open world: walls, foundations, roofs, doors, windows, beams, arches, bricks, and simple blocks. Some assets were rendered in and retexturized from open-source UE5 and Sketchfab libraries. The embodied carbon was calculated based on data from the University of Bath's Inventory of Embodied Carbon and Energy report. 24 playtests were conducted including architectural and planning researchers, students, and professors. Below are some images from the alpha (first), beta (second), and gold (final) stages of the playtests which informed the MVP.

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P L A Y T E S T  R E S U L T S  &  E M B O D I E D  C A R B O N  D A T A

Outlined are the results from the three stages of the playtests conducted, their purpose, and how the outcomes informed the next iteration along with the calculations for the cradle-to-site embodied carbon data collected from the University of Bath. It's important to note that since the carbon data was limited to embodied carbon measurements within select countries of Europe excluding Sante Fe, U.S. as a result, the materials data only serves as a schematic estimate for providing feedback to user decisions. Hover and click to view charts.

O U T C O M E

By developing a virtual space that represents low-carbon materiality within an impact-driven spatial data simulation, users can (1) geolocate natural materials in an accessible virtual context, (2) understand its visualized materiality, and (3) design through sustainable data-driven decision-making. From the playtests, it was observed that streamlining these objectives into a gamified interface engaged users into the pedagogy of decarbonized design technologies. Users were eager to design within additional localities with suggestions of a crowd-sourcing interface of contributing to the dataset of soil mixtures pre-applied to building elements. 

Further development of this project can seek to (1) visualize the environmental consequences of modern building materials in relation to its low-carbon counterpart and (2) provide a materials map of where specific soil mixtures were sourced from within its locality for its embodied carbon metric. More localities can also be added to the simulation’s library encouraging users to envision sustainable building practices within their respective communities. Opportunities such as community-driven participatory engagements and crowd-sourcing initiatives can contribute to using the simulation as a method of unveiling knowledge-bases for a more sustainable world.

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