Golan Levin: And we’re back. Welcome back, every­one. It’s Friday night of Art && Code and we’re hav­ing our final pre­sen­ta­tion. We will be hear­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion by Virginia San Fratello, who works col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with Ronald Rael. The two of them cre­ate arti­facts that are deeply influ­enced by craft tra­di­tions and con­tem­po­rary tech­nolo­gies. Wired mag­a­zine has writ­ten of their inno­va­tions while oth­ers busy them­selves try­ing to prove that it’s pos­si­ble to 3D print a house, Rael and San Fratello are occu­pied with try­ing to design one that peo­ple would actu­al­ly want to live in.” They are found­ing part­ners of the Oakland-based make-tank Emerging Objects, and they spec­u­late about the social agency of archi­tec­ture in their stu­dio Rael San Fratello. Please, this is Virginia San Fratello. Thank you so much. 

Virginia San Fratello: Thank you Golan for that intro­duc­tion. I’m super excit­ed to be here tonight to have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share a project that Ronald and I have been work­ing on for the last two years. It’s called Mud Frontiers.

And it’s called Mud Frontiers for two rea­sons. One, because we are quite lit­er­al­ly build­ing with mud. And two because we’re work­ing at the fron­tier of tech­nol­o­gy, using robot­ics and 3D print­ing. But also because we’re work­ing at the his­tor­i­cal fron­tier between the United States and Mexico. So we’re here in this pho­to­graph, and here in my stu­dio now, at this fron­tier in the San Luis Valley which spans central/southern Colorado and north­ern New Mexico. So this is I think the high­est alpine desert in North America. So it’s a very extreme and very beau­ti­ful landscape. 

It’s also a region where locals have been build­ing with mud for thou­sands of years. So about forty miles to the south of us is the Taos pueblo, which you can see here in this pho­to­graph. This is a build­ing that has been made of mud, adobe bricks, and mud-plaster. It’s the old­est continuously-occupied build­ing in the United States. And until recent­ly, maybe about a hun­dred years ago I would say, mud was the most preva­lent build­ing mate­r­i­al on the plan­et. And it has more recent­ly been replaced by cement. 

So, we’re look­ing at mud fron­tiers and think­ing about Mobil­i­ty, Ubiq­ui­ty, and Democ­ra­cy.

So, mobil­i­ty. We have devel­oped a mobile robot­ic set­up. So on the left here you can see the robot arm that we use. It’s very small. One per­son can car­ry it. It’s very light­weight. In this case you see we have a tube attached as the end effec­tor and we can use this to extrude mate­ri­als like mud or clay, or…really any kind of paste can be pushed through this. 

In the right pho­to­graph you see our fab­ri­ca­tion set­up here on our ranch in the San Luis Valley. And we’ve tak­en that tube off and we’ve con­nect­ed the robot to a con­tin­u­ous flow hop­per. So we can con­tin­u­ous­ly push mud through the noz­zle, and the robot will move around and print the pat­tern that we have designed in the computer. 

Ubiquity. Of course soil, mud, dirt can be found every­where. We’re lit­er­al­ly using the ground beneath our feet; the mud and the soil from the site where we’re build­ing at our home here. You can see in this pho­to­graph we’re mix­ing the mud with water so that it’s more flu­id and goes through the pump more read­i­ly. And chopped straw. And that chopped straw gives our struc­tures increased ten­sile strength, and it also helps wick out the water so the mud will dry a lit­tle bit faster after the print. 

Democracy. We’ve devel­oped an easy-to-use soft­ware called Potterware that runs in the cloud. You can see here in this ani­ma­tion it uses slid­ers, so you don’t have to know how to 3D mod­el any­thing. You don’t have to know how to slice the G‑code. It’s real­ly intend­ed to be for novice users who need to design things very quick­ly and very eas­i­ly. So you can make a form, you can design a tex­ture to go on that form, and the soft­ware will auto­mat­i­cal­ly slice it for you. And it’s ready to print with­in minutes. 

We’re also exper­i­ment­ing with non-planar sur­faces and giv­ing users the abil­i­ty to make mul­ti­ple prints. And in a more recent iter­a­tion which we just released this week—if you go to pot​ter​ware​.com you can play around with the tools and see the newest version—we also allow users to upload a black-and-white image so they can embed that image onto the sur­face of their 3D print. 

So we’re using a slight­ly more robust ver­sion of this for the larg­er struc­tures, but for now this is avail­able to anyone—to stu­dents, to edu­ca­tors, to professionals—if they want to exper­i­ment with the soft­ware and use it to make their own cus­tom 3D prints. 

So over the last two sum­mers we’ve been devel­op­ing this Mud Frontier project in the San Luis Valley. And we’ve cre­at­ed I think about five dif­fer­ent struc­tures. So we have a lit­tle vil­lage going here which you can see in this photograph. 

And we’ve con­ceived of each struc­ture in a dif­fer­ent way, as a way of kind of test­ing dif­fer­ent ideas that we have about how to use this tech­nol­o­gy with this mate­r­i­al. This par­tic­u­lar struc­ture is called the Beacon, and it is an explo­ration in light. We print­ed one sin­gle line here, so the struc­ture is very light­weight. And the crenel­la­tion in the wall actu­al­ly is what gives it the strength. And we’ve used lights to light up the con­cave and the con­vex sur­faces to high­light the light­ness of the struc­ture and the thin surface. 

This struc­ture is called the Lookout, and here we were explor­ing struc­ture actu­al­ly to see if we could 3D print some­thing out of mud that would be strong enough to sup­port the weight of a body. So we cre­at­ed this stair­case, and you can walk up the side of this and stand on top of it. 

And in this pho­to­graph you can see the robot arm print­ing this pizzelle-like struc­ture. So it’s a con­tin­u­ous wave that is under­neath the stair and the plat­form. So this is what the inte­ri­or of that struc­ture looks like. And it’s quite strong. 

This is the Kiln. This might be the world’s first 3D-printed kiln. So, this struc­ture actu­al­ly has an inner and an out­er lay­er. And we dug a pit in the cen­ter of it, and we use it to pit-fire the small­er 3D-printed clay pieces that we make. And we use local juniper, which you can see here and the door­way. And this open­ing faces south so the wind comes in and it cre­ates kind of a vor­tex in the inte­ri­or of the kiln. And it gets real­ly hot in there so we’re able to fire our pieces to a pret­ty high temperature.

And this one we call the Hearth. So this was anoth­er study in struc­ture, but in a dif­fer­ent way than the Lookout. So in this exam­ple, this par­tic­u­lar form has an inner and an out­er lay­er, so an inner coil of mud and an out­er coil of mud, and those two lay­ers are tied togeth­er by these thin pieces of juniper. So as we print, as the robot prints, then we come behind the robot by hand and lay down those juniper sticks. And those juniper sticks tie the inner and the out­er lay­er togeth­er to make it stronger. It also cre­ates this beau­ti­ful kind of fur­ry aes­thet­ic which I real­ly like about it. 

And then on the inte­ri­or we have a hearth, which is also print­ed out of the mud, and a bench where peo­ple can sit around the fire and gath­er in this pro­tect­ed inte­ri­or space.

And more recent­ly we’ve worked on a project that we call the Casa Covida, which is a house for cohab­i­ta­tion in the time of COVID. And in this project we’ve extend­ed the log­ic. So instead of just print­ing one form at a time, we’re now able to print mul­ti­ple con­sec­u­tive forms through the cre­ation of this fourth rail which is this wood­en ele­ment you see, which allows us to move the robot on the hor­i­zon­tal axis. 

So instead of print­ing… I think we can print about six­teen to eigh­teen inch­es high at a time, and then we have to stop and let it dry. So instead of wait­ing for four or five hours for that to dry, we can just move the robot and start print­ing again, print anoth­er eigh­teen inch­es, move the robot hor­i­zon­tal­ly again, print anoth­er eigh­teen inch­es, let it dry. 

And our fab­ri­ca­tion set­up is real­ly depen­dent on cli­mate and weath­er. We can print six­teen or eigh­teen inch­es and if it’s a sun­ny, windy day like you see in this pho­to­graph here, we can wait two or three hours for the mud to dry, and then we can start print­ing on top of it. But if it’s a cloudy day, maybe just a lit­tle bit rainy, we might have to wait twelve or eigh­teen hours before we can print again. So we’re real­ly depen­dent on the cli­mate, and we have to work very close­ly and tan­gen­tial­ly with the weather. 

So we’ve cre­at­ed these three rooms that are adja­cent to each oth­er in the Casa Covida. 

And the room you see here is the entrance. It has a hearth and seating. 

This room we’re in now will be a room for bathing. And the room we start­ed in, where the cam­era was, will be a room for sleeping. 

And in this video you can see how we are using the robot to cre­ate two lay­ers. And this is because as the walls come up they cre­ate a frus­trum, or a trun­cat­ed dome-type shape with an ocu­lus at the top. And as that out­er wall leans in, it’s sup­port­ed by the inner wall. And the fre­quen­cy of that inner wall is twice what the out­er wall is, so that those waves will touch and sup­port each oth­er as they con­tin­ue up. 

In addi­tion to extend­ing the…I guess the reach of the robot hor­i­zon­tal­ly, we’ve done it ver­ti­cal­ly as well. So the robot arm itself is only about six feet tall. So we built this ply­wood box so we could lift the robot up and print to heights for exam­ple twelve feet tall, which is what this par­tic­u­lar struc­ture is. And the robot has wifi. So you can see my part­ner Ronald there using his smart­phone to dri­ve the robot. So it’s very very mobile and easy to use. 

Another inno­va­tion in the Casa Covida is the use of lin­tels. So if you look close­ly in the pho­to­graph you can see a black piece of wood. It’s a piece of bee­tle kill pine from the bee­tle kill-infested woods here sur­round­ing us in the San Juan Mountains that we’ve charred black and then we’ve print­ed on top of it. So this allows us to cre­ate open­ings in the walls. 

And here, the very last lay­er. Each dome has an ocu­lus on top, which allows for beau­ti­ful framed views of the sky. 

And this is the cur­rent state of the Casa Covida. This is the entry where we have the hearth, with a fire in it. And we’ve devel­oped cus­tom tex­tiles for the bench­es. You can see the door to the exterior. 

And the kind of beau­ti­ful, tex­tured ser­vices that’re cre­at­ed by these sine waves on the inte­ri­or wall. This is the room for bathing. The bath­tub is made out of a water tank that the ranch­ers used to water their cat­tle with here in the val­ley. And it’s sur­round­ed by pol­ished riv­er rocks. 

And of course this beau­ti­ful view to the sky through the oculus. 

And then the room for sleep­ing is clad with these local sheep­skin pelts and cus­tom textiles. 

On the eve of Smithsonian Magazine’s for­ti­eth anniver­sary, they made forty pre­dic­tions for the future. And num­ber one on that list was that sophis­ti­cat­ed build­ings of the future would be made out of mud. And it’s our aim through this research to make that pre­dic­tion come true. 

So, in addi­tion to the work that we’re doing out in the field, we’re also devel­op­ing small­er objects for the inte­ri­or of the Casa Covida. So using the 3D print­er which you can see here behind me, we’re also print­ing objects that we can cook with. 

So we have here a tagine. This. So this tagine is print­ed out of mica­ceous clay from New Mexico. And the clay is incred­i­bly beau­ti­ful when it’s fired in a kiln. It turns this orange col­or and it has these lit­tle flecks of mica in it—I don’t know if you can see it on the screen or not. The mica of course makes it a beau­ti­ful, spark­ly object. But they also do some­thing else. They absorb the ther­mal shock that the pot receives when you put it on a fire or on a stove. So we’ve been mak­ing these and actu­al­ly cook­ing in them. A friend of ours is a local ranch­er and we buy a sheep from him every year so we’ve been mak­ing lamb stew in the tagine. 

Let me show you anoth­er one. This is a bread loaf pan. So this is also 3D print­ed using the robot. It’s also made out of the local mica­ceous clay from north­ern New Mexico. But this one is black because it was pit-fired in the 3D-printed kiln. When we put it in the ground, we smoth­er it with the juniper and with grass­es and remove the oxy­gen from the place where the piece is being fired. And that caus­es it to turn black. 

We’re also print­ing with anoth­er clay which is from New Zealand but it has a his­to­ry here in this region. There used to be a fac­to­ry in Pecos, New Mexico where they made dolls and but­tons. And this porce­lain is called Pecos Porcelain. And the for­mu­la was devel­oped here in New Mexico for that par­tic­u­lar appli­ca­tion. So we’ve been using the Pecos Porcelain to make can­dle­sticks, and this is a soap pail for exam­ple, which will go in the Casa Covida by the room for bathing. 

And I want to show you just a few more things that we’ve been mak­ing to go in the inte­ri­or to kind of soft­en it and to make it func­tion­al and useful. 

So we’re work­ing with a local weaver here. His name is Josh Tafoya. Josh has an inter­est­ing sto­ry. He was a fash­ion design stu­dent in New York and grad­u­at­ed this past May dur­ing the shel­ter in place. And he had to leave school and come back to New Mexico. And he was shar­ing with us that he came home and he was­n’t quite sure what he was going to do because he thought he was going to work for a fash­ion design­er in New York. But he dis­cov­ered in his return home that he came from a fam­i­ly of weavers. And so his aunt gave him her loom and he’s been using the wool from the local chur­ro sheep to weave clothes and tex­tiles. And so we asked him to weave some pil­lows and blan­kets for us that take on these graph­ic motifs inspired in this case by the floor plan of the bathing area with­in the Casa Covida.

And here in this pil­low you can see the floor plan of the entire Casa. So here’s the door, here’s the hearth. This is the room for bathing. And then this is the room for sleep­ing. So it’s been real­ly love­ly and won­der­ful I think to dis­cov­er local craftsper­sons, and for us to also real­ize there’s this kind of amaz­ing diver­si­ty of mate­r­i­al with which we can work. 

I think the last thing we have to do for the Casa Covida is to make a door. And one of our ideas is to make it out of wood. To use the local beetle-kill pine and to char it black. And we also want to make a cast alu­minum han­dle for it. 

So, dur­ing this time we got a pet, a cat. And we real­ized that of course the cat eats a lot. But these cat food cans, these Frisky cans it turns out are 100% alu­minum. So we bought a cru­cible and 3D print­ed a mas­ter, and used those cat food cans to melt them down to make these beau­ti­ful alu­minum objects from our 3D prints. So the next step in the Casa Covida is to make this hard­ware, again using a kind of local mate­r­i­al. And that’s what’s hap­pen­ing now. That’s where we are. Thank you. 

Golan Levin: Thank you Virginia. That was amaz­ing, and such a love­ly oppor­tu­ni­ty to see both the objects you’re work­ing on small and large. So the Discord chat here’s hop­ping with ques­tions. Everyone’s like how this,” you know. So if you don’t mind I’ll just dive in with a few ques­tions here. 

So I’ll speak as some­one who—you know, I’ve worked with 3D print­ers for a while now. And you just bump them and you know, they get mis­reg­is­tered and they’re pret­ty finicky, crap­py things often. What failures/mishaps have hap­pened work­ing at this large scale, per­haps when nature has­n’t coop­er­at­ed? And a relat­ed ques­tion to that is sort of how do you ensure the kind of reg­is­tra­tion that’s need­ed from lev­el to lev­el when you’re print­ing these kinds of things? 

Virginia San Fratello: Failure… [laughs]

Levin: Tell us about the fail­ures. Because these things look extra­or­di­nary, right. 

San Fratello: Yeah I mean. There’s not that much fail­ure, you know. Sometimes the mud is too dry, right. And then it won’t get pumped through the hose, right, it gets stuck. And then we have to clean all the mud out, and we have to clean the auger out. Yeah. And that’s a prob­lem. It takes a lot­ta time. Suddenly you lose four or five hours because you have to clean every­thing out, you have to mix the mud, you have to make it more wet. We put dish soap in it, and that helps keep it mov­ing. So that’s kind of a solu­tion to that prob­lem. Yeah. I would say that’s maybe the biggest problem. 

Levin: One per­son writes, Such beau­ti­ful struc­tures, but your men­tion of the future of mud con­struc­tion remind­ed me of a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake in Iran in 2003 that was par­tic­u­lar­ly dead­ly because the build­ings were made of mud,” and I think prob­a­bly unre­in­forced or some­thing. Can you expect to how seis­mi­cal­ly sound these mud struc­tures are?” 

San Fratello: Well we’re not in a seis­mic zone here. So we’re not hav­ing to deal with that issue here, right. But you can have rein­forced mud bricks. I think they do have a lit­tle bit of cement in them. I think you could— I am not an expert on that so I’m prob­a­bly not the best per­son to answer how to make the adobe struc­tures or mud build­ings kind of seis­mi­cal­ly resis­tant. That is a rea­son why they’re not built in California any­more, for example.

Levin: Sure. There are more ques­tion about like how did you per­fect the mud/straw/water mix? Was there a tra­di­tion­al craft recipe, or did you just sort of tin­ker with it and exper­i­ment with it? How much did you have to adapt for extru­sion through a…you know, robot.

San Fratello: No, that’s a real­ly good ques­tion. And because this is a region where peo­ple have been build­ing with mud for so many years, there is a tac­it knowl­edge that has been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion like where to go to get the best mud, where to go to get the pink mud, right, where to get the brown mud, the red mud. And this is about the right mix, and you can stick you hand in it and feel it. So yeah, it’s like bak­ing a lit­tle bit, you know. You work by tast­ing it, right. Oh, it has the right amount of sug­ar in it or, oh it has the right amount of straw in it. 

So we don’t have an exact for­mu­la, again because some days the water evap­o­rates faster than oth­ers, so we kin­da go by that tac­it knowl­edge and feel.

Levin: The pock­ets in the walls between the lay­ers look like they would allow for insu­la­tion. Have you con­sid­ered that, and also how a roof might be designed to allow for a com­fort­able struc­ture in a cool­er cli­mate? Which you’re in right now, you’re in a cool­er climate.

San Fratello: We’re in a very cold cli­mate right now. It’s exact­ly freez­ing right now. As soon as the sun drops it’s gonna go down to about ‑10 tonight. 

But yeah, the spaces in between the waves are air pock­ets, and we have con­sid­ered that those would pro­vide excel­lent insu­la­tion, especially…you know I showed you that pizzelle struc­ture under­neath the stair. Which is prob­a­bly about two feet wide, and a typ­i­cal adobe wall might be two brick wide. So pret­ty close to that. And we would get real­ly good insu­la­tion in a place like this, not only because you have the insu­la­tive qual­i­ty of the air but you have the fly­wheel effect and the ther­mal mass of the mud.

Levin: There’s many many tech­ni­cal ques­tions. How did you arrive at the wave pat­tern? But I think you sort of answered that in your talk, where you’re sort of say­ing the wavy struc­ture gives it a cer­tain strength.

San Fratello: Yeah. The wavy struc­ture is stronger than a straight line, for sure.

Levin: Is there some kind of Holy Grail or real­ly ambi­tious thing that you’re like, Shit, I wish we could do that?” Or is the Casa Covida kind of the project which is the cur­rent Holy Grail?

San Fratello: No, no. There’s always more. We would real­ly real­ly like to build a big­ger robot so we can make big­ger rooms. And we would real­ly like to make a func­tion­ing house and you know, but­ton it up with a door that clos­es, and a roof, and have plumb­ing and elec­tri­cal in it. And show that this is real­ly a viable way of build­ing for the future.

Levin: So you have this ranch or prop­er­ty. I guess it’s prob­a­bly lit­tered with build­ings. And Madeline asks, Is there a 3D-printed grave­yard of 3D-printed stuff on your ranch?” Are there all these kin­da like shan­ty shack 3D-printed blobs that did­n’t work out?

San Fratello: You know, no. Because when they collapse…going back to the failures…sometimes things col­lapse, right. We recy­cle it. So we scoop it back up and put it back in the print­er. Because it’s hard work, dig­ging and mix­ing that mud! [laughs]

Levin: You can recy­cle the mud.

San Fratello: Yeah!

Levin: So you just chop it up and add water.

San Fratello: Yes.

Levin: Whoa…

San Fratello: You know, these struc­tures, they will just melt into the ground. They’ll dis­ap­pear one day.

Levin: This gives us a lot to think about.

Virginia San Fratello, thank you so much for shar­ing your work with Ronald Rael. It’s real­ly love­ly to see this work, and I hope you get to enjoy the rest of our fes­ti­val. We’ve got great pre­sen­ta­tions tomor­row. Thank you so much for shar­ing this work. It’s real­ly gor­geous and it’s very stim­u­lat­ing. I with you the best of luck in real­iz­ing a future full of mud houses.

San Fratello: Thank you so much, Golan.

Further Reference

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