Leslie Lok and Sasa Zivkovic combined 3D printing, robotic fabrication technology, and wood infested with emerald ash borer beetles to create an off-grid tiny home named the Ashen Cabin. The pair are assistant professors of architecture at Cornell University, and coprincipals of the New York–based design firm HANNAH.
"The cabin is a combination of our design research and thinking in response to the urgent condition of our natural environment and possible modes of intervention," Lok says. "It demonstrates our potentially replicable use of relatively new technologies that allow us to advance both formal and technological innovation in the discipline of architecture."
Emerald ash borer beetles are an invasive species thought to have been introduced to American forests via human trade and travel in the summer of 2002—and they currently threaten 8.7 billion trees across the country and almost one in 10 ash trees in New York state. Once the trees have been infested, they typically decompose or are burned for energy.
"Unfortunately, both scenarios release CO2 into the atmosphere, and so the advantage to using compromised ash for construction is that it both binds the carbon to the earth, and offsets the harvesting of more commonly used wood species," Zivkovic says. "Infested ash trees are a very specific form of waste material ,and our inability to contain the blight has made them so abundant that we can and should develop strategies to use them as a material resource. The ‘waste wood’ is an abundantly available, affordable, and sustainable building material."
Set in a clearing of trees in upstate New York, the Ashen Cabin perches just above the ground on short and thick 3D-printed concrete stilts. One of the stilts extends above the cabin’s roof, forming a tall and slender chimney.
"We know that concrete is responsible for 8% of total CO2 emissions," explains Lok. "By using 3D printing, we eliminate the use of wasteful formwork, and we can deposit concrete smartly and only where structurally necessary, reducing its use considerably while also maintaining a building’s integrity."
Zivkovic is the director of Cornell’s Robotic Construction Lab, and he worked with his team to build a custom platform for the sole purpose of processing the irregular ash trees used for the cabin’s exterior and interior siding.
"We began by creating 3D scans as a basis for translating and digitizing the complex and irregular geometries of the mature trees," he says. "The robot is then programmed to cut and process irregular wood geometries—it’s through these current technologies that we’re able to work with this material."
The robotic arm Zivkovic and his team utilized is a device they found on eBay that was previously used for building cars for General Motors. They repurposed the robot, reprogramming it to methodically saw and shape the wood at a scale usable for homebuilding.
The one-room cabin features a bench that converts to a bed, a small kitchen area, and a fireplace. Two types of layered materials are expressed in the interior and the exterior.
"The 3D-printed concrete base is characterized by horizontal layers, which result from the 3D printing process," says Zivkovic. "For the wood envelope, we wanted to contrast the horizontal concrete layers with vertical layers of ash siding. A lot of barns and utility buildings in Upstate and central New York are clad in vertical board-and-batten envelopes. Our wood envelope expands on that architectural context."
"In contrast to the board-and-batten technique, we use a different board overlap method, and decided to leave the edge of the wood in its natural state. This gives the cabin envelope an organic character, which provides a nice contrast—conceptually—to the precise robotic fabrication method."
According to Lok and Zivkovic, other industries have benefitted from disruptive technologies that increase efficiency of production and use fewer resources. The architects don’t see as much change in the residential construction industry. "From the start, we designed the cabin with these new materials and digital fabrication techniques in mind, exploring their design potential and embracing the unfamiliar design languages that emerge in the process," says Zivkovic.
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