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Built to Provoke, But Not to Last

New Installation Outside Benedum Hall Encourages Thought About Non-Conventional Building Materials

PITTSBURGH (April 26, 2019) — In the plaza just outside Benedum Hall, University of Pittsburgh students from architecture and engineering have installed a distinctive structure. Pillars of hollow cardboard, filled with sand for weight and support, hold up a curving fence of bamboo slats, secured with shredded plastic bottles and plywood chains. A plywood bench supported by the cardboard tubes marks the center and invites passersby to sit and take a look.

But make sure to see it soon, because it won’t last forever—and that’s by design.

The structure is made from nonconventional materials to better understand how each material performs in the elements. The materials include bamboo, harvested from local yards where it grew invasively; cardboard tubes donated by Sonoco Products; teak oil-treated plywood, most of which was fabricated right on campus; and recycled plastic bottles.

Called “NOCMAT Pavilion,” the installation is the product of a collaboration between the Swanson School of Engineering, the Architectural Studies Program, the Pitt Non-Conventional Materials and Technologies Group (PITT-NOCMAT), and the Pitt Makerspace. It was constructed through a course led by Jennifer Donnelly, PhD, called NOCMAT Design-Build Studio. 

Chase Rogers, an undergraduate in civil and environmental engineering, had the idea when he and a friend realized how little experience they had working with nonconventional materials, like bamboo and cardboard, and how abundant those materials are. Rogers graduates this semester with a bachelor of science and is a registered Engineer in Training. 

He approached Drew Armstrong, PhD, director of Architectural Studies, and Swanson School of Engineering Professors Kent Harries, PhD, and Ian Nettleship, PhD, with the idea. Through the efforts of Dr. Armstrong, the NOCMAT studio course was initiated, and Rogers served as mentor throughout the project.

“This project let us work with materials that we’re not used to getting our heads around,” said Rogers. “It’s meant to simulate construction waste. These are materials that could be recycled into housing or expedient shelters in places of need.”

The Architectural Studies students enrolled in the course designed the structure themselves and worked with members of PITT-NOCMAT to build it, utilizing the Pitt Makerspace led by Brandon Barber to fabricate the parts. 

“We’ve been developing the Pitt Makerspaces with the intention of providing more hands-on experiences for our students and the resources and support to make those experiences possible,” says Barber. “The NOCMAT project has been a great example of how a collaboration between the architecture and engineering departments can yield impressive and creative results through the sharing of ideas and resources.”

This project represents a blossoming collaboration between the Swanson School of Engineering and the Architectural Studies program, which are offering engineering and architecture students more opportunities to work and learn together.

“The work produced this semester demonstrates how the two programs share a common interest in thinking about design, materials and hands-on learning. The successful completion of the project shows how resources and expertise located in different schools at Pitt can be combined to produce an unexpected outcome,” says Dr. Armstrong.  “It was a major learning experience both for the students and for the instructors; it will be the basis for thinking about future collaborative courses and projects.”

At an initial meeting looking for interested students, the planning already began, but constructing with these materials brought challenges. 

“We had to definitely learn in the moment, and adapt our knowledge of traditional materials to fabricate these materials and put it all together,” said Rogers. “The tubes are particularly susceptible to moisture and had to be meticulously protected from the elements to last longer than a day. Fitting them together and giving them shape was another challenge that required ingenious connections like the three-ring chain link that gives the bamboo screen its curved shape.”

“Modularity became very important,” said Dr. Donnelly. “You’re working with these three-inch cardboard tubes, which are all uniform, alongside natural bamboo, which behaves how it wants.” 

“You can design materials to do anything you want, but reuse is more challenging and teaches a different skill set,” said Dr. Harries. “The students overcame challenges to build this structure using unfamiliar materials, and that experience will serve them well in their future careers.”

The purpose of the project was not just to create an interesting space in which the university community and public can gather. Though the materials went through rigorous tests to see how they’ll stand up to temperature changes and rainfall, the materials will still degrade over time. The group will monitor how the structure degrades outside, and how quickly.

“This project shows us how these materials work out in the elements. We’re excited to see not only what these materials can do, but how they will age, which is as important as anything else,” said Dr. Donnelly. “We hope people will sit there and enjoy, but also read the sign explaining the project and reflect on different uses for waste.”

Author: Maggie Pavlick

Contact: Maggie Pavlick