Embodied Computation Lab

Setting at the intersection of the university and the natural environment
Hybrid design: high-tech and low-tech, familiar and new, functional and aesthetic, digital and biological
Deliberately incomplete, with open frame
Source and lifecycle of wood
First timber structure with five-ton gantry crane in North America
Flexible building with an expanded definition of sustainability
Framework for interdisciplinary research on different architectural systems
Collaboration between human and machine
Waste condensate for radiant heating
Machine learning for physical world
Micro-contours: shed water and insulate
Facade of repurposed scaffolding boards that would otherwise be discarded

Primary Author

  • David Benjamin / The Living

Contributing Authors

  • John Locke / The Living (Project Manager)
  • Dan Topping / NK Architects (Architect of record)
  • Axel Kilian / Princeton University (Faculty researcher)
  • Forrest Meggers / Princeton University (Faculty researcher)
  • Cristobal Correa / Buro Happold (Structral and MEP engineering)
  • Justin Green / Big Reuse (Material salvage)
  • Evan Eisman / Evan Eisman Studio (Sandblasting)
  • Mike Tartaglia / Epic (Contractor)
  • Danil Nagy / The Living (Designer)
  • Ray Wang / The Living (Designer)
  • Lorenzo Villaggi / The Living (Designer)
  • Damon Lau / The Living (Designer)
  • Dale Zhao / The Living (Programmer)

Author

  • Princeton University

Photographer

  • Michael Moran
  • Pablo Marvel

Objectives

This building is both an experiment and a research instrument. Just as biologists use a microscope to study organisms, architects will use this structure to study buildings. In other words, the project involves a simple but futuristic building to host research on the future of buildings. // Research will include automated construction, embedded sensors, feedback systems, geothermal wells, energy harnessing, and wall and roof prototypes. Projects will involve interdisciplinary collaboration between architects, engineers, computer scientists, and artists. // The building itself is also a research project on multiple levels. It involves a close study of natural and low-embodied energy materials. In particular, we worked with salvaged scaffolding boards, which are ubiquitous in construction, but they are typically discarded after a year as a rule-of-thumb, rather than inspected for problems such as warping or cracking. We used 900 scaffolding boards that would otherwise become waste. But more than offering a sustainable material, this approach allowed us to see architectural materials in a new way. Our experiments led us to emphasize revealing natural variation in boards rather than suppressing it with a one-size-fits-all or lowest-common-denominator approach. We began to read how each board comes from a different tree with a different history of growth. This allowed us to process each board according to its properties and create a unique facade. But more fundamentally, this allowed us to develop a new perspective on buildings as a temporary synthesis of materials, energy, and labor—connected to other formations before and after the life of the building.

Context

This project involves a facility for interdisciplinary research on robotics, sensors, and everywhere that computers meet the physical world and become “embodied computation.” The small site has a history of architectural innovation. It hosted Buckminster Fuller’s first Geosphere, the pioneering environmental analysis of Victor and Aladar Olgyay, and the architectural camouflage studies of Jean Labatut. The context also involves a setting at the intersection of the university and the natural environment. Finally, the context involves creating space for fabrication, assembly, testing, and teaching within about 8,000 square feet. This required us to think not only about the research projects and equipment of today, but also about the projects and equipment of ten and twenty years from now—including the opportunities and anxieties of technologies of computation and automation. // The goal of the project was to create a facility for the next generation of architecture research. The building is organized as a large double-height warehouse-like space for multiple research projects. An open, flexible layout allows for reconfiguration of classroom, workshop, robotic equipment, testing, and exhibition space. Overall, the building suggests a new hybrid design approach that is high-tech and low-tech, familiar and new, functional and aesthetic, digital and biological.

Performance

This project is an “open source building,” designed to evolve over time, with components and systems that can be swapped and upgraded. This adaptive structure proposes an alternative to architecture that is fixed, iconic, and driven by form or aesthetic signature. // The building is sustainable in its capacity to adjust to new conditions rather than requiring extensive renovations or an entirely new structure. It is also features sustainable systems such as zero-energy heating via waste condensate from the neighboring building, and passive cooling with no air conditioning. // The building is first-of-its-kind in several ways. It is the first structure in North America with a five-ton gantry crane that is made of low-embodied-energy timber rather than steel. It is the first building to use salvaged scaffolding boards from New York City construction for its facade, giving new life to material that otherwise ends up in a landfill. It is the first building to use sand-blasted wood for its facade, and it required our studio to invent a CNC-sand blasting machine. And it is one of the first buildings to apply state-of-the-art machine learning to the physical world, which we implemented through creating algorithms to detect knots in wood. // The resulting building envelope is both the final layer and the first research experiment of the building. We are working with university researchers to study the potential for micro-contours of wood to offer performance benefits in terms of shedding water and trapping air to create an invisible layer of thermal insulation.

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Setting at the intersection of the university and the natural environment