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Can we eat Earth Buildings?

Lola Ben-Alon, Sharon Yavo-Ayalon


Earth-based materials (namely, mud or dirt architecture) have been used for over millennia and are still sheltering approximately a third of the world population. These materials are currently experiencing a new Renaissance with upscaled construction methods and digital fabrication technologies introduced by scientific literature that is highly focused on the mineralogical and particle characterization of optimal mixtures. Similarly, clay-based materials have been traditionally used as edible substances in almost every global region: from the Middle East to India, and from Western Europe to the Caribbeans and Africa. Traditional recipes such as bonbon tè (Haitian mud cookies) and the Calabash Chalk (West Africa) have been used as part of human diet for religious beliefs, traditional local medicine, or as part of a regular menu. Studies in the field of edible clay have shown that pregnant women crave dirt, clay, or charcoal if their bodies are deficient in key minerals, a custom that has been interpreted by Western investigators as a pathology named Geophagia. This paper presents an empirical and experimental investigation into the mineralogical content within earth materials and its role in building and human metabolism. A critical literature review of earth materials and their particle mineral content is presented, while analyzing, comparing, and contrasting the ingredients that make a good buildable and edible earth artifact. The analysis in this study reveals that both buildable and edible soil compositions share a common mineralogical base: the microstructure and water sorption capacity of clay minerals. As a final demonstration, this paper presents an architectural installation that maps earth artifacts for their buildability and edible possibilities. This paper critically contributes to the scientific architectural field by provoking questions regarding the mutual dependencies between humans and their surrounding natural resources, while testing ideas and beliefs regarding the nature-culture divide that governs existing environmental paradigms.

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