A Community Oriented Approach to Building with the Land

Richard Sanchez first arrived to Arcosanti as a masters student with The School of Architecture. As a first year student during TSOA’s transition from Taliesin West to Arcosanti, Richard had a year to get to know the site and the culture at Arcosanti before entering his thesis year. Upon graduation He decided to remain at Arcosanti and join the foundry to learn skills in a new craft. He is now moving to South Korea to explore a new culture and experience their rich sense of craftsmanship. Before Richard left, I wanted to sit down with him to ask about his process designing and constructing his shelter, which is emblematic of the relationship he developed to the land, the arcology, and the community here at Arcosanti.

M: What was the first step in your process? 

R: I wanted to try to plug into the programming that is already going on at Arcosanti. I talked with David Tollas (Manager of Agriculture) and wanted to collaborate with the agriculture program to build a sort of outdoor classroom to help develop the food forest and create a flexible space for workshoppers and residents to just enjoy. 

Inspiration for the process came from spending time in the Agua Fria River. I got really into clay and earth building. There’s a long tradition of that in the Southwest, and I guess at the time I was really interested in cultures that had been here before, creating buildings from natural materials like sticks, branches, clay, adobe and all of that stuff. 

I started doing a lot of material research and then I had a couple really strict guidelines that I set for myself. Very early on I decided that I did not want to use concrete and I wanted to gather as much of the materials as I could. I wanted the community to be included when building the structure, and I wanted the structure to be very safe to build. 

All the clay and sand material was from the site. I used Johnson Grass, an invasive species growing all around site, as the bamboo. The straw was not from site, but was locally sourced. The only things that weren’t local were the lumber, metal roof, and the foundation system that I ended up using to avoid pouring a concrete foundation, called a Helical Pier. 

M: What is that? 

R: It’s like a giant corkscrew that gets put into the ground. It is normally used for decking and not necessarily a proper foundation, but given that the structure was pretty lightweight and small we just modified them by welding them up a bit. 

M: I am very curious about your process with your material research. 

R: It started with the Steen family. Bill and Athena Steen wrote a book on Cobb and Sraw Bale construction. I first came across their book and at the same time was watching Benito Steen’s videos on Youtube, who I later found out was their son. They own The Canelo Project and host earthbuilding workshops down in Southern Arizona. Ana and Julia (Arcosanti residents) attended one of their earth plastering workshops. When I found out they were so close, I drove down and visited for two days. They were a huge resource for me. 

I decided to use the Agua Fria as my research laboratory. I first did a huge survey of the Agua Fria from basically the perimeters of Arcosanti’s property. I walked through the River, and every square mile I would take an earth sample and later analyze the clay, sand, and aggregate content. In that process, I mapped the Agua Fria (within the property lines) and made a pretty cool map linking the coordinates of that section of the river and what type of sediments and clay and earth substance is there. That research got me more familiar with the ecosystem and was a really meditative walk to reflect on the ethics of extracting earth from the riverbed. 

Throughout my thesis, a question I was exploring was regarding the ethics of extracting natural materials for building. We all have these ideas that things like clay and sand are sitting around for us to use, like it’s all free, but when you dig up clay or sand, you’re altering the environment around you. The shelter is small, but if we advocate that every structure we build be made of clay, then suddenly we’re digging huge mines of clay and sand all over the planet, and so another challenge that we had as students was to scale up our idea. We have this small structure as our test, but then imagine if the world started building in this way, what are the results? 

Eventually I found a couple locations that were very interesting to me. We have huge washes between these canyon walls, and every rainy season a lot of erosion happens, and clay literally just comes off of the walls. For me, it was like a gold mine because that was subsurface clay that was naturally eroding off of the walls, so it didn’t really require me to dig or to physically change the environment all that much. It was kind of already in that process. So it was just about gathering and collecting. Again, you’re still removing material from a natural site, so there is still that ethical question, but for me, it was the closest way to feel okay removing material. 

I taught a couple of earth building workshops, including rammed earth, adobe, clay, and plaster. We made little blocks and wall sections. For me it had a couple of different functions. I needed to test the material and I wanted to train people at Arco these skills so I could later on have a labor force to collect and mix all of this stuff. That’s the part that Earth builders never really talk about, or they brush over, is that it’s a lot of work. You have all this clay, great, but now you have to mix clay with sand, water, straw, and it takes a lot. We had to experiment to find the best way to break the clay down. I’m sure there is a giant machine that could do it, but we didn’t have any of that. This building style doesn’t require any heavy machinery, toxic chemicals or processing. You can pretty much do it all with a shovel, saw, hammer, and hopefully some buckets and a truck. It doesn’t take a whole construction crew and a huge budget. It just takes a lot of willpower, some muscle, and some basic tools.

M: Very low tech

R: And that was intentional, to keep it low tech, just to show as an example, because this technology isn’t new, it has existed as long as humans have been building. It is still pretty limited to people who are physically able to do it.

M: You have to be a certain amount of physically able to do this, but there are steps that people with different abilities are able to do.

R: That’s a good point, I also felt like there are different steps of this process that require different scopes of understanding of ability. Arcosanti is a great laboratory because we have elders who have a lot of building and planning experience, and then we have all the younger newer people with more energy and physical ability. I had the entire foundry come and break down clay one day, and a lot of people from TSOA and Arcosanti came to mix the mud mixture. The workshoppers did a lot of work in the early parts of the construction, like framing and all of that. I had a huge workforce come in at different times.

M: How did you come up with the design? It’s a very specific design. 

R: I was looking at a lot of Japanese tea houses because they use a very similar wall construction style that I was using. I was also interested in the overall layout, floor plan, and asymmetry that style of construction utilizes. I guess that really comes from the studies that I had done with my professor, Lloyd Natov, and that’s my way of incorporating the Frank Lloyd Wright style. My work with Natof focused a lot on asymmetrical and compositional design. We do that a lot with the bronze bell designs, where we encourage asymmetry to kind of get things moving compositionally. 

M: It’s like potential energy. In Physics, when something, like a ball, is about to fall, but hasn’t yet, but the potential energy is there. 

R: Yeah, and that potential energy has tension and movement. A lot of that happens ironically in Japanese tea houses, which are meant to be calm, serene places, but all of the architectural design actually has this dynamic movement. 

M: I’m curious about the floor in the space. That is the thing that has always captured me the most about the structure, because it is a floor, but also furniture that has a community centered kind of design. 

R: I wanted to create a community shade structure where people could gather, so that is how the “U” shaped cutout floor came to be. As you walk into the shelter, you don’t step onto a different plane, which differentiates yourself from nature. You come into the shelter and you’re still walking on the ground, which blurs the line between inside and outside. Also, because it has that cutout, it allows people to sit in a semi-circle facing each other. Each section is also enough space for a person to lay down. I tried to create it to be multifunctional because Arcosanti is constantly evolving. 

M: What was it like to actually go to Japan after being so inspired by Japanese architecture? 

R: A lot of research and techniques that I used were pretty close to the real thing, except they do it way better. The quality of the plastering and the tightness of the woven bamboo was really refined and pretty incredible to see. One thing that was very inspiring for me, is that a lot of these old structures are still standing and are in really great shape. They are aging and decaying in a way that’s very beautiful. It was reassuring to see examples of what the potential future of my structure may be. 

A lot of the ideas around the ethics of building that I had been asking myself while writing my thesis, is already incorporated in their culture, building style, and how building is approached. In Japan, at least outside of the cities, they’re concerned with these kinds of guidelines that we were talking about earlier, involving community, utilizing local and natural materials, and building with the land. 

The shelter is able to decompose at a slow rate. If the clay, sand, and straw material were to get exposed to rain, it pretty much just goes back to the ground and is able to break down naturally. Same with the wood but on a different time scale. I was interested in the life cycle of this structure. What is going to happen to this structure in five, ten, fifty years? Especially at Arcosanti with such a transitory community. That was also why I didn’t want to have a concrete structure. Worst case scenario, if it becomes a decrepit thing, I wanted it to be easy for people to take apart, break down, pull the piers up, and have the ability to re-use a lot of the materials, burn it, or leave it to be decomposed. The construction was not the only important part, but the deconstruction as well. 

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