portrait of lola ben-alon standing in the natural materials lab

Lola Ben-Alon Encourages Compassion for Digitization

The assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is also the director of the school’s Natural Materials Lab, a lab that studies earth- and bio–based materials.

“TAKE THE HOUSE YOU’RE IN RIGHT NOW,” says Lola Ben-Alon, pointing to the vaulted white ceiling behind me through the webcam. “There are houses that look exactly the same with nice clean tones made from straw bale infill, earth plaster, a healthy lime wash, and terra-cotta tile over a heated floor.”

She explains that my 2018 suburban house in east Tennessee was most likely insulated with fiberglass, and painted with a volatile organic compound coating that will be a red flag in 20 years as it emits plastic molecules and affects the breathability of the space.

“It’s those small things we need to account for—prosperity, justice, and health,” she says.

Ben-Alon is the director of the Natural Materials Lab at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she studies earth- and bio-based materials, their life cycles, and fabrication techniques.

“I think this fiber-based aspect of our mix designs is really cutting-edge and could change the field of 3D printing.”

Lola Ben-Alon, assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and director of the Natural Materials Lab

Raised in southern Israel by Jewish Moroccan parents—a civil engineer and a biochemist—Ben-Alon blended their interests and pursued a bachelor of science in structural engineering followed by a master of science in construction management at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. She cofounded the Experimental Art and Architecture Lab in 2011 and served as a curator and exhibition developer for Madatech, Israel’s National Museum of Science, Technology, and Space, before taking on a doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Entrance to the natural materials lab

It was her doctoral research on the perception, performance, and adoption of earth-based materials that led her to Columbia, where in 2020 she founded the Natural Materials Lab. There, Ben-Alon leads a small, fluctuating team of researchers in expanding a lexicon of materials by combining raw substances— like clay-rich soil, rammed earth, and wheat straw—into “mix designs” and manipulating the recipes into different forms.

By testing material mixes across multiple scales and through techniques like manual carving and digital modeling, the team rethinks how earth materials can be used and applies them in installations and objects to create better building products.

“For each technique, we do a lot of micro-to-macro [studies]. We’re looking at mix designs, we’re testing them through microscopic analysis, and then we’re creating an artifact,” she explains.

One such artifact was installed in May 2023. Titled Raw Earth Sgraffito, the installation consists of two semicircular walls of compressed earth bricks with soil excavated from the French Réseau Express Régional (RER) train line. The walls were coated in two layers of clay plaster, which were carved with a relief of material supply chains and labor movements. The Sgraffito serves as a map, reminding both researchers and viewers that materials are geological and geographical before they become architectural. These pathways provide critical insight into the labor, environmental, and social life cycles, and the embodied carbon associated with building products.

In addition to the heavy, bricklike use of natural materials— as seen in the Sgraffito—Ben-Alon and her team explore lighter alternative applications for earth materials through 3D printing. “Our mix designs for our 3D-printed, pressed, or crafted elements contain a range of ‘recipes’ using natural clay-soils as binders, plant fibers as reinforcement, and bio-based additives as stabilizers,” she says.

She explains that while earthen architecture naturally acts as a heavy mass building form, the effect of adding fast-growing fibers into the soil is threefold: increasing insulation capacity, decreasing weight, and capturing more carbon. Researchers at the Natural Materials Lab 3D-print the mixtures into structures informed by basketry techniques. The structures can be translated into other forms, like a small pavilion the team hopes to install somewhere on campus with a small crane which allows for the construction of structures with an 11-foot radius.

“It’s truly novel research,” Ben-Alon says. “I think this fiber-based aspect of our mix designs is really cutting-edge and could change the field of 3D printing.” But it isn’t as easy as one might think.

lola ben-alon experimenting with materials
natural materials lab 3d printed materials

“I don’t want to romanticize natural materials,” Ben-Alon notes. “I always also teach about the challenges of using earth and straw.” For example, mycelium can grow inside the 3D prints if the fibers are not completely dried.

The team uses a series of low- and high-tech solutions to increase the materials’ durability—including a “lime check,” a technique that involves installing a lime layer or a small stone plinth to create a texture that controls erosion. She also mentions the inherent ritualistic maintenance necessary in natural material construction and suggests that building codes should be developed and expanded to preserve the longevity of earth-based buildings.

When it comes to the forms and patterns of the 3D-printed woven objects, Ben-Alon says the team asks the material what it wants to be, often resulting in a more granular, geometric investigation than a digital and precise form with a clean, sharp texture.

“Sometimes the material wants to be messy,” she says, explaining that the color and texture of the woven objects can make them look older. The team works to balance the messiness of raw materials with the newness and precision of printing.

“We’re allowing the material to help us be compassionate toward digitization,” Ben-Alon says. Rather than seeing technology as a nemesis, or conversely, digital fabrication as a savior from the environmental crisis, the team works to be “compassionate toward the fact that the world is changing” and embraces technological tools.

Meanwhile, the researchers recognize that the tools are not objective. The geometries come from the designer, and each student’s prints have a distinct style. While digital fabrication allows for additional quantity, it has limitations and is not “easier” than creating materials and designs manually.

Ben-Alon says that using digital fabrication with raw, readily available, non-processed materials “creates a nice combination, but also nice tension.” For her, it all goes back to the communion of human wellness and the earth—people, the practices and technology they have created, and the resulting effects on the environment and populations.

“I see these all as interconnected concerns or urgencies,” she says. “[We] can’t fix climate by capturing carbon and not thinking about labor. We can’t create a solution, and by the way of the solution, introduce more problems.”

Would you like to comment on this article? Send your thoughts to: [email protected]