Palletecture: From packing cases to lamella structures


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Starting from experimental making with a limited range of materials, students learn to make building elements which fit loosely together to form buildings which sit appropriately within the slowly changing physical and institutional topography of the city.

Since 1985, over 100 week long courses have been run at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) by Professor Maurice Mitchell and colleagues from the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University. The A Way of Building short course aims to provide participants with the opportunity to design and make buildings using materials found on site or available locally. Skills are site based, focusing on those of mason (wet trades) and carpenter (dry trades). Building structures from locally sourced materials is the ultimate way to ensure that a structure is low impact and ecologically sound. This course explores ways to use earth, green timber, straw and stone amongst others to build beautiful, functional structures.

Students erecting a pallet roof
Making Laboratory, A Way of Building course at CAT (Image credit: Emma Curtin)

The site and course at CAT is our ongoing Making Laboratory. A hands-on construction project runs throughout the 5-day course. This involves all participants in a cyclic process of experimentation and focused group criticism followed by modifications to the original proposal. As the course progresses and the skills, ambitions and interactions of the participants become clear, a built form evolves which is quite unique. The final product, which is left standing as participants leave, is more a large-scale model than a finished building. Its form, never predictable at the start of the process is a way of learning about the process by which technology and human agency are transformed into a culture of making with a civic and ethical content.

The seeming triviality of the objects being made is banished within the group as the work proceeds by constant self-conscious communication and iterative endeavour. Meaning is attached to the building elements being made by clearly identifying prototypes and other precedents. This consolidates the learning process. The end of the course is marked with a review conducted by the participants in which lessons learned are made explicit.

The Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) at the Cass is an emergent research area within the teaching and practice of architecture, led by Professor Mitchell and Dr. Bo Tang. It examines and extends knowledge of the physical and cultural influences on the process of transforming the built environment. It focuses on situations where resources are scarce and where both culture and technology are in a state of rapid change, and explores the culture of making and the contribution this makes to effective change for transitional communities, particularly in informal urban settlements where new identities are forged in the process of remaking. Many of the research led live projects in the ARCSR area have extrapolated building elements and research methods which have emerged from this course.

One of these building elements is the barrel vaulted lamella structure made from reused wooden pallets, with the additional challenge of using no metal fixings. Students and participants have been experimenting on the annual week long course with pallet timber to make roof structures, flooring, panelling and staircases and ladders. ARCSR architecture studios undertake an annual field trip in which students engage proactively with a rapidly changing under resourced local situation devising imaginative responses to specific cultural and technical issues. In recent years, students have developed and refined the pallet lamella structure prototype, adapting it to varying contexts, including the Eastern Mediterranean University in Northern Cyprus, a housing estate in East London and an informal squatter settlement in India.

latice structure
Lamella structure at Jagdamba Camp, New Delhi, India
(Image credit: Angela Hopcraft)

Extending the experiment his year, students constructed three different lamella structures in the city of London: on a rooftop, churchyard and Sunday marketplace, engaging local residents and communities in dialogue about proposed masterplans, Crossrail and urban change in the area. Made from found timber pallets and borrowing ideas articulated by Joi Ito (Head of MIT Media Lab) in his recent TED talk: Want to innovate? Become a “now-ist”, students addressed the contingencies of city complexity and shortage of time, working by a process of resistance and accommodation to the contingencies of situation. This embraces the super present now-ism of new no cost permissionless intervention where innovation is pushed out to the edges: where the power of pull is greater than the burden of push.

structure at the Isle of dogs
Lamella roof structure and pallet stepladder, Isle of Dogs, London
(Image credit: Maurice Mitchell)

“The design and prefabricated construction of the lamella structures was conducted at the [Cass] workshops at Central House and Commercial Road, culminating in a kit of parts that was subsequently dismantled and packaged for transportation to site. The three structures were then erected over a matter of hours, being assembled as loose fit structures so that both the critical path of assembly and the contingencies of fit were reduced as much as possible. The lamellas were used as a point of interaction between students and the public, whilst also facilitating the capturing of ‘key-hole views’ from both inside and outside the structures. Each view captures a snapshot of a serendipitous moment framed by an opening, a door, window, crack or keyhole. The City’s Progress March slowed down for a while and dystopia became utopia for a fleeting moment: a moment to reflect and recalibrate.”

Chloe Anderson, student

Structure at aldgate
Lamella structure at St. Boltoph Without Aldgate Church, London (Image credit: Sogand Babol)

The A Way of Building course takes place at CAT from 6th-10th July 2015, and is aimed at anyone with an interest in sustainable building. It is particularly suited to architects and self-builders as it offers a hands-on experience of tools and materials. Participants will learn skills necessary in constructing structures out of a wide variety of materials. They will also learn how to apply this knowledge in a range of scenarios and for their own projects.

About the Author

Dr. Bo Tang teaches on the “A Way of Building” course at CAT and is a Lecturer at the Cass School of Architecture, London Metropolitan University, and Research Coordinator and Fellow for the Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources.

Interested in Sustainable Architecture?

Study on CAT’s Professional Diploma in Architecture Part II course, or join our MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment.