Skylar Tibbits

Skylar Tibbits

Awarded in 2024

Material Fitness

Building With Basalt for Zero-Waste Construction
Premise

Volcanic construction

The building industry is responsible for an estimated 40 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. Furthermore, when buildings have reached the end of their lifespan and are torn down, many of the component materials are not reusable and end up in landfills. What if buildings could instead be made of resilient, sustainable, mono-material architectures? And what if that material was ubiquitous, made by Mother Earth and readily available for processing into walls and floors and roofs, as well as tiles, pipes, and insulation? Those questions were posed by Skylar Tibbits, associate professor of Architecture at MIT, and his chief collaborator, J. Jih, associate professor of practice in architecture and design—and answered by their shared interest in basalt, the most common type of volcanic rock.

“Basalt is already used in many industries,” says Tibbits. “We want to bring it to the built environment, where innovation tends to move rather slowly.” Adds J., “Certain textile and fiber production techniques using basalt were once classified by the U.S. military, but now it can be used for anything that glass or carbon fiber can be used for—as well as for rebar that is lighter and stronger than steel.”

Their goal is to produce a case study house made entirely from basalt in Iceland. “The landscape of Iceland is almost entirely composed of basalt,” said Tibbits. Working with numerous collaborators here and abroad—including Studio J. Jih, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, and Reykjavik University—the team will follow a three-stage process: 1) imagine, prototype, iterate, and test mono-material construction techniques, including granular jamming of rock and basalt fibers to produce load-bearing structures; 2) advance design and construction with engineers and local architects; and 3) build and observe the results of the case study house.

Challenge

Build it and they will come?

Compared to contemporary construction practices with thousands of parts and material assemblies, building a mono-material architecture is highly unconventional, falling well outside of traditional funding avenues. For example, government funding in architecture is often focused on basic materials research, rather than applied solutions like building a 1:1 case-study house. Also, the construction industry itself would likely not be invested in such an unconventional endeavor because of the risk involved. Finally, it has never been proven if mono-materiality is even possible at large scale, though this project aims to realize that vision.

Potential

From molten lava to a greener future

Building with basalt may prove to be the sustainable solution of the future that the construction industry needs. “We believe strongly that basalt is one of the few material options that encompasses nearly all of the building performance and functionality requirements, while coming directly from the earth,” says Tibbits. “This work would create a new category of research in our department and create new career directions for both me and J. By bringing our work together, we can bridge research and architectural practice with materials, engineering, design, and sustainability.”