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Alum Massey Burke builds earthen clay wall at Swat

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by
An earthen wall has been taking shape between Beardsley Hall and the Science Center. The project is a joint effort of Massey Burke ’00, who has has been working in sustainable building for eight years, and over 40 student, faculty and staff volunteers. (Allegra Pocinki/The Phoenix)

When Massey Burke ’00 attended Swarthmore, she craved practical applications of the things she was passionate about. Ten years later, she’s working to provide just that for today’s students. In conjunction with the Art and Engineering departments, Burke is working to create an adobe plastered earthen wall — made from all sustainable materials — between Beardsley Hall and the Science Center.

Burke has been working in sustainable building for eight years. She currently works as an earthen building contractor in California. “I wear a bunch of hats, but they’re all connected to earthen building … I build and teach. I build things for people, and then I work for [University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University], as well as for some non-profits,” Burke said.

An earthen wall has been taking shape between Beardsley Hall and the Science Center. The project is a joint effort of Massey Burke ’00, who has has been working in sustainable building for eight years, and over 40 student, faculty and staff volunteers.

Last year, Burke got a call asking if she could offer internships for undergraduates. She was then featured in the alumni magazine, The Swarthmore College Bulletin. When Art Professor Syd Carpenter saw the profile, she thought it would be a good idea to bring Burke to Swarthmore to work with her class “The Container as Architecture.” “When I heard what she was doing with vernacular building, and clay, it just seemed like a natural match. It seemed like an imperative to bring her back to campus,” Carpenter said.

Burke agrees completely, being incredibly excited to be back on campus. “My intentions are to first of all, come back to Swarthmore, which is great, and second of all, to really begin to explore the possibilities of using earthen architecture as an artistic medium, especially in big installations,” Burke said. She added that she is intrigued and excited about the combination of sustainable engineering and an art project, and also just happy to be back home.

Carpenter believes that this project could fuel a conversation cross-campus and cross-disciplines. “I’ve been delighted by how much participation this has generated from students from all over the place,” Carpenter said. She quotes not only Swarthmore students from every department, but also local area students from Tyler School of Arts as well as Swarthmore faculty members.

Kenyetta Givans ’12, a biology major, became interested in the project after seeing Carpenter’s email to the student body. “I love doing hands-on stuff and I thought that the project itself was really cool. So I thought it would be fun to be a part of the process and to learn how things can be made from earthen materials and persist over time,” Givans said. She is one of over 40 volunteers that work for Carpenter. They come from diverse academic backgrounds. This list does not include the several employees from Swarthmore’s facilities and the Scott Arboretum that have also lent a hand.

Students in Carpenter’s class have been designing the wall for weeks, and now are volunteering to help build it. Taryn Colonnese ’13 is one of the students in Carpenter’s class. “We began the process by talking theoretically about what a wall could mean — what types of representations could it have and specifically what did we want it to represent on campus?” Colonnese said of the project, specifically emphasizing the collaboration between students in the class in the design of the wall.

The project will ideally be finished by October 7, after which Burke and her assistant, Kieran Fitzsimmons, will be leave campus. Carpenter believes there may be some overlay but has no doubt that the volunteers will finish the wall on their own.

Burke hopes that this small-scale project will display a more local, hands-on display of sustainability. “Earthen building is a very accessible, practical application of a lot of different principles of ecological design. It’s also a very tangible one, you get instant gratification,” Burke said. She hopes the project will inspire students to get creatively engaged with sustainability.

Colonnese believes that the project introduces earthen sustainability to Swarthmore perfectly, providing a means to transfer information and ideas. “This kind of sustainable building isn’t really something most people are familiar with — I had no idea how it worked — so it’s so nice to have a project that is so visible to the community. Anyone can walk by and ask questions, watch the process, or get involved in building,” Colonnese said.

Carpenter agreed. “Immediately, the students themselves have been participating in going to get the material, on campus, and seeing that it’s here, and actually using it on site,” Carpenter said. She believes it to be important for students to see this sustainability in action, engage with it and talk about it in a genuine, detailed fashion. “We literally dug down into the ground and the stuff was there under our feet,” Carpenter said. She hopes that her students will take responsibility for their projects and the materials and resources used.

Camille Robertson ’13, an environmental activist, is also involved with construction and is excited about this local grassroots display. “Environmental activism is often construed as a series of prohibitions or restrictions: turn off the lights, use less paper. Massey’s earthen wall project presents sustainability as a creative, fun, literally constructive community endeavor,” Robertson said.

Once finished, Carpenter hopes the wall will stand as an emblem of Swarthmore’s commitment to innovation, imagination and creativity, especially in terms of sustainability. “I think it’s going to be a focal point; I hope it’s something that has some kind of iconic representation to it that students can identify [with]. Similar to the Adirondack Chair, now we have a Wall,” Carpenter said.

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