AMS Spring 2023

3D Printed Terracotta Stools Help Conserve Coastal Shoreline in Hong Kong


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Once again, 3D printing is being put to the test for ecological conservation efforts, this time along the coastal shore line of Kuk Po Village, Shau Tau Kok, in Hong Kong. Several of the same people who worked on restoring damaged coral reefs in Hong Kong with 3D printed clay tiles, including researchers with the Robotic Fabrication Lab in the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Architecture, are working on this effort, called The Tidal Stool project.

As a study from the Weizmann Institute of Science explains, we’re at “a point of inflection” here on Earth where the total mass of all manmade materials actually equals the biomass of the planet itself. What’s more, that number is expected to double by the year 2040. It’s becoming ever more evident that humanity’s way of building, consuming, and just living is having a negative impact on the environment. But, as Editor in Chief Michael Molitch-Hou once asked, what if, instead of building things that always end up having a negative impact on the world, we instead designed for a positive impact, or designed for ruins?

Image courtesy of Alyssa Williams Ng

The Tidal Stool project is one example of people trying to make a difference and turn things around here on Earth, in an attempt to reverse some of the damage we’ve caused to the flora and fauna. For many years now, Hong Kong’s coastal lines have been redefined, and not for the better. Many animal habitats, and the condition of the coast, have been messed up by large land recovery processes, but there is still hope. In addition to some other spots, Kuk Po Village has maintained its natural shoreline, and The Tidal Stool is part of a comprehensive revitalization project there, working to bring together both the natural environment and the anthropocentric (regarding humankind as the central element of existence), rather than separating them artificially.

Image courtesy of Alyssa Williams Ng

“For many of us, the shoreline has a magical attraction. It is an interstitial space that invites us to dwell and contemplate,” the project description reads. “It offers views of the shore and the landscape and brings us closer to the natural forces surrounding us.”

The tidal zone is between the high and low tide, and in Hong Kong, the zone oscillates by roughly 900 mm. If you didn’t already know, every twelve hours, the ecology of the shoreline changes when the tides do. Plants and animals living in this zone are exposed to the air at low tide and submerged by the water at high tide, so they have varying conditions to deal with during their day to day lives.

The Tidal Stool project was coordinated by Weijen Wang and HKU’s Robotic Fabrication Lab leader Christian J. Lange, also the founder of Rocker-Lange Architects. The team also included Chen Zhaowei, Yin Fangyi and Chan Ching Yin, and was funded by the Country Conservation Office. Using the technology in the Robotic Fabrication Lab, the team 3D printed 30 unique stools, with various degrees of surface complexity, as you can see below, and with different heights for different users, both human and animal, and even plants.

Digital Prototypes with complexity indicator. Image courtesy of Robotic Fabrication Lab, HKU

The functional design approach for these 3D printed stools is, as explained previously, to benefit and connect both the natural and anthropocentric environments. The intricate cracks and spaces in the stools offer tidal zone creatures hideouts that are just their size, so they can keep away from predators. Additionally, the 3D printed tidal stools improve the shoreline’s ecology: they are partially submerged in the water during high tide, giving flora and fauna a safe place to rest, and at low tide, they are above the water and offer visitors a nice spot to sit down and enjoy the scenery. Obviously, people are enjoying the stools, and Lange reported that crabs have been witnessed in the crevices as well.

Image courtesy of Christian J. Lange

The reason so many different designs were printed was so the team could determine which geometry would perform the best in the coastal environment. The stools were 3D printed using a standard industrial robotic system, out of a terracotta clay mix. This material works well for this application due to its pH level—if any of the stools begin to deteriorate, they won’t damage the environment when they return to nature. This brings us back to the concept of designing for ruin.

When designing the stool, the team was inspired by three main ideas, the first being a reference to the classical ceramic stools that existed for at least 1,000 years in China. Made of a variety of materials, including porcelain, wood, stone, and glazed stoneware, these stools were mostly used in landscape gardens. The second inspiration is mangrove roots; these trees grow in coastal swamps that flood at high tide, and featured tangled, aboveground roots. Mangroves grow along the shoreline in this part of Hong Kong, and support its marine and coastal ecosystems. Finally, the team was inspired by the rocks on this particular shoreline, which is reflected in the dark brown color of the 3D printed stools and allows them to fit in with the surrounding habitat.

Image courtesy of Christian J. Lange

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