The Voxel: a Quarantine Cabin

Collserola park appears starkly from the sky as an island of green, surrounded on all sides by the sprawling Barcelona metropolitan area. The park has been accurately referred to as Barcelona’s “green lung”, and its dense forest has become home to a truly ambitious project in the realm of ecological architecture. Just as the natural park supplies the city with a vital supply of oxygen from its trees, the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia’s (IAAC) Valldaura Labs and its Master in Advanced Ecological Buildings & Biocities (MAEBB) program have committed to supplying the knowledge of the forest to the urban environment through design. Completing construction on two full-scale houses in just two years, MAEBB has thoroughly embodied the spirit of learning-by-making, demonstrating the value of putting design research to the test with built works.

This year’s project, designed and built by the class of 2019-2020 and the Valldaura Labs team in under 5 months, was constructed entirely from wood harvested within a 1km radius of the Green Fabrication Laboratory. The design of the project happened entirely under quarantine conditions, and emerges as an architectural response to the ongoing crisis. Intended for use as a quarantine cabin, the house can accommodate one occupant for 14 days, providing all material needs during self isolation.

The Voxel (Ecohouse V02 Prototype), or volumetric pixel, is a 12 square metre cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure made of Aleppo Pine (Pinus halepensis) that was milled, dried, processed and pressed on site at Valldaura.

The harvesting of these trees corresponds to a sustainable forestry mandate calling for the removal of 3% biomass per year from the park, which encourages the growth of new oak trees to spur biodiversity. The project exudes a deep respect for wood and a connectedness to the physical process that transforms living trees within an ecosystem into architectural materials finally assembled into a house.

By establishing a relationship with every step of the manufacturing process, the final result appears cohesively convincing; an homage to the rigor and love that goes into manifesting a full scale prototype. The most impressive aspects of this project come into focus when considering the constraints of the construction process: the build season lasted just 10 short weeks with an extremely tight budget and while under strict quarantine restrictions, delivery disruptions, limited access to tools and outside help due to the ongoing covid-19 crisis.

To supply the raw materials of the project, 40 pine trees were harvested and cut into 3cm boards and stacked to dry for three months. After they reached the proper humidity level, each board was taken into the Valldaura Labs carpentry to be processed into hundreds of pine lamellae. Each Lamella was then encoded into a specific sequence, tagged and pressed into 30+ structural CLT panels which were assembled into a 3.6×3.6m cube.

In a feat of obsessive commitment to locality and understanding the material flows of architecture, every lamella of every panel was tracked and traced, ensuring that every single wooden element of the house can be accurately traced back to the point where the tree it came from once stood. The panels were held together metal-free with lap joints and wooden dowels, inspired by a commitment to use less carbon intensive materials. The structure was then wrapped in a layer of cork insulation and mounted with an innovative series of rainscreen panels made from waste material created during the CLT production process. While processing raw pine boards to get perfectly rectangular lamelle, the organic edge of the board usually goes to waste. By reimagining this linear cycle of material selection and disposal into a more circular form, these off-cuts were turned into a facade that showcases the organic complexity of the tree that is usually hidden in most wooden constructions.

By advancing the design a step further, each off-cut was parametrically organized into a gradient that corresponds to functions within the cabin. Certain sections of the skin also extrude away from the cabin corresponding to metabolic components like water tanks and an outdoor shower.

The roof of the cabin features a series of garden boxes with elaborate joints milled with computer-numerical-control (CNC) machinery (no screws, no glue), which hold a variety of local plants and funnel rainwater into a collection tank below.

Valldaura Labs is known for its interest in exploring the limits of self-sufficiency, trying to provide for all living needs without relying too heavily on importation of goods or services. The Voxel strives for a similar independence to achieve its program as a quarantine cabin, made possible by a comprehensively designed water-energy-waste scheme. The cabin is equipped with three solar panels and an independent battery storage, specifically designed to power the lighting and devices for a single resident.

The water system incorporates both rainwater collection and grey-water recycling, as well as black-water treatment within a self-contained biogas system that generates usable cooking or heating fuel and sanitary fertilizer as by-products.

Now that the construction is complete, The Voxel stands as visceral proof of a forthcoming advanced and ecological architectural paradigm that uses hyper local materials and non-industrialized techniques. If extrapolated forward into our uncertain future, the Voxel stands for what might be possible within a less wasteful, more intentional relationship to architectural production. The cabin exudes a care and concern for the metabolic processes of production that extend far beyond its mere 12sqm footprint, inspiring future designers to imbue their work with a respect for where their materials come from, and what lessons the ecosystems that produce them have to give us.

Year Completed: 2020

Duration: 4 months

Site(s): Valldaura Labs, Barcelona, Spain

Coordinates: 41.450209° N, 2.133474° E

Budget: 12.000€

Parent Program(s): Master in Advanced Ecological Buildings & Biocities (MAEBB)

Directors: Vicente Guallart, Daniel Ibañez

Operations Manager: Laia Pifarré

Academic Coordinator: Michael Salka

Designers (MAEBB Students): Alex Hadley, Anfisa Mishchenko, Sena Kocao?lu, Camille Garnier, Dania Aburouss, Ester Camps Bastida, Filippo Vegezzi, Giada Mirizzi, Juan Gabriel Secondo, Maitri Joy Uka, Camila Fajardo, Nathalie Botbol, Shreya Sharma, Yue Zhang, Zhiqian Liu, Rafael Abboud, Irene Rodriguez Perez

Sponsors: Saltoki, Miogás, Mausa, Distribució Sostenible, Bestiario, Henkel, Cork 2000, Tallfusta

Consultants: Oscar Aceves, Miquel Rodriguez, Jochen Scheerer, Elena Orte, Guillermo Sevillano, Eduardo Chamorro, David Valldeoriola, Miguel Nevado, Jordi Prat, Gustavo Escudero

Volunteers: Bruno Ganem, Luis Leveri, Akshay Mhamunkar, Daniel Nahmias, Layth Sidiq, Kya Kerner

Photography: Adrià Goula