Final Report: Waste Information Modeling (WIM) for Construction of the Built Environment

EPA Grant Number: SU834341
Title: Waste Information Modeling (WIM) for Construction of the Built Environment
Investigators: Beorkrem, Christopher , Gardner, Ronna , Mattison, James , Polyakov, Igor , Scott, Jeff
Institution: University of North Carolina at Charlotte
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2009 through August 14, 2010
Project Amount: $10,000
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2009) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The primary question of our inquiry asks, how can the building and construction industry more readily employ the use of non-toxic industrial by-products in the creation of innovative building design?

According to the EPA, in 2007 over 164 million tons of construction and demolition waste was deposited in landfills. The industry’s standard construction methods makeup a large portion of this waste and are often a product of the software used to design them. Additionally, we know many industries produce large amounts of excess material (typically considered waste) that can be collected and re-used.

The technical challenge of our hypothesis is that reused industrial by-products or other recycled goods are typically limited by our ability to imagine how to assemble these objects into a building form. We are seeking to capitalize on a series of technical advances in design fields to create systems able to efficiently model and test remaindered objects. Parametric software modeling creates systems defined not by Cartesian coordinate systems, but by linkages and constraints between geometry. By their nature parametric systems do not have a specific solution but are capable of accommodating a range of possibilities.

The primary scope of the investigation involved the geometric analysis and modeling of recycled industrial waste and the prototyping of assembly methods using digitally manufactured supports and connections. By recycling industrial by-products, which pose no health hazards, we will demonstrate that sustainable design practices can effectively mitigate waste and demonstrate new methods by which design and construction may contribute to our local communities.

Building1 Napier, Tom. "Construction Waste Management." Whole Building Design Guide. 15 June 2007. US Army Corps of Engineers 11 Apr. 2008

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

Using various sources outlined in our Phase I proposal we sought out and collected a variety of large-scale recycled goods to experiment with as alternative building materials. We digitally modeled their material, physical, and structural properties. Through this analysis we determined that the use of 40” X 48” shipping pallets had the most merit, for proving our concept. We came to this conclusion for a myriad of reasons:

  • Pallets are readily available behind most any retail store. They are so prolific that they are often resold for far less than the value of their component parts.
  • Pallets have unique material properties, they are capable of functioning as a structural diaphragm, transferring loads uniformly across their surface.
  • Through our analysis we determined that we could maximize the form of a roof structure constructed of pallets, while minimizing the customized componentry.

Our intention was to maximize the formal capabilities of the pallet through a simple set of structural components manufactured using computer numerically controlled (CNC) or robotic machinery and parametric models.

The most significant hurdle we engaged was that there existed no apparent digital method for mapping fixed sized objects across complex surfaces. This problem would determine the success of this project and has long frustrated designers using digital tools. It is not simply to translate geometry onto a surface but it is that we were searching to limit the relationships between edges of those objects. Working with Gehry Technologies, we explored many different methods based both in geometric definitions and by using smaller fixed edges of each component to define relationships. The final process we developed was comparatively simple, using triangular relationships to map our fixed dimensions across the surface.

We used the premise that if we know the lengths of the sides of a pallet, and therefore its diagonal, we could trace two circles across the surface by intersecting spheres with radii equal to the length of each side of the pallet. The intersection of the two circles is the location of the end of the hypotenuse. Triangulating fixed sized objects across the surface allows us to trace any other set of geometry across the entire surface (Image 2).

We could use this method to translate any fixed sized object across a complex shape. This process is at the core of the progression of this research and has implications for many other possible relationships within architecture. Complex surfaces in architecture have previously been defined by creating individually defined pieces of a surface, which together define the surface. Now we are capable of using the material qualities of a “building block” to constrain and define EPA Agreement Number: SU834341 3 the formal qualities of a buildings surface. We can now make complex surfaces for design without the mass-customization of each building component (Image 3).

By testing this process with recycled components we are demonstrating that a building can create novel and expressive forms while using the most mundane or most available materials. We used the premise and funding of this grant to provoke this research, but also to test this idea. A computer simulation of a building does not in and of itself prove constructability. We are proving this idea by constructing a full-scale installation of this project.

We sought out a partner in the community and found one in the McColl Center for the Visual Arts in Downtown Charlotte, NC. They are providing us with a site to install a 300 square foot permanent pavilion constructed using our system.

Though the primary building block is the shipping pallet we have worked to use recycled products throughout the mockup installations (Image 4) and in the final installation. We have used recycled steel from our local salvage yard, piece Foil’s Inc. to create the structural system for the pavilion. We wanted to minimize the amount of custom components that were to be cut. We used only a single 2’ X 6’ sheet of ¼” thick mild steel, welded to 40” lengths of 3” steel angle (Image 5 + 6). Each of these custom beams functioned as not only a structural device, but also as a method for mapping the construction process. Built into the geometry of each beam are all of the angular relationships between each bay of the pavilion.

We worked with one of our region’s top engineering firms, who worked pro-bono, to develop a clear structural diagram for the project. We have worked with our local code and zoning enforcement to obtain permissions and a construction permit. We have worked with local contractors to get materials and equipment rentals donated.

We have intended to construct each of the proposed projects in our local community, to prove the functionality of each system, but also to engage our local community in a substantive discussion about the nature of sustainability and technology. Additionally, we wanted to see the resources and energy that were directed to each of the projects rendered in a way that can provide years of enjoyment and benefit for a community in need. We have spent the year developing the relationships and framework for a second project.

Our second project is a rain collection system and pavilion located in a community garden at Oakhurst Elementary School on the east side of Charlotte, NC. We have spent the year meeting with and listening to the neighborhood organization developing what we hope will be a strategic alliance. The neighborhood is extremely grateful to have the opportunity to work on such a project and to have it as a centerpiece of their community garden.

This project will be constructed of salvaged 55- gallon steel drums. We used a trigonometric analysis for digitally translating these fixed objects across a complex surface, in a system, which would create a sunshade device and water collection system for the community garden. We have prepared this project through the schematic design phase, and are ready to use this site as the proving ground for our next project should this grant be funded further.


We have succeeded in developing a clear and repeatable process for deploying fixed objects across complex surfaces. This strategy is one that is potentially useful for exploring how other products or waste of our culture can now be reconsidered as possible building blocks for design. When this process is linked with parametric software we can create models for alternative BIM (Building Information Modeling) systems which are no longer tied to major manufacturers, but which could now be used to define building systems constructed of ANY object.

We will have tested this premise through the construction of a 300 square foot pavilion made of shipping pallets, on the site of one of our cultural centers in Charlotte, NC. This permanent installation will serve as an example within our community to provoke discussion about the integration of complex technologies with recycled products. Additionally, the final installation will serve as a proven test of the process we have implemented.

Supplemental Keywords:

Building Information Modeling, Alternative Materials, Recycled

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract