Research into Reuse – Benefits multiply when art and science combine efforts

Christine Lee, a California-based artist and designer, first met FPL engineer John Hunt when she was an artist-in-residence in the University of Wisconsin Art Department’s wood program. Since then, their partnership has proven that great things can happen when art meets science.

Lee’s art often aims to reveal the hidden potential in discarded materials. While at the University of Wisconsin, she wanted to take the idea of reuse one step further, creating a work of art from waste materials and then using the waste from her art project to create yet another product.

Lee was familiar with FPL’s work, and Hunt seemed a natural fit for partnering, as much of his research revolves around using waste material as well. Working with material ranging from recycled cardboard to cow manure, there is certainly an element of creativity to his research, and Hunt was interested in seeing what an engineer and an artist could come up with together.

“It was great to work with Christine and get out of the ‘forest products’ mentality,” says Hunt. “She came to the project with a completely different viewpoint, and had fresh ideas about how things look, fit together, or might be used. It challenged me to think differently and opened up a whole new realm of possibility for the product we created.”

Lee began with a large supply of scrap wood that would usually be turned into mulch. Using specific woodworking machines, Lee used the scrap wood to create multiples of a building block inspired by her childhood experience with Lincoln Logs. She also collected the sawdust generated from her project, and separated it according to species.

The individual blocks are made of both solid wood and sawdust elements and feature interlocking notches. Lee fit the blocks together to create a large-scale suspended sculpture that is now on permanent display at the Madison Children’s Museum. The installation also includes blocks for children to create their own structures, and is titled “A Product’s By-product, A By-product’s Product.”

As for the collected sawdust, Hunt used the waste from Lee’s project to create a series of test panels. Made from sawdust and recycled paper pulp fibers, Hunt produced the panels using wet-forming and heat-pressing processes without the use of adhesives.

Hunt went on to evaluate the physical and mechanical properties of the binder-less boards, and he and Lee presented the findings of their collaboration at the Building Materials Reuse Association’s DECON 11 conference.

“It’s great that we were able to present a successful collaboration that worked across the disciplines of art, design, and engineering,” says Lee. “This feels like the right way to go in the future. If design students are introduced, early in their schooling, to the idea of science and technology behind design, that mix of perspectives greatly opens the potential of what they can achieve.”

Lee and Hunt plan on continuing their collaboration and further investigating uses for the panels they’ve developed. Potential uses include cabinetry and furniture products.

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Written by Rebecca M. Wallace, FPL Public Affairs Specialist