Introduction: Emergent Insect Hotels

In this activity creators build insect hotels and place them on a structure that emerges out of their collective creativity. The piece is shaped by each creator's choices about what to put inside each hotel and where on the emerging structure to place it. The result is an art piece, built by collective creativity, that bugs live in.

This activity is part of research in collective creativity in the following areas:

* The balance between freedom for an individual to be creative and the need to maintain an aesthetic defined by a shared goal. In other words, an invitation to explore the infinite possibilities within a set of constraints, or #tinkering.

* Strategies to help groups imagine and model different futures together as they explore adjacent possibles.

You are invited to try this activity, refine and remix it, and share your results. Please link back to this piece in your documentation.

Step 1: Preparation and Materials

This activity is designed to be done with readily available materials and tools. All angles are cut at 108° (or 18° off center). Only the lengths of the sides of the pentagons vary, so it's easy to set your miter saw and quickly cut the pieces you need out of recycled pallet wood or any spare lumber you have available of the approximate dimension shown.


Miter saw

hand drill / drivers / pilot bits

clamps to hold jigs to the table


Each hotel uses approximately 60 cm of lumber for its sides, so the amount of wood you need depends on how many participants you will have and how many hotels you intend to make. Be sure to avoid treated lumber as that will kill the insects. If you are using wood from pallets make sure it's only been heat treated.

Screws and pilot drill bits (we used 3.5 cm screws with 2 cm thick wood)

Straw, tree bark, drilled slices of branches, and any other material suitable for insect hotels. Here's a page that lists some of them.

Step 2: Building the Jigs and Pre-Cutting the Wood

Since our intention is to make this activity easy for people without woodworking experience, we need to build a jig to hold the sides of the hotels in place while they pilot drill and then screw them together. How many jigs depends on how many participants you want to work with and on what time scale. (See the workflow section for help estimating how many jigs to make.)

The jig consists of a piece of scrap lumber cut into the shape of the inside of one of our pentagonal hotels mounted on a piece of plywood so the creator can build their hotel around it. We add some additional plywood strips to hold the hotel walls in place.

Using your miter saw, cut the inside pentagon shape out of a piece of large scrap wood or a few pieces of scrap screwed together. Use the dimensions shown in the image above x10 cm. (i.e. long sides are 16.2, medium sides 10, short side is 6.2.) Screw this onto a plywood base about 6 cm larger on all sides.

Now cut the first set of sides to make a hotel. The angles are all 108 degrees cut opposite for each piece, so what will be the inside face is longer than what will be the outside face (see image of cut lumber above).

(Longest face, each cut angles inward from that face)

* Two pieces 18.6 cm

* Two pieces 12.1 cm

* One piece 8.7 cm

Test the sides against your jig and make sure they fit well. Adjust dimensions as necessary for a good fit and note the final measurements for use pre-cutting pieces for your creators to use.

Put each side against the jig and trace with a pencil on the plywood base, so that your creators can see how to orient each piece of wood as they put it on the jig.

Cut small strips of plywood about 1 cm high for each side. These strips shouldn't extend all the way to the edges they are next to, otherwise they might get in the way of drilling and screwing the sides together (see image above with drill). Place your hotel sides against the jig and then nail the strips into the base against them so they hold the cut wood in place (snug but not too tight.)

During the activity, each jig workstation will need a small power drill (for drilling pilot holes and driving screws), a clamp to hold the jig tightly to the table while creators are drilling / screwing, pre-cut hotel side pieces, pilot hole drill bit, screws, and driver bits. In case it's difficult to remove a finished hotel from a jig, it's nice to have a small pry bar handy.

Using the dimensions that you determined fit well around your jig, cut however many hotel side pieces you will need for the total number of hotels you intend your creators to make (see workflow section for help estimating).

Step 3: Preparing the Filling Table

The filling table offers a selection of various materials insects like to live in which your participants will use to fill the wooden hotel "brick" they've screwed together at the jigs.

You can use bark, straw, twigs, small tree stumps with holes drilled in them, or anything else you can find recommended for insect hotels. Remember that the the only thing that holds these materials in place is compression, so your creators will have to stuff a lot of things tightly into their hotel.

It takes longer than one would think to fill a hotel with material in an interesting way, and the aesthetic results vary. So this is an area where the workshop design needs work. Some ideas to be explored that came from the past workshop:

* Put a few examples of beautiful, already stuffed hotels at the stuffing table to provide inspiration. As with any inspirational example, try to make it clear that they aren't to be copied mindlessly, or taken apart.

* Consider adding a backing of some sort - perhaps a wire mesh or weed cloth - to the back of the hotel. (Caution: This will make the hotel have a front and back, which limits the places where it can be attached to the collective structure. It's probably better to encourage people to make hotels that can be reversed depending on where the creator wants to place them onto the emerging sculpture.

If you make some nice examples or have ideas about how to make the activity better, please share them in the comments.

Step 4: At the Location of the Emergent Artwork

Choose a place against a wall that you can screw the sculpture into periodically as it grows. Build and fill a hotel yourself, and mount it to the bottom of the wall to form the seed of the artwork.

As your creators finish each hotel they will place it onto the collective sculpture. The only rule is that their hotel must be screwed onto the existing structure onto a hotel side of the same length. The whole structure should be anchored to the backing wall periodically for strength.

Since we want to enable people to imagine and share ideas, we created a system for "sketching" different patterns using cardboard tiles that can be placed around the existing structure. The tiles are made by laying a hotel frame on a piece of cardboard and cutting around it with a sharp blade. They can be attached to the structure with push pins or tape. Their purpose is:

1. To help creators imagine and discuss possible futures for the emergent structure together, so they can choose to place their hotel in a way that moves the entire structure in a direction they like.

2. To leave a record to communicate the vision for different possible futures across participants and time.

When it's time for a creator to place their insect hotel, the facilitator should be prepared to communicate the following:

1. The cardboard cutouts show how the last person imagined the structure could develop in a way that is beautiful. Consider it to be a suggestion: you don't have to follow it.

2. You can play with the cardboard tiles right now to imagine where you think the structure should go, and choose the most beautiful shape.

3. After you place your hotel, arrange the cardboard tiles in a way that you feel is beautiful as a suggestion for the next person who comes to place their hotel.

Step 5: Workflow and Facilitation During the Workshop

Each pair will move through 3 areas:

1. Screwing their hotel together at the jig.

2. Filling their hotel with their own selection of insect friendly materials at the filling table.

3. Adding their hotel onto the emergent structure (and exploring different possible futures).

It's possible to add other activities or work areas (for example: drilling holes in "stumps" or cut branches that can be placed in the hotels.)

Depending on how many jigs you have, you can start that many people at that area. For example, with 3 jigs, you can start 6 building hotels. If you screwed together 3 hotels before the start of the activity, you can have 6 more people begin at the filling table, and rotate to the jigs when one becomes available.

You might consider inviting them to make one insect hotel to take home with them.

Here are notes for introducing the activity to your creators:

**Introduction Outline / Notes:**
We are making collective art together, and you will shape that art with your choices. Our art is functional and provides a home for insects. You build the insect hotels and arrange materials inside in a way that you think is beautiful. You will decide where we attach each hotel you make onto the emergent art piece. They must connect on sides that are equal (demonstrate with two hotel frames).

The art you are making today will last for years: make your aesthetic choices thoughtfully, and in consultation with one another.

*(Begin Walking tour introducing participants to different work areas:)*

"Start at the jigs to screw together the outside shell....." (Show tools / etc.)

"Next you'll take your hotel to the filling table outside...." (Show materials, examples, how they might stuff them, etc.)

"Then you'll go to the site of our collective art piece, and choose where to attach it..." (Show cardboard tiles, imagined futures, emphasize they can choose, etc.)

"You can keep making hotels as time and materials permit.


Step 6: Future Possibilities...

This workshop is a prototype: we welcome your input and help refining it, especially when it comes with pictures from when you ran it.

An additional possibility we are still exploring is to make some of the hotels into planters. We tried this by stapling weed cloth against one end, filling it with soil, and then stapling over it again. Then we cut small Xs in the cloth and insert plants. The challenge is that they will need to be watered somehow; we're working on that.

One facilitation question that remains is how to set the right tone for the decision about where to place one's hotel. It's not often people are invited to build lasting public art in a workshop. Setting the right tone should encourage both the reflection in process and outcome. But that's tricky to do well.

This activity was developed by Amos Blanton and Anders Bruun at Skibet Makerspace. Thanks to @tesselationfan for sharing inspiration and information about tesselating (and non-tesselating) shapes on his excellent website.