Materials for Future Buildings

The New European Bauhaus conference (22-23 April 2021) was inaugurated by a speech by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. She outlined an ambitious plan of challenges and changes that await us in the forthcoming years. Her speech probably surprised most of the participants – they were not prepared for such a bold statement. It seems that it’s time for decisive action that can really change the course. There is a lot of work to be done. It’s going to be difficult, but interesting and satisfying.

Von der Leyen put sustainability next to aesthetics and accessibility as a European development direction. Her speech leads us to the welfare state. This time is to take care not only of people but also of Nature.

In her speech, the President emphasises the role of building materials. She recalled that the historic Bauhaus promoted two new materials: steel and concrete. Meanwhile, it is time for us s to build using materials that release less carbon dioxide during production, preferably absorbing carbon. According to von der Leyen, the future belongs to building materials that are based on natural resources such as wood and bamboo. Materials that support the circular economy and decarbonisation.

Such a declaration from one of the most influential politicians and other officials set the direction for the entire Europe and sent a clear signal: we need a shift. 

An important voice in the material challenge, Björn Florman, founder of the Swedish Material Library in May 2020, said in an interview for dezeen:

Before we started to invent plastics made from fossil-based oil, we were already using bioplastics, and many of those plastic materials are the ones being perceived as ‘new’ today. They are not new, they have just been forgotten for 70 years or so.

Heterogeneous and perfect materials were one of Le Corbusier’s obsessions, which is probably why they entered the architect’s primer without any reservations. Today, the movement of searching for and producing new materials is gaining momentum.I’ll present a few projects and designers dealing with this topic.

Materiom is a platform that collects information about the new generation of materials and popularises their production. The collection contains recipes for materials that fit into the regenerative design and are made available on the basis of open knowledge. The creators of the platform emphasise that the production of the material should be available and possible in the kitchen, based on the raw materials available in the immediate vicinity. They remind us that materials can be produced from virtually anything, including agricultural ‘waste’. The materials that we find on the platform are at a low technological readiness level (so-called TRL3 or TRL4) – so far they do not have a fully defined function and we do not know their durability, abrasion, flammability, or actual environmental impact. Some of them are designed as a filament for 3D printers, for example, MS01, consisting of clamshells and alginate, or another made of eggshells and xanthan gum. I don’t know in which direction the platform will go, I’m waiting for more information about materials (durability, carbon footprint, abrasivity) and a critical look at the content, the road from TRL3 to TRL9 is long.

eco2block

Future Materials Bank is a platform initiated by the Nature Research Department at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, in collaboration with the Master’s Degree in New Materials at Central St Martins, London. Together, they look for non-toxic, biodegradable or sustainable alternatives to materials. The platform brings together 45 organisations related to art from Asia, Latin America and Europe, creating the Green Art Lab Alliance. Like the previous library, it’s under development and the materials contained there can’t be used for serial or mass production.

In Portugal, there are engineers and designers that have started working on alternative construction materials. For example, eCO2blocks is a carbon-neutral technology that looks to replace building blocks used in wall construction (today typically made of brick or concrete). A team of three scientists from Coimbra have been participating in programs called Climate Launchpad and Climate KIC to accelerate the introduction of their product to the market. Their material uses industrial waste to create new building materials.

As mentioned in the introduction, bio-materials are the most sought after. This is a very important signal for Portugal, where vernacular architecture could be characterized not only by the diversity of spatial forms but also by its use of materials. It has used both local stones and plant-based materials – principally fibers. Fibers use was closely connected to agriculture. Straw is a by-product of barley, wheat or rye production used for the production of flour. The biodiversity of agriculture has changed but huge amounts of so-called by-products become compost, although they could stay within the biological cradle-2-cradle production of thermal insulation, thatching or finishes. There is a great, undiscovered possibility for cooperation between the food and construction industries. 

Hempcrete blocks

Research on materials has been going on for a long time, but it seems that today, in the era of the climate crisis and subsequent declarations of the European Union (the Circular Economy Directive and the New European Bauhaus), its pace will increase. Architects and investors all around the world are looking for ‘new concrete’ and ‘new steel’. We still do not know about viable substitutes for some of the most frequently used materials such as OSB boards (which are toxic), GFRC panels,  etc. New materials are just waiting to not only be discovered but also used. Most importantly, this time we’re not looking for one magical solution, but for the diversity of alternatives that are connected with the local condition and resources.

Adrian Krężlik

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