Ever heard of light-transmitting cement, luminescent gravel or energy-harvesting and light-distributing curtains? Every week, architect and sustainable material researcher Blaine Brownell has been surprising us with his newsletter presenting clever materials that make intelligent use of existing resources through new technologies for green building. Eventually, this became a compilation of the same name. Two years later, he presents the follow-up, called Transmaterial 2: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Physical Environment: From repurposed materials that act as surrogates, to recombinant ones that fuse several materials into a hybrid, making them stronger and more effective — Blaine points us to products that might shape our physical environment in the future. Brownell, also teaching at the University of Michigan, is currently in Tokyo on a field trip with his students in collaboration with the Tokyo University of Science. And he was happy to come by our office for tea and a chat!
Written by Yariv Revah
Blaine Brownell in front of Ginza’s lights in Tokyo. Photo by Steve West
I studied architecture and practised in the field for over a decade, and I believe this experience has been essential because of my exposure to the exploding number of innovative building materials. During my early years of practice, I had a chance to research materials for a prominent project and was impressed by the challenges as well as opportunities associated with this task. I immediately saw a need to share this — which typically gets archived when a project is completed — with a larger audience of architects, designers, contractors, etc. I began an electronic journal and database, which quickly became popular with a growing audience of material enthusiasts who have given generous feedback. Over time, I have been able to appreciate the critical trajectories of material development as a result.
The current trend of sustainable materials and green building methods aren’t so new. As early as the 1950s, Pierre Koenig created glass houses with steel structures, that used passive cooling and solar heating techniques to create energy efficient buildings. Why has the discipline for green building taken so long to develop?
Putting an end to motorway noise pollution — and purifying: The superABSORBER consists of photocatalytic cement. Applied to the surface of a sound-barrier wall it can reduce airborne pollution. Word! From Transmaterial 2, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Although Europe and Japan are largely ahead of the curve, the United States has struggled with the development of sustainable building practices since the softening of the 1970s oil crisis that initiated much of the initial interest in green architecture in this country. I think the primary challenge to sustainable design is the fact that it has been viewed primarily as a long-term intellectual proposition without immediate economic benefit, and the relatively cheap cost of petroleum has made it nearly impossible to convince industries to consider other alternatives.
Very true! Alex Steffen speaks in his Worldchanging — A User’s Guide to the 21st Century of the world’s natural resources as our ecological capital, saying that the ultimate bankruptcy will not land us in a state-run old people’s home ― it’ll land us in a world of deserts, hunger and freaky weather. Can the employment of sustainable materials and energy conservation methods save us from such a harsh reality?
I believe Alex’s prediction is correct at certain scales. Remember that the world is already witnessing increasing desertification, hunger and bizarre climate changes today. While I don’t see the kind of overnight, global changes suggested by Hollywood to occur anytime soon, we have to face the discouraging truth about accelerating environmental degradation and act quickly to prevent it. Since buildings comprise roughly half of the problem in terms of energy use and emissions, vastly improved materials, construction methods and energy use should help significantly.
Any examples where architects have made full use of green materials and energy conservation methods to build futuristic sustainable masterpieces?
It’s a pity your question isn’t easy to answer, because all of the qualities you mention rarely occur at once. The phrase full use of green materials and energy conservation methods is an especially difficult goal, and in a sense a moving target. However, projects that come to mind include Shigeru Ban’s paper-tube structures and Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio constructions.
You mentioned Europe and Japan before in terms of green building. Since you do a lot of your research in Japan, are Japanese architects following suit?
Europe has arguably the most sophisticated and widely implemented green building legacy within the developed world. However, Japan is intriguing for its maximisation of incredibly limited resources, as well as its different cultural attitudes towards sustainability. Many Japanese architects practice sustainable design in Japan without necessarily labeling it as such, making the most of limited space and resources with highly imaginative solutions. China is attempting to become a leader in sustainable development, but faces many struggles along the way…
Still, there are so many ways for a product to be green, from how efficiently they recycle (see downcycling) to a reduction in transportation distance… Which green methods are being overlooked?
Embodied energy, water consumption and CO2 emissions related to production are often overlooked. Also, many green materials focus on one sustainable feature when multiple features could be combined, such as energy generation and environmental remediation.
Now, let’s get to your Transmaterial compilation! Would you explain the title, please?
A wristphone made of “Bioplastic.” Photo by NEC Corporation. From Transmaterial 2, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
The title is a conflation of the words transformational materiality, and the book is the second volume of materials that have significant potential in shaping the physical environment through design innovation.
Can you give us a general overview of the categories in the book that green materials fall into?
Ultraperforming materials attempt to push conventional performance boundaries; multidimensional materials enhance structural depth in order to maximise resources; repurposed materials are surrogates for more precious, conventional resources; recombinant materials are hybrids in which the sum exhibits superior characteristics to individual components; intelligent materials employ creative structural and formal ideas for enhanced environments; transformational materials undergo change based on environmental stimuli; and interfacial materials explore digital processes and fabrication.
Thanks! That was a lot. When flipping through the compilation, there are so many stunning new materials and methods. Name some of the breakthroughs, please!
The term often used is disruptive technologies — a title that suggests radical departures as opposed to incremental developments. One focus is materials whose behaviour conflicts with our traditional understanding — such as bendable concrete, transparent ceramics, or exfoliated graphite nanoplatelets. Another focus considers materials imbued with biomimetic qualities, like self-healing polymers, strong enviroboard, and active protection system. Another focus considers environmentally remediating materials such as Italcementi, Superabsorber, and Reben. Yet another focus relates to digital fabrication innovations, such as the Ombrae system, intaglio composites, and Erwin Hauer Continua.
You speak of materials and products that have unique phenomenological effects. Explain, please!
What I mean here concerns materials that generate unconventional responses when interacted with — such as the light-bending properties of Sensitile or the colour and pattern-changing qualities of Living Surfaces.
It’s great to learn of these new materials! To get practical, is there any hesitancy among designers and architects to use these innovations for the first time? If someone wants to experiment with translucent cement, how will they know how to lay it properly?
There is definitely reluctance, especially given the litigious nature of the construction industry here in the United States. In order to explore the use of a new material, the designer or architect you mention does not act alone. The design and construction team, including the client and even code officials, must participate in the decision to study a new material together — a process that includes mock-ups and performance testing to ensure desired outcomes.
Finally, apart from your site, what would you recommend for further reading?