photo in museum with red overlay

MATERIALS: A New Age of Material Invention is Dawning

This essay was originally published in 33.3 This Point in Time, the fourth Opacity series publication chronicling HDR’s design excellence initiative and our annual design review where outside critics assess work from our global offices. 33.3 includes the voices of six prominent design journalists and critics who reflected on fundamental design principles: context, form, materials, program, space, and sustainability. Like the Opacity initiative itself, the essays are intended to foster dialogue and discourse, sometimes challenging the very essence of conventional precepts in order to advance critical thinking. The following essay explores what it will take for the stewards of the built environment to drive significant advancements in the design and use of materials.

The Industrial Revolution started in the 1700s, and by the late 19th century, it was on steroids. Its dust — pollution as we came to call it — settled on cities. Everyone, especially children, living in dense, urban areas experienced its adverse effects. Photographers and filmmakers documented the murky skies and thick air. It was hard to ignore the looming health (and economic) crisis. Eventually, this crisis would lead to the clean-up of emissions from power plants and transportation systems.

The visible change from murky to bright skies seemed monumental in 1963, when Congress passed the Clean Air Act. In reality, we knew, even then, how small and incremental this response was to a challenge we were yet to understand in its full magnitude: Our actions, and the materials we use, are poisoning the Earth, its atmosphere, and the creatures, including us, that inhabit it. We’ve known for some time that fossil fuels are incredibly damaging. Yet, even as scientists warned, for decades, that our reliance on coal, oil, and gas was wreaking havoc on the planet, we were too busy celebrating the always “new and improved” products of chemistry labs and believing that they could save humanity and our environment.

As catastrophic storms, fires, and floods visit nearly every corner of our fragile planet — and leave enormous emotional and financial burdens in their wake — citizens protest anti-environmental legislation and worried children mobilize to let everyone know about the bleak future they face. Yet, these important actions rarely get to the heart of the problem: the built environment. Buildings, alone, contribute at least 40 percent of all greenhouse gases choking the Earth.

The materials used in buildings and furnishings have received some serious evaluation by design professionals, particularly as the wellness movement has gained traction in society. Following its humanist standards, the design community continues to develop Health Product Declarations (HPDs), which list materials’ ingredients and their associated hazards. HPDs have been created for some 5,000 products. Yet the complexity and behavior of synthetic products remain difficult to grasp. For instance, antimicrobials, designed to protect humans by killing other living organisms, are found in countless products, from household cleaners and clothing to building and furnishing materials. For some time now, antimicrobials have been known to be harmful to our health, yet they represent a thriving industry which puts its worth at $4.5 billion by 2020.

At the same time, Nature’s clean energy sources — sun, wind, and geothermal — have progressed considerably. Industrial-looking panels have evolved into elegant solar curtain walls; wind turbines are programmed to talk to each other for maximum efficiency; and geothermal power, where accessible, is used to complete the Earth-friendly energy picture. Increasingly, Nature is acclaimed as the supreme intelligence and a bountiful source of clean materials and processes.

Flax, for example — a fiber crop that grows around the world — has been used to weave linens since the ancient Egyptians. It was nearly wiped out of existence by high-performing synthetics. Now a serious revival of this age-old plant, with its fiber-rich stalks, is underway, initially fueled by the cannabidiol (CBD) craze. CBD supplements and unguents are made with linseed oil, a flax seed product, and the remaining stalks are collected and spun into sturdy yarns for weaving. This process, which brings seemingly unrelated businesses together, supports the critical discourse around the circular economy.

Circular economy thinking goes something like this: Nature doesn’t throw things away, only humans do. Nature uses up every molecule of decaying organics as nutrients to nourish life, both existing and emergent. For a circular product to succeed, it must be designed with non-toxic materials and be produced by manufacturers who both value their labor force and work with regional distributors. Once the product reaches the end of its useful life, it is recycled — a translation of Nature’s closed-loop approach.

A sign of this thinking about products and materials can be read in job ads for industrial designers, as manufacturers search for “systems thinkers.” Like the rest of us, factory owners have seen the massive quantities of single-use plastics churning in the Pacific Gyre — polluting edible aquatic life and beaches, piling up on trash heaps. Yet even with such graphic evidence of the malfunctioning industrial system, the old ways persist. What will it take for the stewards of the built environment to organize and create as only the design and architecture community can materials, processes, and built spaces that are beautiful, systemic, and safe?

Incomplete, and, yes, faulty approaches to product design are everywhere. For instance, when linens are shipped across the oceans, designers who specify the material violate the ethos of sustainability — sourcing within a 100- to 500-mile radius of a project. This begs the question: How can a large design firm, working on significant projects for increasingly climate-aware clients, advocate for family farms and local workshops? This localized approach requires a system of mindful purchasing that goes beyond the handsome product and stays within budget. It assumes the design community’s active participation in solving the pressing problems of our time.

Experiments with products formed by Nature’s processes are increasing in number and importance. For instance, there’s now experience with growing bricks, wall boards, and furniture from Mycelium. This promising material is a product of mushroom roots thriving in decomposing organic matter, in dark and damp tunnels. The familiar phrase from the recent sustainability movement, “Waste equals food,” still rings true.

Initiatives in which architects collaborate with university research labs are increasingly worth watching. One inspiring example can be found at the Tulane School of Architecture, where Dean Iñaki Alday kicked off the 2019–20 year with ten ambitious research studios. The mandate: Explore, in depth, humanity’s existential concerns by focusing on the built environment. One studio, for instance, focuses on how precast concrete and advanced fabrication technologies can be deployed to help manage urban stormwater. Another studio explores how mass timber can be used to construct low-scale residential buildings in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf South region. Another examines New Orleans’ coastal location and what future architects can learn from historic waterside or water-anchored dwellings that respond to climate and culture, rather than ignoring or even fighting these conditions. Thus, the amnesiac approach of the modern dogma is interrogated.

Designers have a long history of successfully exploring local and regional materials, skills, and methods, along with responses to climate, culture, and ecology — elements that form the unique ethos of each place. Even as numbingly similar glass tower clusters scrape the skies, from Austin to Ahmedabad, a new age of invention is dawning.

And so, it may be useful to remember the words of Gunnar Birkerts, the Latvian-American architect who settled in the Midwest and built modern structures there, as well as in far-flung places, from New York State to Venezuela. A few years before he died at the age of 92, he clearly recalled his own role in creating the modernist ethos: “We had to invent everything,” he told a group of skeptical architects in Boston. Can we, in good conscience, keep ignoring the wisdom of our fathers?