rendering of an architectural project
Filter Cake Cob by Felix Sagar. Courtesy Healthy Materials Lab

The 2022 Role Models Contest Marries Innovative Material Design with Practical Application

Designed to disrupt, the global student competition yields its most viable material solutions yet.

Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab, built on its tradition of experimentation and material excellence, has attracted their most robust crop of submissions to date for its seventh annual Role Models Contest. Pouring in from seven countries, the roughly 75 entries were submitted by students with backgrounds ranging from architecture and industrial design to bioscience and psychology. But all of the projects challenge commercial, marketplace standards with exemplary innovation.  

While all submissions consider the environmental and social implications of material construction, the most remarkable demonstrate cross-disciplinary thought with solutions that are a hybridization of technical applications. Befitting the moniker “disruptor,” these radical projects have the potential to be scaled from local to global communities, impact a variety of markets, and advocate for just labor practices. 

“Many of this year’s contestants demonstrated clear thinking about social and environmental justice intertwined with material health––many aimed to solve multiple problems with their design proposal,” says Jonsara Ruth, design director at the Healthy Materials Lab. “The winners’ material innovations were part of proposing systemic changes.” 

image of a material prototype
Courtesy Healthy Materials Lab
rendering of an architectural project
Filter Cake Cob by Felix Sagar. Courtesy Healthy Materials Lab

Grand prize winner Felix Sagar presented Filter Cake Cob, a chalk-based regeneration system. Using the defunct Shoreham Cement Works building in Sussex county, England as a model Sagar proposes using materials diverted from the local waste stream to rehabilitate dilapidated buildings. This particular solution utilizes “waste chalk filter cake” mixed with straw to make new walls for the derelict space. 

The infill strategy requires a precise sequencing of subtraction and addition, a bespoke tailoring to what still stands. In this case, asbestos is removed, the foundation fortified with limecrete, and the walls carefully reconstituted with a concoction of chalk cob applied to the cotton-wrapped beams. Additionally, Sagar proposes turning the renovated space into a technical school for chalk cob construction to educate future craftsmen while stimulating local industry and disrupting waste streams. Though the solution presented here is site-specific, the regenerative process promises broader applications to post-industrial communities.  

The prospect of regenerative materials is also present in Grand prize-winning Cocua, by Diana Marcela Romero Millan. The plant matter and its namesake are derived from the pith of the Colombian Arboloco plant––a spongy white tissue lining the rind of plants like citrus fruits. It is an unexplored Andean resource whose manufacturing processes and practical application have not been documented, until now. The project proves this underutilized, bio-based material is a viable plastic replacement. 

The vegetation boasts fast growth, short collection cycles, and expedient renewal, which has the potential to increase profit margins for producers. Cocua can be made into simple blockboard material or formed into more complex agglomerated mixtures without requiring toxic binders commonly used in manufacturing for practical applications all the while demonstrating sound-insulating and heat resistant properties.  

These innovations have the potential to satisfy a desperate need for––even make lucrative––healthy materials in an industry driven by the bottom line. Ruth concludes, “Students are no longer simply creating something novel in their kitchen sink. They are showing projects that not only experiment with a material but also propose provocative applications using it.” 

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