5 Futuristic Materials That Could Reshape Architecture and Design

While technology has always been a double-edged sword when it comes to sustainability and equity, it also holds the key to ameliorating pressing environmental challenges.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Green Charcoal, designed by Meenal Sutaria and Shreyas More Courtesy the designers

While technology has always been a double-edged sword when it comes to sustainability and equity, it also holds the key to ameliorating pressing environmental challenges. A rising generation of materials engineers and designers are engaging these questions with renewed urgency, examining the nexus of nature and technology to develop more sustainable architectural products. Blaine Brownell, author of the Transmaterial book series (Princeton Architectural Press), currently in its fourth edition, has studied and cataloged emergent building materials, their applications, and their impacts. Here, he selects and discusses five innovative prototypical materials that stand to shape the future of construction.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Green Charcoal Courtesy the designers

Apart from its sheer ubiquity, concrete suffers from more technical challenges. Its conventional steel reinforcement, for one, is prone to rusting, which weakens the overall composite. And concrete in general is difficult to recycle, given the mechanical effort needed to convert it into a rudimentary aggregate for reuse. Meenal Sutaria and Shreyas More, of the Indian School of Design & Innovation in Mumbai, have devised an alternative composite with a distinct attention to circularity. The new material is a non-steel-reinforced building block composed of charcoal, loofah fibers, loam, cement, and air—each with its own advantages. The porous charcoal imparts a lightness to the unit while adsorbing air pollutants. The organic loofah strands reinforce the composite, while loam functions as an elastic binder. The loam also maintains a stable pH value conducive to plant growth—enabling the biocompatible, fully recyclable block to support living ecosystems on its surface. Although still in its prototype stage, the module has broad potential applicability in nonstructural partitions and biodegradable landscape walls.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Aerographene Courtesy the designers

First came aerogel, then aerographite. Today, the lightest synthetic foam is aerographene—a porous, elastic substance composed of carbon nanotubes enveloped in graphene, a form of carbon that is one of the strongest known materials. In fact, aerographene is the lightest known material, with a density of 160 g/m³. To put this number in perspective, the density of air at sea level and 15°C is 1,225 g/m³—over seven times as dense. So does aerographene float in air? Although the spongelike substance can be easily supported on delicate grasses, it does not levitate because its cells are filled with air. Nonetheless, aerographene represents a remarkable achievement in the ever-advancing pursuit of superlight materials. Developed by researchers at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, the substance mimics building-size space frames, albeit in a microscaled three-dimensional matrix supported by relatively little substance. Because of aerographene’s ultra-porous composition, it can absorb oil equivalent to 900 times its weight, making it ideal for remediating petroleum spills. In the context of construction, the lightweight and permeable material can also be used in composite and insulating building materials.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Recy-Block Courtesy the designers

MATERIAL: Recy-Block
DESIGNER: Gert de Mulder

Plastic represents one of the most challenging environmental problems. Most petroleum-based polymers are designed to persist long after their functional lives—think single-use plastic bags—and many eventually end up in the world’s landfills and oceans. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the United States uses 100 billion such bags annually, only 1 percent of which are recycled. One estimate predicts that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the seas than fish, calculated by weight. Inspired to take action, Dutch product and industrial designer Gert de Mulder developed a way to transform discarded polyethylene bags into modular bricks for construction. She collects and cleans the bags, then places them in a mold and subjects them to compression and heat. The resulting Recy-Blocks are 24 x 12 x 4–6-inch (60 x 30 x 10–15-cm) solid units that retain the colorful patterns from the bags’ previous lives—a visual reminder of an unwanted fate avoided.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Photo.Synth.Etica Courtesy the designers

MATERIAL: Photo.Synth.Etica
DESIGNERS: ecoLogicStudio (Claudia Pasquero and Marco Poletto)

The October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change spelled impending doom for the world’s ecosystems, warning that only 12 years remain to keep global warming to a maximum temperature increase of 1.5°C. Such assessments, while alarming, can have a paralyzing effect on the design community as it struggles to revise polluting material practices. The London-based firm ecoLogicStudio has long been enamored of microalgae harvesting as a means of reducing humanity’s environmental impact and reliance on nonrenewable material and energy sources. Its latest project, titled Photo.Synth.Etica, is a bioplastic architectural textile infused with a circulatory network of living algae. Conceived as a visible public facade and installed on the Printworks at Dublin Castle for the 2018 Climate Innovation Summit, the 32 x 7-meter bioactive urban curtain captures one kilogram of CO2 daily—roughly the amount sequestered by 20 mature trees. The algae, which also absorb air pollution, can be harvested later for biomass to produce new bioplastic—thus closing the material loop. The intervention is broadly applicable and promises to be even more effective in climates sunnier than Dublin’s.

Transmaterial advanced materials design architecture
Programmable Cement Courtesy the designers

MATERIAL: Programmable Cement
DESIGNER: Rouzbeh Shahsavari

With over 10 billion tons produced annually, concrete contributes—by some estimates—about 10 percent of global CO2 emissions. The primary culprit is cement, concrete’s principal ingredient, which requires energy-intensive processing. Rice University materials scientist Rouzbeh Shahsavari developed a way to modify the microscopic structure of cement to enhance its mechanical performance, minimizing the amount required. Recognizing that traditional cement is composed of randomly arranged clay and limestone particles, Shahsavari hypothesized that a more orderly, “programmable” structure could lead to a more effective and efficient material. Introducing to the mix a combination of calcium silicate and ionic surfactants—which are more amenable to orderly arrangements—Shahsavari was able to create regularly arranged seed particles that influenced the surrounding material’s organization. The resulting cement is stronger and less porous, allowing a reduction in the total amount of concrete needed.

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