Structural Seaweed? Tech Is Helping Designers Create New Building Materials

An increasingly robust body of research, conducted by an emerging generation of architects and designers, points the way to new methods of building and making.

Courtesy Petr Krejci

When Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, he was speaking from the spectator’s point of view, not the magician’s. As our list of smart materials shows, technology solves difficult problems, but getting there requires more than just a wave of the magic wand. Each of the following projects looks past easy answers. Whether it’s a new way of looking at old problems, a new material that maximizes the efficiency of an old technique, or a new method to tap the potential of an abundant or underutilized resource, here are seven innovators who take technology out of the realm of science fiction.

3-D printing with salt, wood, and paper

New approaches to traditional ceramics

Converting construction waste into raw material

Innovations with seaweed

Thinking beyond warp and weft

Engineering energy-efficient building envelopes

Moving 3-D printing into the 4th dimension

3-D printing with salt, wood, and paper

The “Saltygloo” project is an igloo made of printed translucent modular salt panels. Courtesy Matthew Millman

“We weren’t that interested in 3-D printing,” says Ronald Rael, cofounder—with partner Virginia San Fratello—of Emerging Objects, a design and research company that develops new materials for 3-D printing. “But we’re both professors, so the technology was around. And we started experimenting.” San Fratello, a 2006 Metropolis Next Generation winner, and Rael, author of Earth Architecture, began with clay. “From there,” he says, “we moved on to sand-based aggregates, concrete mixtures, and then wood.”

Rael envisions entire built environments made by additive fabrication. Emerging Objects already offers a range of options, from durable cement polymer bricks in complex geometric shapes, to wood, chocolate, paper, salt, nylon, and acrylic. Its “Saltygloo”—an igloo made of modular salt panels—demonstrates how printed materials can create visual interest and add functionality to an interior space.

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With such a broad range of materials at their disposal, how do Rael and San Fratello identify one that merits further investigation? “We’re interested in sustainability,” Rael says. “The wood comes from industrial waste.” Their paper, too, comes from recycled newsprint. “And we’re interested in the subtle pieces of architecture—the material that engages your hand might be different from ones that engage your eye.” The wood and cement polymer can be fiber-reinforced for additional strength, and subjected to various finishes. “They’re really robust and beautiful,” Rael says. “There’s enormous potential in using these materials in newly flexible and sustainable ways.” —LKH

Ronald Rael and Anthony Giannini are developing 3-D printed paper, made from recycled newsprint. Courtesy Kent Wilson
The Seat Slug is a biomorphic interpretation of a bench inspired by the morphology of a new species of sea slugs discovered in California. It is made of 230 unique rapid-manufactured pieces. Courtesy Emerging Objects/Rael San Fratello
Emerging Objects’ 3-D printed wood is made from upcycled waste wood. The wood-grain appearance is a result of the additive fabrication process. Above: Two modular brick shapes printed from the 3-D printed wood.

Kristie van Noort

New approaches to traditional ceramics

A finished Color Collision side table Courtesy Kristie van Noort

Some designers are working to make materials smarter; product designer Kirstie van Noort focuses on making things more sensitive. Her Color Collision project, in collaboration with Rogier Arents, consists of porcelain tableware saturated in the juice of red cabbages, then carefully dipped into baths of varying pH. The effects are startling: the initially near-black vegetable dye is transformed, yielding earthy tones ranging from harvest gold to hooker’s green, as well as vermilion, cobalt, and purple. Recently, van Noort used the process on larger porcelain disks—side tables—in addition to plates, bowls, and cups.

Color Collision products are finished with a clear glaze and fired, but their raw clay undersides are left exposed, providing a link to another of van Noort’s projects, called 6:1. That ratio refers to the amount of waste that harvesting porcelain clay generates: every pure white kilogram (2.2 pounds) entails six kilograms (13.2 pounds) of detritus that’s left behind. 6:1 products are self-decorated, so to speak—trace amounts of beige and russet-colored clays make these place settings demonstrative ambassadors of the four UK mines their raw materials come from. —DM

A closer view of the dyed, glazed porcelain surface from van Noort’s Color Collision project
The colors in this tableware (below) result from what would be considered contaminants in porcelain production, like this iron-inflected terra-cotta.
6:1 products are made with the waste separated during the mining of white clay.


Converting construction waste into raw material

The StoneCycling process explained visually (just add heat). Courtesy Lisa Klappe/Design Academy Eindhoven

Pulverize, pressurize, and add heat: that’s how stone is made in nature. While studying at the Design Academy of Eindhoven, product designer Tom van Soest managed to mechanize the process, using a tub grinder and a kiln. The raw material comes from demolition and construction waste or manufacturing refuse—everything from bricks to solar panels—with no binders required. That means StoneCycling (the company van Soest founded with his partner, Ward Massa) products represent the possibility for a continuous, waste-free production cycle. A countertop could be reground to approximately the consistency of sand and cast anew, for example, as architectural roofing tiles.

Using waste as a raw material is smart in more ways than one. “We break the current process of recycling, which often means down-cycling,” says Massa. Their biggest challenge has been finding sufficiently well-sorted waste in large quantities, but partners willing to do the work necessary to supply “pure” materials are emerging. StoneCycling products are currently undergoing testing and further development ahead of commercial launch later this year. —DM

Pulverized construction waste, yielded from three kinds of reclaimed bricks All other images courtesy Stonecycling
Experimental architectural claddings, still under development, result from a variety of waste materials that would otherwise be landfilled

 Julia Lohmann

Innovations with seaweed

Installation view of Lohmann’s 2013 work Oki Naganode, made of Japanese Naga seaweed, at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Courtesy Petr Krejci

“I’ve been working for many years with undervalued materials,” says artist and designer Julia Lohmann, who has made lamps out of sheep stomachs and furniture out of soap. “The story of the material is part of where its value is determined. I find it strange that we kill an animal, and we eat some parts and some parts we wear—but with other parts, we say, ‘Ew, I’m not going to use that.’”

Her 2013 installation Oki Naganode, made of Japanese Naga seaweed, was inspired by her conversations with seaweed farmers she met during a residency in Japan. “I approach everything as a maker, so when I asked them, ‘What do you do with the seaweed?’ I was surprised when the answer was simply, ‘Oh, we eat it. That’s all we do with it,’” she laughs.

Seaweed filters toxins out of water—a problem when it is farmed solely for food. If used as a raw material, however, its life as a water purifier doesn’t detract from its later usefulness. Lohmann has pioneered treatments for seaweed that allow it to be used in furniture veneers or to remain flexible and translucent, like leather.

Lohmann counts Elinor Ostrom, the American economist whose work on common property won a Nobel Prize, as an influence. Kelp forests, she says, should be viewed as common goods: “Ostrom found that common goods tend to be governed really well. I would like to use that finding as the basis for a system where we pay each other back in knowledge.” —LKH

Seaweed as raw material
During the six months Lohmann was artist in residence at the V&A, she created the “Department of Seaweed,” a collective for makers to exchange ideas and techniques for new ways of adapting seaweed for use as a crafting material.
Various objects made of treated seaweed stretched over cane and aluminum frameworks in the Lohmann studio.

Textile Futures

Thinking beyond warp and weft

Biofuel production leftovers, like potato cell walls, are repurposable, yielding distinctive new plastics for the 10% & More project. Courtesy Ivy Wang

Ivy Wang’s 10% & More project, created during her studies in the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design Textile Futures program, realizes plastic polymers from the waste stream of potato biofuel production. That “10%” figure is the potatoes’ cell walls, which are useless as fuel but still starchy enough to make plastic from. Wang’s plastic, made in collaboration with Jurgen Denecke Research Lab at the University of Leeds, is reminiscent of Bakelite; she’s taking Studio Formafantasma’s work in reviving the ancient history of bioplastics into the twenty-first century. Like van Soest’s StoneCycling materials, or van Noort’s 6:1 tableware, the intelligence of Wang’s plastic comes from an innovative interpretation of an industrial waste stream.

Loekie Smeets, another Textile Futures graduate, takes a different tack: Her Smart by Nature designs are architectural materials that improve with age, without maintenance or upkeep. Brass hardware is installed on red brick that’s been striated with interconnected geometric channels. When the decorative flanges and bolts are wet by rain, distinctive turquoise-hued verdigris courses down through the brick channels, accreting gradually. The result is an aesthetically evolving exterior application that may look better 20 years after installation than it did when new. —DM

Cast brass lends a decorative verdigris to the red brick installations in the Smart by Nature project. Red brick installation images courtesy Loekie Smeets
Acid rain should only accelerate this architectural “improvement.”


Engineering energy-efficient building envelopes

A rendering of an EcoCeramic cladding system as it would appear on a Manhattan high-rise. Courtesy Kelly Winn and Berardo Matalucci, CASE RPI/SOM

Two recent projects developed by the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) use advanced materials rather than costly energy-draining systems to improve indoor environmental controls.  “We look at developing systems around problems and opportunities,” says CASE’s associate director, Jason Vollen. “The problem we face in many parts of the world is being able to regulate humidity levels with low energy. It’s better if you can do that with materials.”

Both the Building-Integrated Desiccant Materials (BIDS) and Advanced EcoCeramic Envelope Systems (EcoC) rely on the inherent thermodynamic and moisture-reducing properties of their materials to lower heat and humidity, allowing HVAC systems to run more efficiently. The concept of a building as an envelope is key for many CASE projects: “An enormous amount of energy is passing through the envelope, and what we’re trying to do is transform that energy. Then, ideally, we capture that energy for some other use,” Vollen explains, contrasting this with the conventional view of buildings as impermeable barriers that keep external forces out and control the climate inside—an approach that has inefficiency built into it. He cites the example, where “sometimes the air-conditioning goes on in winter, when you have perfectly good cold air outside.” EcoCeramic masonry creates a permeable barrier, using natural shade to cool air passing through. Both projects also reduce impact by utilizing abundant materials. “Silicon, aluminum—these are readily available,” Vollen says. “The raw materials that make up ceramics are produced naturally by the earth’s surface.” —LKH

A prototype of the cladding tile, printed using a plaster medium 3-D printer. The geometry was printed in quarters and then joined to produce positive geometries for casting molds for a final full-scale ceramic prototype.
Intelligent desiccant membrane with operable ventilative skin Courtesy Shane I. Smith, CASE RPI/SOM
Intelligent desiccant membrane permeable mesh
Intelligent desiccant membranes with capillary function

Skylar Tibbits

Moving 3-D printing into the 4th dimension

The Fluid Crystallization project involves 350 hollow spheres that self-assemble when placed in water, an experiment offering a glimpse at material phase changes between crystalline solid, liquid, and gaseous states. Fluid Crystallization images courtesy Skylar Tibbits, Arthur Olson, Autodesk Inc.

Momentum is building for rapid prototyping, but Skylar Tibbits isn’t necessarily impressed. “People are trying to make plastic, ceramic, metal—things that compare to today’s physical materials and products in terms of functionality.” Not that Tibbits dismisses 3-D printing. Rather, he asks: “Why can’t we use it to produce material structures that we couldn’t have produced in other ways?”

In the research lab he runs at MIT, Tibbits layers materials that respond to environmental cues in different ways, resulting in built-in functionality with a bewildering range of practical potential. He’s coined the term “4-D printing” to describe the process. “The idea behind 4-D printing was to push 3-D printing outside the static realm, to create active printed structures that can transform and reconfigure—change shape, appearance, and properties. Therefore, they become actuators, sensors, and physical computing devices.”

In practical terms, this means products that respond to external cues—tire treads that change shape on ice, or smart shoes that respond to track conditions. “One of the biggest hurdles in making smart devices is power,” he says. “You don’t want battery packs everywhere, wires running through everything. If you can print structures that transform on the fly, it’s a huge application.” —LKH

4D printing images courtesy Self-Assembly Lab, MIT, Stratasys Ltd., Autodesk Inc. Details of the 4-D Printed Cube and the 4-D Printed Truncated Octahedron. Because of the properties of the layered materials, the objects self-assemble.
A series of time-lapse images showing a 4-D printed self- folding 50-foot strand as it transforms in water.
The project in real time

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