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What Are Your Materials Saying About Your Project?

Just putting a sign on a building to signify it is green is a missed opportunity, says Blaine Brownell, ARCHITECT's resident materials columnist.

By Katie Weeks, Former Chief Editor, Sustainability, for Hanley Wood Media

Given your extensive background researching cutting-edge materials and processes, tell us a bit about how you currently see environmental concerns influencing material and product development.

I think environmental concerns obviously affect material development and have been instrumental on a large scale. It was probably less than a decade ago that the tide really shifted and we crossed a critical threshold. Around 2005, I remember having a conversation with Alex Steffen [o-founder of]. We were chatting about environmental concerns and how LEED and other movements that were taking hold, and he said that he felt things had changed. Prior to that, he said, the green movement was advocated by a smaller, marginalized audience that was yelling from the sidelines that we needed to do something. Around 2005, it seemed that the larger population in the U.S. was suddenly asking these people on the sidelines, “Ok, what do we do?”

It’s remarkable when you think about it now because we entered a time when it seemed like every form of major media had something about the environmental movement on its cover. That was a major shift. But it’s not to say that we don’t still have work to do. We’ve only just now realized what we really have to do.

You not only study materials and products themselves, but also their application. How have you seen innovative materials transform the way we design and build structures?

This is a passion of mine. One of the things that irritates me is when you see a home by a well-intentioned builder, contractor, or architect that has a little plaque or sign out front that says, “This is a green home.” But you can’t tell that it has all these great features—and that’s a missed opportunity. Having been through the architectural academic experience and been trained to think like a designer, to think critically about how we represent things via the materials we use and the shapes they assume, I have to say: What a huge missed opportunity.

Architecture is physical stuff, right? So it represents our technologies and material ambitions. It’s absolutely essential that we innovate through application and not just the materials themselves. You can have the newest, coolest material, but if you hide it or misuse it, you’ve lost an opportunity.


To me, the frustration is that we have this opportunity to be much more environmentally responsible and that, in turn, is an opportunity to reshape buildings. What an opportunity to use new and old materials in fresh ways and potentially make new programmatic relationships and shapes. What if we told clients, “Well, I know it’s unusual, but here’s why: We’ve decided to take the whole roof and make it a storage tank for stormwater.” It’s a great reason to be different and innovative.

The way that a lot of U.S. architects practice is that they start schematically and address the details when they get to them, usually toward the end of a project. What if they thought about the details up front? They would have the whole project to think about details and how materials come together.

One of the challenges we face right now is that the environmental movement is still largely a technical enterprise that has not been sufficiently integrated with artistic, cultural, or theoretical enterprises.

Is this why we still have to answer the question of whether you can have a gorgeous building or a green building?

Definitely. Recently, I was speaking with James Garrett, a local architect. He claims that the a main driver of his practice is integrating sustainability, technology, and art. You need to have all three of these because if you think exclusively in one area, you get into trouble.

So we should think beyond singular applications.

When I’m looking at an application that is really on the fringe, I wonder, what can we do? For example, I was in contact with an Arup engineer about the BIQ House in Hamburg, which has a bioreactive façade. Those types of experiments are incredibly interesting. Some firms are really putting their heads together around the fascinating idea of the building envelope as a living material and active agent. [On this house,] the vertical panels used on the curtainwall seem more conventional from a distance, but then you realize they are full of algae that are harvesting light. When they bloom during the time of the most intense sunlight, the deepest, thickest blooms shade the interior space. I love the system, but I did have concerns, as anyone would. What happens if it dies or decays or the systems break down? The Arup engineer in charge of the project assured me that they have all the safeguards in place. At this point, it’s hard to imagine this idea as a widely used system, but it shows you what is possible and could change everything.

What does this mean going forward?

What’s starting to take hold is an awareness that it’s not about checking off boxes or accumulating points. What’s exciting is there is a renewed awareness of nature itself and natural processes that are affecting design. I think there is a newfound awareness of our own fingerprint and impact on the fragility of natural systems and processes. We are starting to scrutinize everything.

And experiment.

Yes, absolutely. I love teaching students today because they’re in a completely different mindset when it comes to approaching materials.

When I was a student, you had rules that you learned. Today, students know that rules are there for breaking. They know that whatever is in the storage closet downstairs or in the flat file drawers at most offices are subject to critique and intense scrutiny. Manufacturers are scrutinizing products, while people are mulling over how we report environmental data. Practices are totally different and it’s a really exciting time.

I think many people are still worried about the risk, time, and money it takes to experiment, but it sounds like there is a big shift that is starting.

We all are risk averse at some level, but the biggest risk is the one we’re not taking. When you look at charts, the riskiest point in a system is when things are connected and efficient and homogeneous approaches are all working in optimal ways, but there’s no innovation, experimentation or disruption. I feel we’re at that place now. Now is the time we need experimentation more than ever.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and a published author regarding innovative architectural materials. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, he will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Materials + Products.

This article was originally published in EcoBuilding Pulse magazine February 2014.

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