Elements: Material Matters

Architect and writer Blaine Brownell researches innovative new materials on his Web sites Tansstudio and Transmaterial, including a curtain constructed of LEDs and repurposed beverage containers. Image courtesy Blaine Brownell.If you’re not familiar with Blaine Brownell, you should be. The Minnesota-based architect, writer and co-director of the Master of Science Program in Architecture—Sustainable Design track at the University of Minnesota, has devoted a decade and a half to the study of emergent materials and applications. His books include three volumes in his Transmaterial series along with several other titles, most recently 2012’s Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture. We recently chatted with him about the genesis of his Transmaterial series and his thoughts on emergent materials. You can read more on his work and his research at his Web sites, Transstudio and Transmaterial.

What inspired you to start the Transmaterial series?

I remember being interested in materials at an early age. I had a picture picture book with black and white photos of natural materials shot up-close, and the reader was expected to guess what object each detail belonged to. I remember a vivid, grainy photo of the seeds of a sunflower. Only after you turned the page would you see the entire flower. This impressed upon me the power of material details.

I credit my professional interest in materials to my graduate advisor and mentor, Mark Wamble, an architect in Houston who teaches at Rice University. While working on the redesign for a public plaza in Houston’s theater district, Mark asked me to research new, innovative materials for the job. Although I embraced the challenge, it was a steep learning curve for me. This was in 1998, and the Internet was not the great search tool that it is now. I remember a lot of phone calls, catalog reviews, as well as a few factory visits to find the right materials for the project. Moreover, the experienced senior technical architects didn’t know a lot about new materials—which startled me. It was after this memorable experience that I realized the importance of material research in architecture, and the fact that architects could use better resources for material knowledge-building.

What do you look for in the materials pitched to you?

I look for innovation, which in this case I would describe as a transformation of expectations—whether it is a standard that had been superseded or a novel idea that has been realized. There must also be an implied use; which is to say that novelty for novelty’s sake isn’t sufficient. Lastly, the material should have the potential to transform the physical environment in some meaningful way—hence the term “transmaterial.” 

What are some trends/ideas/concepts that we should be on the lookout for?

Some of the larger trends are fairly well-known—such as more sustainable approaches to material development, or the fascinating discoveries in the field of nanotechnology. In terms of my current research, I’ve been focused on the following areas of interest, both in writing as well as design speculations:

The carbohydrate economy—an economy based on materials and material flows predicated on renewable resources, which promises to focus even more attention on agriculture and increase the competition for food. An example design speculation would be engineered sod brick: http://transstudio.com/new-sod-house/ 

Information/material convergence—bits and atoms continue to blur; materials are increasingly imbued with information (tagging, tracking, digital interfaces, smart technologies) just as virtual space is becoming more of a parallel to the real world. An example would be the Visiwall, an OLED architectural cladding system: http://transstudio.com/visiwall/

Light/material interplay—light is critical to understanding materials, and severral new lighting technologies blur the line betweeen materials and energy. Examples would be the PET Wall (image attached) http://transstudio.com/pet-wall/ and Pipe Light: http://transstudio.com/pipe-light/

Is there anything in particular that has caught your eye that you were really taken with or inspired by?

I’m particularly taken with materials that upend our expectations. Based on our long experience with materials, we anticipate them behaving a certain way. We have similar presumptions about the way that materials are used, and this situation is exacerbated by the mass production of objects and homogenization of places.

Examples of material innovation that have caught my eye include Wang Shu’s use of the wapan tiling method in the Ningbo Historical Museum facade, or Benedetta Tagliabue’s use of hand-woven straw mats over the complex curtain wall of the 2010 Spain pavilion. 

In what area do you feel there’s the most innovation currently?

Biomimicry, bio-inspired design, bio-engineering—this trajectory is developing strongly within multiple disciplines, and we’re just beginning to understand the ways in which to emulate natural systems and processes in human-made technologies. 

Where could there be more innovation? 

Deep integration in design. What we call integrated design is really just a process management practice that ensures minimal errors. The parts still remain discrete, fabricated by different trades with varied expertise.

Deep integration is what great architects practice when they synthesize the complex mess of products and assemblies that make up buildings into a simple yet powerful whole. Achieving this outcome is actually difficult, and considered beyond the requirements for standard practice—yet why should it be? If manufacturers understood more about the other parts of a building that their own materials affect, they might be able to offer more innovative products with increased interoperability. 

What are some of the most compelling sustainable materials being developed these days?

Materials that are born versus made. In other words, materials that are grown renewably versus manufactured in a conventional way that involves considerable energy, pressure, and processing.

How do we reconcile sustainability with new materials that, while technologically advanced, may not because of manufacturing methods or materials, be in fact sustainable choices?

Sustainability keeps us honest. Like any other good cause, it can be abused or misunderstood (e.g., greenwashing). However, sustainability forces us to face the tough realities about toxins, greenhouse gas production, water consumption, fossil fuel depletion, environmental overburden, etc. 

In terms of new materials, sustainability offers a means for constant improvement. No material is a fixed, in changeable entity, but rather may be considered a territory for experimentation and change. Therefore, the reconciliation you ask about is continually happening as scientists discover better chemical compositions and manufacturers retool their existing processes.

When’s the next Transmaterial due out?

I’ve focused my efforts beyond transformative materials to transformative material applications. In other words, I’m interested now in how we use new materials, as well as how we can create new uses for existing materials. That said, I have written two books since Transmaterial 3, which are Matter in the Floating World and Material Strategies. Both of these books attempt to illustrate methods of innovation in material applications. I still update the website transmaterial.net, however, which has many products not found in the books. 

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