Saturday 9 March 2013

Material junkies

Trade shows like Ecobuild and the Surface Design Show are worth a visit to see what's developing in the world of building products but there is a lot of focus on innovating materials and building systems which we are all familiar with.  Manufacturers in these established markets compete against each other for our attention and arguably this reflects the main stream of progress in the building industry today.  After seeing lots of bricks, solar panels and insulation, I wanted to collect and summarise the sources I know for more cutting edge products or off the wall materials.  Here are my sources for material junkies:

Browsing the stalls at ecobuild (and just a little lost) 

In London there are some important material libraries.  SCIN and Material Lab  are perhaps the best known.  SCIN is independant and has a great and varied range of materials to delve in to.  Annabelle Filer and her staff are instrumental in helping you to find what you want.  Material Lab is sponsored by Johnson Tiles, which is a very cleaver way of promoting the parent company and associating it with the new and the cool.  Both are essential visits for material junkies.

The basement library at SCIN.  I could spend all day rummaging through these boxes 

Material Lab gallery

Material Connexion is a huge materials data base with offices around the world (though unfortunately not in the UK).  It operates on a subscription basis.  The website is well worth a look and they have produced several books too. Their first is a very good source book with materials separated into types and useful links to people and organisations.  Cheekily, the manufacturers of the materials shown are only made available on subscription to their service.

The Institute of Making is part of University College London (UCL) and rapidly growing as an organisation and in its following.  It is very experimental and inspirational in the way they play with materials to investigate their properties.  They also have a materials library / cool wall. They are not solely focused on the building industry, but cover all areas where materials matter; engineering, product design, waste management, micro and mega scales, rockets etc.  This makes their work even more exciting when thinking around how materials work and their technology transfer to Architecture.  There are a number of key people involved.  Zoe Laughlin and Philip Howes produced the book Material Matters which is a must for material junkies.  Prof. Mark Miodownick (who is appearing more and more on telly) presented the Royal Institution's (RI) 2010 Christmas Lectures Size Matters which looked at material technology.  It can be seen on the RI's website.  He also has a book coming out soon called Stuff Matters (available on pre-order).

Demonstration in friction at RI Size Matters preview lecture.
Mark Miodownik with two helpers (on the right my son Bobby)

Why don't more practices have innovation departments?  GXN is the innovation unit of 3XN, in Denmark.  It is led by Kasper Guldager Jorgensen (and judging from a google search of his name, he must never sleep).  It's worth getting hold of any of the GXN year books because they describe their approach to innovation and are very inspirational.  It is also worth seeing Kasper lecture or reading his posts on twitter and the Hello Materials blog.  Last year with the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC) he hosted the Material World Exhibition, focusing on material innovations.  (The DAC might still have a catalogue or two remaining).  GXN have a very creative and playful approach to materials, structures, products and design which clearly adds value to the work of the main office.   They also have a comprehensive materials database.

Material World Exhibition at DAC, April 2012

Arup have several innovation units, but their centre for Materials and Making, led by Graham Dodd is the one to watch for material junkies.

There are many Universities experimenting with material technology. Possibly one of the most significant is the Faculty of Architecture at Delft University.  Their studio and public areas are normally occupied with product prototypes giving it a very exciting and creative atmosphere.

Snack bar at Delft University Faculty of Architecture

Another to note is Bob Sheil's unit at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL.  He is Professor of Architecture and Design Through Production.

Technology transfer from other industrial sectors is a productive method for introducing new materials in to the built environment.  It has a strong history in architecture and is becoming more common.  For example, plywood became a popular building material for lightweight temporary enclosures in the First World War, after being developed for the aircraft industry.  There are many materials to draw inspiration from within mature and emerging industrial sectors outside of the building industry.

Cabot mass-produce silica aerogel and all architects are familiar with it, but it was produced in the first half of the C20 for catching space dust.  Technology transfer from astro-physics.

Silica aerogel; 99.9% air

Much inspiration can be taken from composite manufacturers of yachts and train carriages for their execution of complex geometries, precision engineering and monocoque structures.  

Yacht construction demonstrates efficiency in lightness and strength
as well as economies in construction to the benefit of quality
Some composite companies are venturing the building industry with to pod rooms and entire buildings, using similar technologies used to make yachts or train carriages.

Cut-away sample of a composite shower pod.
Plastic honeycomb mesh in walls adds strength of the unit.
No additional framework required.

Lightness and strength are key to products like the Airbus A300.  Each component has to perform several tasks.  This economy is critical for the plane's performance. 

Next time you are up in the air, spare a thought for the 8 inches of material
separating you from a 30.000 ft drop!
As well as the high performance monocoque structure, all furniture and fittings need to be light and strong.  Companies like Technical Resin Bonders manufacture aluminium honeycomb panels which do just this.  Dressed to look like shop fit out joinery, they take a fraction of the energy to transport within planes and trains.

Aluminium honeycomb panels.  Invisible within the buffet car of a Virgin train 

Commercial space craft manufacturers such as Biglow Aerospace and Space X are experimenting with inflatable space modules.  Payload size within a rocket is restricted by physics but inflating it makes a logistical economy.  A fabric called vectran has been developed with twice the strength of kevlar to enable it to withstand impact from space debris.  No doubt this approach and material will be used on earth, perhaps for mobile units or for hostile environments.

Inflatable space module with vectran 

 It is impossible to ignore the emerging field of commercial space flight.   Again, composite structures are being used for their lightness, ability to withstand extreme and sudden environmental changes including re-entry temperatures of over 500 deg C and huge stress loads on the fuselage.  These advances in fibre reinforced polymer (FRP) recopies and insulation can be of benefit to the building industry not least for obvious solutions like blast partitions and fire walls - but mainly because they can be really cool products!

Virgin Galactic Space Ship One made by Scaled Composites and The Spaceship Cpmpany

This is a very big subject area and one which is rapidly growing.  Each section could be the subject of more detailed posts.  Here I have attempted to list the sources and areas of inspiration which are immediately accessible, and I hope it is of use.  Ideally, this blog will become the start of a discussion and grow with your feedback and references into a larger collection of sources.  Material junkies, please feel free to share your thoughts and inspirations!


  1. The e-catalogue from the DAC / 3XN Material World exhibition can be found at:

  2. Also see Materia - open database for innovative materials:

  3. See Haute Innovation
    And article

  4. GXN materials database

  5. ArchiTonic on materials

  6. Also see the newly formed Material Council

  7. Material World / 3xn catalogue

  8. University of Texas Materials Lab


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