Sustainability, Sustainable Materials

10 Innovative Sustainable Materials in Architecture

If you’re a part of the architectural community, the word “sustainability” definitely might not be something new. 

But how exactly can it be implemented in our projects? 

An architect’s life has never been one that is undemanding. In recent years, besides building aesthetically pleasing and fully functional structures, they are also expected to incorporate highly sustainable solutions in their designs- to reduce both the impact the building has on the environment and the client’s long term costs. 

One good method is to employ materials which are proven to have a positive influence on it’s surrounding ecosystem. With the discovery of advanced and sustainable materials, you can incorporate smart solutions to reduce energy usage, improve air quality and much more. 

Innovative materials in architecture
INNOVATIVE MATERIALS THAT BETTER THE ENVIRONMENT ARE:
  1. Cross-Laminated Timber
  2. Solar Glass
  3. Bioplastic
  4. Pollution-Absorbing Bricks
  5. Cigarette Butt Bricks
  6. Bacterial cellolose
  7. Hydroceramic
  8. Straw Bale
  9. Tesla Solar Tiles
  10. Aluminium Foam

While choosing materials that suit best to your design proposals, it helps to know the advantages and most importantly the limitations of the materials.

Every building material gives you an opportunity to both experiment on it’s worst traits and exploit its best traits.

1. Cross-laminated Timber ( CLT )

exterior view of CLT Park, Harumi by Architect Kengo Kuma
CLT Park, Harumi by Ar. Kengo Kuma

Cross laminated timber is produced by gluing together layers of solid sawn lumber. This layered wood is often created into modules and then transported to the site. CLT is structurally sound because the wood is glued perpendicularly in the layers. 

Uses

  • Load-bearing and non load-bearing structures such as walls, beams, columns, etc.
  • Primary material for tall skyscrapers.

Pros

  • Lightweight and structurally sound – requires smaller foundation.
  • Can be made into modules, reducing cost and time of construction.
  • Flexible and can be manipulated in any way

Cons

  • Can get more expensive than other common building materials such as cement and steel.
  • Transportation cost can get high when it’s made into modules
  • There might be legal height restrictions in some places for using wood as construction material.

CLT may be new to the market, but the versatility of the material coupled with it’s aesthetic finish attracts more people by the day. 

2. Solar Glass

Vertical Solar System by U-Solar Clean Energy Solutions at the Data Center, Mumbai
Vertical Solar System by U-Solar Clean Energy Solutions at the Data Center, Mumbai

Glass has been used as a building material for its strength, elegance and versatility. Over the past decade, glass as a building material has taken over principal components of a building. Solar glass helps integrate power generating capability into such an extensively used building material. It absorbs ultraviolet wavelengths from the existing renewable solar energy and converts it into electricity.

Uses:

  • Solar glass can be used as facades, skylights of roofs, windows and more.
  • In hotter areas where there’s moderate to high sun exposure.

Pros:

  • Sustainability and energy saving capability in the long run.
  • Transparent and doesn’t modify the properties and aesthetics of glass.
  • Cost effective in the long run as it reduces external electricity costs.

Cons:

  • Initial fitting costs are expensive.
  • The technology of solar glass is yet match the solar conversion evergy of the regular panels.
  • The current commercial ones are not completely transparent yet.

Solar glass is sustainable, all the while keeping intact the elegance of glass. It has appealed to a wider audience and might as well be a game changer. If we’re going have glass as a building material, we might as well reap the most benefits out of it. 

3. Bioplastic

exterior view of Bioplastic Facade by ITKE
Bioplastic Facade, ITKE

Bioplastics are made from renewable resources already available in nature. They are biodegradable and do not release any excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. There is an ongoing research on the methods of production of bioplastics, which can prove to be efficient solutions to design problems.

Uses:

  • Interior design elements
  • Product design such as packaging, disposable products and so on. 
  • Pavilions and potentially other architectural elements. 

Pros:

  • Sustainable alternative to the other commonly used building materials. 
  • Biodegradable and break apart at a rate as fast, or even quicker than paper. 
  • Most bioplastics are already found in nature, and hence has no carbon footprint.

Cons:

  • Technology is yet to advance in the area of using bioplastics in architecture. 
  • Some bioplastics have shorter life span and end up becoming fragile in the future.
  • The growth of crops used to create this bioplastic consumes equally harmful fertilizers to the environment. 

We always talk about reducing synthetic plastic consumption. And that’s where materials like bioplastics offer a more sustainable alternative to our depleting environment.

4. Pollution Absorbing Bricks

Pollution absorbing brick or Breathe Brick Wall by Ar. Carmen Trudell
Breathe Brick Wall by Ar. Carmen Trudell

Pollution absorbing bricks, also known as ‘Breathe Bricks’ are excellent alternatives to conventional bricks. They are porous concrete blocks designed to filter pollution from the exterior atmosphere, and allow clean air inside the buildings.

The brick’s faceted surface and filter was inspired from the cyclone filtration system, and was created by Architect Carmen Trudell. The spinning of the cyclone filter helps deposit the particulate matter that results in pollution inside the brick, leaving behind a clean circulation of air in its environment.

Uses:

  • Air filtration by trapping the pollutants inside the brick.
  • Similar application as the regular bricks such as in facades both exterior and interior.
  • Most efficient in places where the quality of air of poor. 

Pros:

  • Equally as aesthetic as exposed brick. 
  • Inexpensive and less energy used to create such a filtration system.

Cons:

  • Needs double the area required by a normal brick 
  • Cannot act as a load-bearing structure beyond two floors due to its hollow nature.
  • Less efficient when compared to alternative filtration systems that perform the same function.

When a building material interacts and contributes positively to its surrounding environment, it’s definitely worth it.

5. Cigarette Butt Bricks

Cigarette Butt Bricks in Arkadia, Australia by Breathe Architecture
Arkadia, Australia by Breathe Architecture

Cigarette butts constitute toxic substances that have the potential to significantly increase pollution in our environment. An invention by Professor Abbas Mohajerani and team, made possible the incorporation of cigarette butts to the production of bricks.

Uses:

  • Similar to a regular brick when it comes to construction.
  • Helps trap toxic pollutants inside the brick due to its porosity.

Pros:

  • Lighter in weight, reduces transportation costs.
  • Provides better insulation which reduces heating and cooling costs in the building.
  • Leaching and contamination when compared to other bricks.
  • Reduces cigarette butt deposition that is toxic and harmful to the environment.

Cons:

  • Only a certain amount of cigarette butts can be used, beyond which it becomes less strong.
  • Cigarette butts are poorly degradable, which will cause trouble in the future when the building is demolished. 

When there’s uncontrolled production of waste in our environment, Cigarette Butt Bricks are a clever way to turn what’s discarded into something functional.

6. Bacterial Cellulose

 Bio manufactured Brick made of bacterial cellulose by BioMason
Bio manufactured Brick by BioMason

We often turn a blind eye to the fact that biology and architecture have a lot in common. Cellulose, in non-technical terms, is the backbone of all natural materials already available in our environment. Bacterial cellulose is biodegradable, which makes it a better material alternative. Bacterial synthesis creates the provision of sustained nutrition, lengthening the life cycle of the material. 

Uses:

  • Can be combined with multiple materials to manipulate the stiffness and flexibility.
  • Building cladding and other structural components. 

Pros:

  • Highly dense and has good shape retention property.
  • Better water binding capacity to native cellulose.
  • Higher surface area to native cellulose.

Cons:

  • Very expensive because of the production abilities at initial stages of research.
  • High moisture absorption characteristics could lead to cracks. 

Bacterial cellulose has the potential to replace membrane structural components of the materials and it sure is coming for its alternatives in the future. 

7. Hydroceramic

Hydroceramic Passive System by IAAC as a modern sustainable material
Hydroceramic Passive System by IAAC

Hydrogel is a three dimensional network of polymers. The students of Barcelona’s institute for advanced architecture have created an innovative facade material known as Hydrogel Ceramic. It constitutes a mixture of clay and hydrogel which has the ability to inflate in water and hold its structure. 

Uses:

  • In warm environments in need of cooling mechanisms. 
  • In places where there is high rainfall so that there’s no issue with water supply to the material.

Pros

  • Evaporation of the retained water in the material makes it a good material for passive building cooling.
  • It is a renewable energy resource, hence makes it sustainable.
  • Reduces energy costs in the long run.
  • It is structurally sound.

Cons

  • When the temperature decreases due to evaporation, the humidity in the interior of the building increases.
  • Needs a constant supply of water at all times.

Hydroceramic is an excellent example of best utilizing inherent properties of responsive materials in the built environment.

8. Straw Bale

Elemental House, Italy by Jimmi Pianezzola made of straw bale
Elemental House, Italy by Jimmi Pianezzola

Straw bale is a building material that is made of bales (a large quantity of material pressed tightly together) of straw. A mixture of clay, sand and straw is used to create insulated walls out of straw bales. 

Uses:

  • As a building material mainly for the construction of insulated walls.
  • As structural elements for sediment control at construction sites.

Pros:

  • They are eco-friendly as the material decomposes into the soil without any issues.
  • High thermal insulation property.

Cons:

  •  water seepage will make the walls to expand and could cause the walls to crack in the future.
  • Labor intensive due to it’s bulky nature.
  • If not plastered or maintained properly, it could attract pests.

Although straw bale is an unconventional building material, it’s sustainable properties make it the top contenders when it comes to sustainability.

9. Tesla Solar Tiles

Tesla Solar Tiles, United States
Tesla Solar Tiles, United States

Tesla Solar tiles have integrated solar properties into the roof tiles. It acts as an alternative to the bulky and unappealing solar panel attachment and instead keeps the aesthetic appeal of the roof intact.

Uses:

  • They are roof tiles fit for use in any building type.
  • Ideal in a hot environment with direct exposure to sunlight.

Pros:

  • Aesthetic roof tiles with a matte black finish.
  • Saves energy costs of the building.
  • Backup technology that makes sure there’s electricity throughout the day and night. 

Cons:

  • High installation costs.
  • Since the system is smaller than a regular solar panel, the performance will be around 25% less.

Tesla solar tiles are revolutionizing the solar industry by making it an attractive form of a sustainable solution.

10. Aluminium Foam

Alusion by Cymat Technologies Ltd. as an innovative material used in an installation
Alusion by Cymat Technologies Ltd. at Caixa Forum, Sevilla

Aluminum foam is self-explanatory as it is porous aluminium panels formed through injection of air into molten aluminium. This often consists of 100% recycled aluminium that can be manipulated an endless amount of times. 

Uses:

  • They are generally used in facades and modular fittings.
  • Intricate facade details can be designed with this material.
  • Requires less building materials to create a larger structure as it constitutes 70% of just closed pores.  

Pros:

  • They are completely recyclable as they can be melted and reshaped into different forms after it is discarded.
  • Highly flexible and can be moulded into any organic shape.
  • The porous property of the foam can be manipulated to sit the lighting and ventilation needs of the building.

Cons:

  • During manufacturing, complete control over the pore sizes can be hard.

In this era of unimaginably tall skyscrapers and expansive buildings, it’s important we consider alternatives like aluminium foam to reduce the consumption of building materials.

Many architects today are communicating the environmental concerns through the adaptation of ecologically friendly materials and methods of construction.We see the emergence of alternative building materials by the day. And there’s no excuse not to experiment. Because the widely used materials of today have adverse side effects we cannot afford today, or tomorrow. 

For every need there’s a solution that is more sustainable that contributes to a better living environment. And that is where we need to head to make a better living.

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