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Wake up call: materials can save the world

Here’s a fact that few people really want to hear: the professional generation now active has to save the world.

This wake-up call was presented to the audience at the Building Materials and Innovation seminar at Delft University of Technology on October 31st. The speaker, Andy van den Dobbelsteen, is an articulate academic who paints clear pictures of the future, both as a success story and as a failure. Interestingly for us, the talks mostly focused on the role that materials could play, and here there is some heartening news.

The warning is clear: the building industry contributes hugely to global warming, pollution and the consumption of resources. Up to 50% of all raw materials, 40% of energy production and 30% of water is used in the building industries. Rare elements, such as heavy metals used in computing, telephony and luxury goods, are in demand, with China now controlling 97% of the world’s production stream of these materials.

What are we to do with this information? We can find some inspiration here. As ever, necessity is the mother of invention. All over the world, materials’ developers are researching materials that grow, or self-heal, or purify in certain situations. The list goes on, with receptive, adaptive and interactive materials as examples. We have previously published examples of these on, and will have more on this essential subject coming up, particularly at Material Xperience 2014.

Back in the built environment the ‘real’ challenge is the vast stock of buildings. Most buildings in existence are not very environmentally friendly, and it is in this physical world, rather than in the possible future world, that advances need to be made most urgently. Unfortunately, particularly the construction industry has only a limited enthusiasm for innovation. Again, it is here that there is a chance for improvement. There is a huge need for architects and other designers to step up and develop materials, and in particular materials’ applications, that can really help to stabilise the usage of raw materials and improve our built environment.

On a happy note, one of the themes running through the day was a positive vibe: design professionals can help solve this global problem. The idea is that responsibilities and challenges can lead to new engineering and materials’ solutions. This, in turn, leads inevitably to new, exciting forms of architecture.


Images courtesy of Arup, TUDelft and Shigeru Ban.