Material Innovation in Architecture

The innovation unit GXN was established in 2007 as a parallel practice to that of 3XN architects. Since day one the team has researched new materials and technologies for building. The ‘G’ stands for Green, highlighting GXN’s dedication to ecological design. The core goal is to develop a building culture that positively affects the world in which we live, both architecturally and environmentally. In the past years, GXN has developed partnerships with leading experts across various industries for investigations into material science, biology and computation. By cross-pollinating this interdisciplinary knowledge, GXN creates custom solutions for any architectural challenge.

Life Cycle Design
One of the most dominant trends we have found in the discourse on sustainability is that we need to evaluate materials in a life cycle design perspective. Instead of being treated with the current attitude of “use once and throw away”, materials should be seen as valuable resources. In fact one of the biggest challenges we face today is that we are consuming materials at an accelerating speed. Over the past decades, rare metals and minerals have increased in price many-fold. An example is copper, a raw material of which there will be no natural reserves left on earth within a few decades if we continue to use it at current rates. Steel and aluminum are also becoming increasingly expensive as a result of this process.
On a positive note, this does open up a new agenda with a strong economic incentive for the material recovery businesses, in which the material graveyards of today (buildings, for example) become the material capital of tomorrow. In other words, there is an opportunity for changing the way the building industry produces and consumes resources. Curiously, concepts such as ‘waste’ and ‘pollution’ do not exist in nature. In natural ecosystems everything has a purpose and can be (re)used for something else, which points to the idea of waste as a man-made and even self-inflicted problem. So in the discussion on material trends, redefining the concept of waste is the greatest design challenge for the near future. A challenge in which materials used in building components become design objects themselves that need to be able transform back into raw materials.

Eliminating waste means that all materials must be part of a recall strategy or be part of a greater circulation. For this reason, buildings have to be designed for disassembly and must be made from well-defined, recyclable materials. Designing with an understanding of different periods of use becomes a new design parameter. In buildings for example the foundations are often a permanent part, but other parts of the building, such as façades and insulation, are changed every twenty years or so, and light walls and interiors more often. Further, the daily material flows such as food, plastic and paper needs to be either recycled or composted instantly. In future buildings, these different material streams become valuable resources, and point towards the need for innovation towards new building systems and disassembly techniques. It also opens up a new perception of buildings of the future as resource banks for long-term materials storage.

Composites in natural ingredients
For the last five years GXN has been focusing on developing new building materials that consist of left-over produce from agriculture. We are currently the lead designers and architects of the European research project BioBuild. Its purpose is to develop new construction materials from bio-composites. The goal is to reduce energy consumption in production by 50% compared to traditional building methods, while at the same time making them 15% cheaper, as well as recyclable.

A composite is a material composed of two or more base materials, which have stronger or more effective properties when combined. Traditionally, fiber-reinforced polymer composites consist of glass fiber and oil based resins. Bio-composites however are entirely made from biological ingredients, for example flax fibers, cork, corn and soybeans. Materials that combine properties can be eco-friendly alternatives to traditional materials used in the building industry. GXN has previously used bio-composites in the generation of new products for the construction industry. It is this experience which will be further developed in BioBuild, and will ensure that materials meet the requirements of the construction industry today and tomorrow.

The first projects to be realized in these new lightweight durable and recyclable materials are the Decaux bus shelter and the Cradle to Cradle Pavilion in which bio-composites will be the main material used in the façade construction. These projects will be the first realized commercial building projects using 100% naturally derived bio-composites.