Resources   Continuing Education
----- Advertising -----
----- Advertising -----
Sweets, Search Building Products

Architects Slowly Begin to Expand the Traditional Palette of Materials
New substances from high-tech laboratories enter the realm of construction
[ Page 1 of 8 ]

By Nancy B. Solomon, AIA



Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Explain why new materials are not readily introduced in the construction industry.

2. Describe the process two materials have gone through to become used in construction.

3. List the advantages of fiberglass and aerogel for construction.

When it comes to new materials, the construction industry is not known for being a hotbed of innovation. For a host of reasons, including economies of scale, numerous code requirements, fragmented workforce, insufficient research dollars, and demand for long-lasting and stable products, this market sector tends to stick to the tried-and-true.

Yet change is inevitable, and nontraditional components do emerge in architecture. Typically, they are jettisoned from other industries that can afford to engage in material research, and then only slowly find their place in architecture. Fiberglass, for example, has been around for a while and is well understood in certain commercial sectors, but it required a practitioner like Toshiko Mori, AIA, who has long been interested in fabrics and fabriclike materials, to find a project-specific need and be willing to step outside the realm of conventional fabrication methods to fashion the popular boat material into a structural architectural component. Aerogel was a scientific curiosity for the longest time, and then had only limited application in space exploration, until demand for energy-efficient systems in construction increased sufficiently to make it worthwhile for chemical companies like Cabot Corporation to determine how to exploit its insulation properties here on Earth.

More recently, in the past decade, foamed aluminum was only discovered by accident while two independent companies were working to improve the physical properties of their respective aluminum products; promoters of this strong, lightweight new material are now working hard to establish its architectural niche.


Professor Bill Price at the University of Houston’s College of Architecture is developing and testing translucent concrete.

Image: Courtesy Bill Price, University of Houston


Practical applications in architecture may speed up when broader policies and funding encourage the material research. This seems to be the case with the exploration of biobased composite structures at the University of Delaware, where material scientists supported by various government grants are trying to develop affordable building components that reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and increase our use of renewable and recyclable resources.

Certainly, these inventive contributions to the field are all welcome. But those in the material-innovation business envision a day when architects themselves will ask what they need and then look for the material that will provide it, rather than wait for something new to trickle down from afar. One intriguing example of this is Bill Price’s work on translucent concrete. Now an assistant professor at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, Price became fascinated with the idea several years ago, when working on a competition with Rem Koolhaas at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam. After discussing the concept at length with a broad range of scientists, engineers, and builders from all over the world and then producing and testing some samples, Price teamed up with a European company to develop a product. The final results are not yet in, but perhaps such an ambitious material exploration from within architects’ own ranks will set a precedent for other practitioners to follow.


[ Page 1 of 8 ]