Building materials that utilize bio-based, reusable, non-toxic and non-critical materials.
In the face of the ever-increasing depletion of natural resources, regenerative materials are very advantageous. They are organic, can be made from by-products of agricultural processes, or can be grown and harvested responsibly.
Global finalist entry 2015 - Hy-Fi: Zero carbon emissions compostable structure
The Holcim Awards Bronze 2015 winner from North America, Hy-fi project shows the low energy and compostable potential of bricks that were naturally grown from shredded corn stalks and mushroom mycelium using advances in biotechnology combined with cutting-edge computation and engineering. The bricks were assembled in an exhibition pavilion commissioned by MoMA PS1 Young Architects Program in New York City and composted after three months use and easy disassembly.
Biobased: compostable grown materials
Regenerative materials can be safely returned to the natural cycle at the end of the lifecycle. In terms of performance, they exhibit good moisture and thermal properties, being often used as insulating materials and improving indoor hygrothermal comfort. Biobased materials are key in the realm of designing for non-toxicity, provided they are not treated with added chemicals, and most of them have carbon sequestering properties.
A fourth industrial revolution could be just ahead of us, reintroducing biological aspects into an otherwise mechanized, industrialized world. Dirk E Hebel
A well-known additional benefit of these living materials is their reduced embodied carbon footprint. In fact, hemp, bamboo, and timber, amongst others, have the capability of capturing and storing biogenic carbon.
Recycled agricultural waste building materials produced in Nigeria benefit communities in that they are economical, address social equity issues, and generate local work opportunities. The building materials project won a Holcim Awards Acknowledgement prize 2011 for Middle East Africa.
Implementing materials that have a very low global warming potential requires an effective leadership role in promoting the transition from the fossil fuel building material industry, and an equally effective advocacy role for policy change. Timber is gaining momentum as a critical climate solution.
Paul Hawken’s Regeneration project includes “Carbon Architecture” in the repertoire of solutions for regeneration, focusing on building essentially with fibers, largely through timber construction. The raw materials used in carbon architecture are primarily wood, dirt (clay), bamboo, straw and hemp, engineered to compete with steel, cement, brick and stone in durability, fire resistance, and structural strength.
In 2021, the initiative Built by Nature was launched by the Laudes Foundation and a collaborative network of partners, in the wake of COP26, to speed up the timber building transformation in Europe, connecting sector and leading timber actors to make it happen. The Americas, Asia and Australia has seen a surge of timber construction in the past years, with a number of building codes and regulations being approved that allow for high-rise timber buildings.
Towering Virtuoso in Sweden
Towering Virtuoso in Sweden is a project that epitomizes the application of timber for a complex, mixed use building, and showcases timber construction practices. The refined expression of the building, the elegance of the massing and the showcasing of the timber structure through a delicate curtain wall were cited by the independent expert jury in conferring the Holcim Awards Bronze 2020 for Europe on the project.
While lifecycle analysis and the relevant Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) provide transparency as to what is the global warming, water and soil impact of building materials and components, the toxic impact remains uncovered. The production of unhealthy building materials and the manufacture processes thereof, are a threat to ecosystems, impacting water courses, soils, fauna, and flora. Those that are used for interiors and are in direct contact with building occupants, pose a direct risk to human health.
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is a term coined by the WHO as back as 1986, and some national health systems (NHS) recognize it as a legitimate condition. Questions are being raised about its potential to vector SARS or Covid-19. SBS major contributor is poor indoor air quality, with indoor contaminants such as volatile organic compounds (VOC) or other building materials off-gassing and exhaust of ozone and chemicals used in ventilation systems. Our buildings are making us unwell.
Off-gassing of toxic building materials, and indoor air pollutants in particular has been proven to cause adverse health impacts, ranging from respiratory ailments and illnesses to endocrine hormonal disruption to a variety of cancers. A healthy building design can be achieved not only thought correct ventilation and illumination design, proper maintenance, and cleaning protocols, as much as building with materials that do not cause harm.
The 3rd party certified Cradle to Cradle (C2C) material label, assesses materials on the base of material health, circularity, air and climate protection performance, water & soil stewardship and social fairness. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII), which administers the label, has certified in excess of 450 materials for building construction and interior design and furniture since its inception in 2011, presenting designers with proven healthy alternatives.
Other labels have followed the philosophy since, leveraging on Health Product Declaration (HPD) rather than solely Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). The Declare Label and transparency platform is a product of the International Living Future institute (ILFI), considered a “nutrition label for building products”. The accompanying Red List and Watch List for dangerous toxic materials goes as far as anticipating and advocating for policy resolutions, which are increasingly phasing out dangerous and polluting materials from the industry.
Further reading on regenerative materials
Holcim Awards prize-winner interview
A sustainable building with civic significance
Using materials and techniques to reduce emissions and environmental performance
Proposition for Circular Construction
“To create a circular economy, we must design for disassembly”
Dirk Hebel dedicates his research to reducing the footprint of buildings and infrastructure through alternative building materials and construction techniques for both developed and developing economies. He says the construction industry should do more to reuse materials through harvesting existing buildings – to “mine the city”.
Designing for non-toxicity
“Could I eat your furniture, IKEA?”