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The future of smart materials

July 1st, 2009 / By: / Feature

Sustainable materials expert Blaine Brownell discusses possible futures for textile-based architecture.

“Within this exploding environment of new materials, I quickly realized how limited the architect’s palette is” states Blaine Brownell, recounting his epiphany a few years ago after working as a practicing architect. “We architects simply have to get smarter.” Given such clarity, it is no surprise that the Indiana native, who has been teaching in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota since 2008, defines the construction industry as “conservative” and “risk-averse.” And he would know. Not only does Brownell lead the progressive design/research firm, Transstudio, he also has authored Transmaterial (2006) and Transmaterial 2 (2008), both aesthetically compact, user-friendly catalogs “of materials that redefine our physical environment.” Just as chefs read cookbooks for both information and delight, anyone interested in materials, sustainability and a more eco-friendly future, the Transmaterial books are not only an invaluable resource but also a pleasure to peruse.

The rapid change in environmental stability is a mandate for an equally rapid change in how architects and the building industry develop and employ materials. At an elemental level, Brownell sees a more healthy environmental future inextricably linked to developments in material science and material technology. “Massive changes are occurring environmentally. Our materials need to address that. Changes in materials can transform society, how we live, what our environmental impact is,” says Brownell. “This current downturn in the building industry is an opportunity for architects to reconsider materials and their impact,” he states. “What are the right choices?”

Brownell explains that only a few years ago the question about sustainability was “Are you with us or against us?” Because of a sea change in attitude, he says the debate now is not whether to embrace sustainability, but rather “How?” He sees the debate centering on agricultural/forestry-based materials (carbohydrates) or petroleum-based materials (hydrocarbons).

“Until this past century, textiles were bio-based materials. Now they are also petrol-based,” says Brownell. “There is a blurring of more historical, vernacular processes and materials and newer methods.” He cites how bamboo can be processed by hand to make cloth or it can be processed more like a rayon fabric, requiring a larger carbon footprint. The emerging debate in materials in general, and certainly with fabric, is whether a particular fabric is technical or biological nutrient-based, and is it recyclable and biodegradable, or only recyclable. For example, vinyl can be recycled but it is not biodegradable. The sustainable argument examines whether a fabric is cradle to cradle, or is it a more desirable eco-friendly, cradle to grave material.

Brownell is optimistic, if not openly enthusiastic about the future of fabrics in developing a more sustainable future in the building industry. From energy harvesting to light illuminating, fabrics are part of a more sustainable future. Both Transmaterial books have dedicated chapters to fabric. That Transmaterial 2 does not repeat any product represented in the first volume is testimony to how the field of new materials is expanding.

So what fabrics impress Brownell? Ingeo™, for one. Categorized in the book as a repurposed material whose fiber is derived from corn, Ingeo is a closed-loop sustainable product produced by Designtex, and is safely biodegradable. Another is the textile brick system, Les Tuiles, which is easily reconfigured for flexible interior spaces and has unique acoustic capabilities. Sonic Fabric™, invented by artist Alyce Santoro and produced by Designtex, is constructed from 49% recycled audiotape that carries specially recorded audio information. It’s sustainable future? Will it be able to “speak” its ingredients and recycling instructions in absence of a printed label or instructions? Veritex™ has its very own memory intelligence. It’s a “shape-memory composite” because when exposed to thermal stimuli, it can progress from a rigid to highly elastic shape, and back to a rigid state. Its use for deployable temporary housing, dynamic structures and even automotive components is compelling.

Brownell also champions Dow Corning’s Active Protection System, a smart textile that is soft and flexible until it encounters high-impact forces. On contact it instantly stiffens to protect against injury. When the collision has passed, the fabric immediately becomes flexible. Breathable, flexible and washable, its sport apparel potential is obvious. Its potential for the built environment is provocative.

Brownell also notes a huge push to develop fabrics with multi-functional qualities such as Konarka’s Power Plastic™ that converts light to energy and can be integrated into a range of devices or systems. An organic photovoltaic (OPV), Power Plastic is a thin film that is predicted to revolutionize the solar energy industry. Smartwrap, an intelligent material, is the “building envelope of the future” that combines various wall functions into a single product that is organic and recyclable.

Brownell also thinks the future rests with architecture embracing more lifelike, intelligent systems where materials can accomplish multiple goals. Why shouldn’t fabrics function more like skin and building materials found in nature? “If a fabric could regulate the environment more like our biological skin, think of the applications and sustainability,” poses Brownell. “We need to demand more of our materials. They need to do more than just one thing.”

Brownell describes the construction industry as one that has moved progressively in the direction of having greater expectations from lower quality materials, a direction he does not support. “There is an amazing future ahead, and part of it may rest in a renewed interest in low-tech and vernacular materials,” he states. Citing Japanese architecture, he is convinced that using less engineered materials — letting wood function as wood with all of its biological capabilities — is a good thing.

Is Brownell hopeful about the future? “Oh yes! I am very hopeful. There is an amazing future ahead,” he says smiling. It’s our future, after all.

Mason Riddle, a contributing editor at Fabric Architecture, writes frequently about art and design. Her piece on LEAD Inc.’s light installation for GLOW 2008 appeared in the March/April issue.

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