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23 September, 2023

Material Matters

Material Matters is a design fair based on the critically acclaimed podcast of the same name. Taking place during the London Design Festival, the four-day event brings together brands, designers, makers and organisations to investigate and demonstrate the importance of material intelligence for architecture and design.

We’ve seen hemp houses and walls made of rammed earth, rammed stone and anything else you can ram. Timber has designers drooling at the mention of the word and there was even a show about straw last year that had architects queuing round the block. There is a huge appetite for a ‘return to the natural’ with ‘new’ (maybe old!) and exciting building materials, however, the practical implementation of these at a scale that will actually make a difference seems at present negligible. 

The built environment is still dominated by the big three materials of the 20th century, namely glass, steel and concrete, with powerful political lobbyists protecting a material supply chain that is resistant to change. Is this symptomatic of a lack of progressive thinking, imagination, outdated regulation or simply a problem of delivering at scale across different building typologies? Is there a case for a system that takes the best of each material that creates a hybridised system, mixing the best elements of natural and manmade products? For instance, stone buildings have long relied on huge amounts of steel. 

There are many hurdles to overcome. Progressive materials come with their own ecological issues and they don’t fit into a world dictated by fire regulations and insurance companies. Maybe we will be forced to think of materials as transient, moving from building to building with their own passports. Or could we justify something carbon intensive if it provides us a frame within which we could infill with materials grown on a farm or even a lab. And what of ubiquitous use of glass in the future, unless of course we are happy to simply have smaller windows? 

The debate on building materials can be polarising in the extreme, but it’s high time we made some concrete plans for more intelligent design and construction. Or perhaps we just can’t see the wood for the trees….

Built by Nature UK Networks Lead, Joe Giddings, will be speaking at a panel at 3pm on Saturday 23rd September at The Bargehouse, Oxo Wharf.