Architecture, as a field, combines various aspects, from functionality and context to aesthetics, in a race to constantly one-up the previously produced designs and structures; the design concept, including the form and the utilitarian aspects of a design, has always taken the forefront. However, material considerations, over time, have taken a backseat. Sticking to conventional materials such as brick and RCC allowed designers to focus on impressive forms and aesthetic details, leaving the material to primarily fulfill the role of structural stability. However, a meticulous selection of materials can contribute to an overall healthy environment by ensuring all materials used are non-polluting and non-toxic to the occupants and the environment. Further, material considerations contribute to the robustness and longevity of a structure, both crucial factors while identifying good architecture. The significance of materiality in architecture is more significant than what meets the eye at first glance; discussed are some examples.

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architecture at Musée du Louvre, Paris_©Khamkéo Vilaysing

Structural integrity

The mere mention of a construction material raises questions regarding its structural reliability and strength. Although traditional materials, including stone, brick, wood, bamboo, mud, and RCC, have stood the test of time for centuries, modern technology has allowed for use of less conventional materials, with one of the key examples being mycelium. Mycelium refers to the root-like fibers of fungi, which can now be used as both building blocks and to create structural systems.

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mycelium for construction_©material

Aesthetic quality

The role of materials in a building is so much more than the structural quality and delves into the realm of tactility and visual experience. The advent of the age of ‘minimalism’ and ‘simplicity’ in design has inadvertently led to an increase in the feeling of ‘sameness’ in buildings. This lack of individual character in buildings around us today can be, in most cases, attributed to a weakened sense of materiality. Lack of experimentation with materials strips designers and architects alike from the ability to look at varied aesthetic characters. An increased curiosity about various finishes and materials can help end this cycle of mundanity.

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enhancing aesthetics through translucent cement_ ©Aron Losonczi

Historical and cultural relevance

Architecture has long been associated with the history and culture of a place. The built form often stands the test of time and has the ability to tell a story while allowing for the conservation and preservation of culture and traditions. The type of construction material used, ornamentation details, and style of dressing tells of a particular culture. A remarkable example is that of Islamic architecture and its ability to teleport us into the grandeur of the era.

Further, selecting materials that comply with the site context and climatic conditions enables one to minimize the use of mechanized means of thermal comfort. Additionally, locally sourced materials allow for a building to stand in unity with its surroundings while saving on transportation costs. These materials add a sense of belongingness to the space and are seen as a reflection of the traditional knowledge itself.  

elements of islamic architecture_©Christian Hendrik

Human health

the success of any built form is dictated by user experience. A thorough health and safety assessment is done before finalizing any building material. The selection of a material that does not harm human health through the production of toxic fumes is of utmost importance. However, surprisingly, the definition and criteria for what is considered ‘safe’ has seen to have changed several times over the year. Lead-based paints and asbestos, once regarded as ‘safe’, are no longer in use. This proves that materials that comply with building codes may not necessarily be non-toxic. Proactively investigating potential health risks can help prevent future regrettable material choices.

Environmental health and implications

The impact of the built environment on the natural environment can be reduced by ensuring the responsible selection of building materials, especially when it is prepared at the conceptualization and design stage rather than much later, which is often the case.

The operational carbon emission combined with the embodied energy of conventional construction materials proves to have far more significant environmental implications than initially estimated. The construction industry currently contributes 39% of all the carbon emissions on the planet, with steel and cement having the highest environmental impacts.

There has been an increase in the linear concept of ‘produce, use and discard’ over the years, which has proven to be unsustainable time and again. In the face of scarcity of resources and an exponentially increasing global population, it is imperative to consider alternative materials and techniques for construction. The cycle of production, use, and reuse must be explored. The use of modern technology may aid the use of previously dismissed materials for construction, which may prove to be less environmentally polluting.

Modern technology, a significant development in computational design, and an increased interest in interdisciplinary thinking have allowed us to use almost anything as a construction material, given that the modification of the material allows for adequate structural strength. The possibilities are endless for material selection, with recycled plastic bottles, algal matter, shells of crustaceans, and several other biopolymers, all obtained from natural sources, being some exciting examples owing to advanced fabrication techniques. It is now imperative to shift to more environmentally sound materials to ensure a healthier ecosystem at large.




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Tara is a student of architecture, with a keen interest in exploring futuristic solutions for problems related to the built environment. As a budding writer and researcher, she looks forward to a future marked by harmony between the built environment and nature, marking the age of ‘ecological building’