Pre-historic shelters have evolved into soaring dwellings with balconies amid the clouds. Traditional materials like stone, timber, cement and metal have been in use for centuries, with periodic innovations to bolster their strength and durability. Materiality in the purview of architectural design is significant because of the function and aesthetic character that materials lend to a building. The form and spatial quality depend upon the properties of the substances in use. With the advancing technology and strain on natural resources, the industry is invested in the development of more diverse building material with sustainability at the core. 

For posterity, “traditional” are those building media that have been in use for a long time and conform to the construction practices and techniques dominant in a specific region. In general, these are wood, stone, adobe bricks, etc. They may also include steel and glass, which were propelled to global use in construction following the Industrial Revolution while being relatively newer. Non-traditional materials are alternative materials, varying from altered traditional ones to synthesized composites. While the prowess of the 21st-century researchers has given us a host of unique buildings materials, traditional materials form the key to this development. 

For instance, self-healing concrete repairs weathering and damage with the help of dormant bacteria, activated without human intervention, refining Roman concrete that displayed a similar quality. First developed in 2007 in TU Delft, the material has been under extensively testing for commercial use since 2015.

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The ‘self-healing’ concrete test walls erected at the Heads of the Valleys Road. [Photograph] (Cardiff University Archive via www.bbc.com)
Context-specific demands guide the formulation of new media, although the capital and skill-level required are equally significant factors. On the other hand, the scale of projects and their functions must be adequately satisfied to encourage the use of that material. Spreading awareness about the recent developments is a challenge since localized research engages a large global audience of industry service providers rather infrequently. Few builders are willing to invest in a material that is not backed by a large body of trial and modification. Besides, the performance of the materials outside the controlled environment can be predicted only to a certain degree, often requiring monitoring and skilled maintenance in the initial stages of use.

The geographical location of projects is equally important. The alternative materials must be suited to the climate and offer some benefits over the ones in use. Energy efficiency and quantifiable improvements in building performance can help promote its use, especially if the builders are aiming for a green rating. The cultural sensibilities and outlook of the building users also impact the demand, while trendy aesthetics can be capitalized on to create visually alluring architecture. 

A heat-responsive material developed in 2013 by the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, Hydroceramic controls interior temperatures through evapotranspiration. Hydrogels make the hydrophilic medium housed between the clay ceramic body and the special fabric that serves as a pliable intermediate membrane. Not only does the composite material have an excellent passive cooling system, but the low cost of production also makes it ideal for projects with smaller budgets. 

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(2013) Prototype of Hydroceramic: Intelligent walls. [Photograph] (IAAC Archive via www.iaac.net)
Logistical value is an integral portion of the cost of each project and the material chosen must deliver an optimal output. New materials may lack widespread production facilities and necessary raw material or equipment. Due to this, the high transportation and inventory costs of prefabricated materials can hamper their usage, especially in developing countries. 

Materials like Cross Laminated Timber can rise to the challenge of availability as timber is utilised globally in construction. CLT offers more durability, sustainability when sources ethically and affordability on par with steel and concrete. Conditioned timber layers or ‘lamellae’ are glued mutually perpendicular, such that the longitudinal and transverse layers of the lumber are cross-oriented, giving the age-old material improved strength and durability.

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Riddle, P. (2016) ’The Smile’ project for the 2016 London Design Festival made of cross-laminated hardwood using American tulipwood [Photograph] (Alison Brooks Architects Archive – www.alisonbrooksarchitects.com)
Architectural interventions are subject to the structural limitations of the material. The function of the building may demand strength, lightness or physical properties exceeding the capabilities of the traditional materials. In tornado and earthquake-prone regions, the structural integrity of the building is crucial for preventing failure. 

CABKOMA Strand Rod developed in Japan is the lightest seismic reinforcement composed of a carbon fibre core and an inorganic outer layer with thermoplastic resin. The most significant aspect is that pre-existing buildings can be retrofitted with the Strand Rods to improve seismic performance.

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Ota, T. (2015). CABKOMA Strand Rods used on the exterior of Komatsu Seiten’s head office. [Photograph] (www.komatsumatere.co.jp)
Aesthetic appeal is largely a product of the colour render, texture and proportions in which a material is applied. Facade treatment with a single material can be monotonous, especially with repeating units. Creative solutions like patterns, articulated joinery details and play of solid and void compositions add dynamism. New materials created for cladding bring variability and light control to the fore, thus adding a passive feature for improving indoor light quality.

Aluminium foam is used as a lightweight alternative wherein ceramic particulates air-injected into molten aluminium create uniquely textured panels. The size and density of the “cells” control the opacity and appearance, exploring aesthetic articulation that is also 100% recyclable.

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Kitchen, J. M. (2018) EarthCam Headquarters by Davis Brody Bond + Spacesmith. [Photograph] (Davis Brody Bond Architects and Planners Archive – www.davisbrodybond.com)
The abundance of new materials has made choosing the right one a highly demanding process. Nascent concepts may find experimental use, but the global adoption of new building practices will be tested by time and users alike. Architects are discovering ways to evolve building function and aesthetics through environmentally conscious materials having the potential to revolutionize the industry.  

Sagarika Latwal
Author

Sagarika Latwal is an architect based in Bangalore exploring creative outlets and entrepreneurship within the industry. An armchair expert in art history, film and - oddly enough- ornithology, she is in constant search of hidden ideas to inform her designs. With her inclination towards architectural journalism, she hopes to make the beautiful complexities of architecture accessible to all.

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