Context, functionality, aesthetics. Architecture is a function or a service catering to these three aspects. A good design implies a strong concept, relevance to the historical and present context, a balance between design and need, attention to and creation of striking details, seamless structural design, well execution of the project, and thoughtful materiality. 

The materials chosen affect the essence of the built environment in terms of their visual impact and historical value, along with their structural importance and constructional behaviour. The meticulous selection of materials for a design has the power to create a healthy and harmonious environment. 

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Three Hostels in Baoxi, China_©

Significance of building materials in architecture

The endurance and stability of a built structure are glorified with the concept of building materials. These materials not only enhance the aesthetic quality of a building but also help establish a relationship between visual quality and structural stability, provide character, highlight the practicality of the design, and select an appropriate technique of construction. The time and era of construction of the building can be deciphered, along with the evolution of the construction. The material used can sometimes become the design concept or can establish the budget of the building project.

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Atlas Building-University of Wageningen_©
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Rane Vidyalaya_©

The Rane Vidyalaya CBSE School is an education facility set up by the Rane Foundation to provide quality education for rural children. Located in the rural area of Theerampalayam in Tamil Nadu, the budget allocated to the construction of the school determined the materials to be used. Red wire-cut bricks from surrounding kilns and grey fly-ash bricks made using waste industrial cement were used for the construction. These bricks were layered, starting from rubble and stone at the foundation. 

The materials have been used to facilitate ventilation as well. Most walls are lintel height to accommodate openable windows above. Terracotta jaalis and shading devices have been used. Individual gardens have been provided for kindergarten classrooms. Thus, materiality has been used as an asset, rather than a constraint.

Smart Materials

Smart materials in architecture. Simply put, these materials are interactive. They respond to changes in the environment such as a temperature change, variation in pressure, UV radiations, presence of a magnetic or electric field, moisture, etc. After sensing such differences, the material may change color, translucency, hardness, or appearance. 

With intelligent surroundings becoming an integral part of our lives, a need has been created for smart materials to become a part of these surroundings. Multifunctional smart materials can dramatically change the future of buildings, making them more efficient and sustainable.

‘Smart’ can refer to cities displaying figures according to changing weather conditions, it can be thermochromic reflecting people’s presence. It could also be as simple as wallpaper with organic patterns that glow in the dark. More practical materials are also being developed like smart glass where the level of translucency can be varied based on the requirement, and self-cleaning building envelopes, self-repairing concrete, etc.  

Here is a list of 7 smart materials:

  1. Holographic Glazing Façade
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Facade with Holographic Glazing_©

Few materials are considered to be ‘smart’ due to their original structure or composition being nanoscale, providing them with unique properties. These materials make themselves attractive with color changes, physical changes, temperature, or shape, which are always reversible and repeatable. 

One such material is holographic glazing facades which change color based on the type of light it reflects and the position of the viewer. Architects use holographic glazing both from a visual and practical point of view. They are mostly used for facades but can also be used for partition walls.

  1. Light Reflective Polymer Panels
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Light Reflective Polymer Panels_©

While holographic glazing is categorized as a media façade, displaying refined animations or patterns, light-reflective polymer panels are categorized as kinetic structures, three-dimensional, textural building envelopes.  

  1. Smart Glass
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Smart Glass_©

Smart glass or switchable glass is a glass or glazing whose translucency can be controlled. Smart glass technologies include electrochromic, photochromic, and thermochromic glazing. The transmittance properties of the glass change depending on how light or heat is applied. The glass becomes translucent in summer to block the harsh sunlight from entering the room or building. The same glass turns transparent in winters to let in the warming rays. Smart glass can also block up to 90% of harmful UV radiation. 

  1. Thermowood Cladding
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Thermowood Cladding_©

Thermowood may not be ‘smart’ in responding to environmental changes but it is a smart material in terms of not reacting to external stimuli. Thermowood is an intensive heat-treated Scandinavian softwood timber, with high weather resistance and enhanced longevity. It can be used for facades and exterior cladding. 

Thermowood being resistant to decay and pests can be used in any climate and this quality is attributed to the extensive heat treatment of the wood. 

  1. Solar Shingles
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Luma Solar Roof_©

Solar shingles are alternatives to large solar panels. They are small, custom shingles that can be used along with traditional roofing tiles. They function as both- solar panels and aesthetically appealing, durable roof tiles. Solar roof shingles are easier to install than solar panels. 

After installation, the units are wired together into the home’s electrical system. Solar shingles are manufactured by many companies including Tesla, Luma, Certainteed, Suntegra, Exasun, and GB Sol.

  1. Bio-Receptive Concrete
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Bio Receptive Concrete_©

Bio-receptive concrete is a type of concrete that hosts microorganisms and nurtures bio-colonization, thus producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide and pollution. 

  1. Microalgae
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Microalgae is a type of bioplastic. The algae are harvested from canals and waterways and are grown. The microbial cellulose obtained from the algae is spun in a fermentation process, into layered structures. These layered structures are translucent and can be used as partition screens, internal cladding, etc.

There was a period when entire structures were built of a single, or a combination of two building materials, like the Taj Mahal. Then came the era of glass, with glass being used everywhere regardless of the climate, context, or relevance. Architects and builders competed to construct the tallest of buildings, most of which employed glass. The next phase saw the introduction of ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable materials’. 

Shifting back to mud blocks, compressed stabilized earth blocks, became the trend. Now we talk about smart materials, super materials, memory materials, recyclable materials, and repurposed materials. Building materials are subject to innovation, but no matter what they are called, they are vital to architecture!



Meghna Patnaik is a third year B.Arch student who has begun to explore her writing potential in architectural journalism. She looks forward to writing, not only to enhance her understanding of architecture, but also because she is passionate about it. She is also an ardent baker.

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