Samdal / Material Driven Architecture

Material Driven Architecture A Framework for Exploring the Role of Material Experiences for Integration of Soil in a Sustainable Material Culture

Author: Ina Samdal, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Supervisor: Eir Ragna Grytli, Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Research stage: Initial doctoral stage

Category: Paper


This project originates from personal observations about how we consume materials and resources in Norway. While working as a practicing architect it felt like we were constructing our identity around expensive-looking materials and a need for constant updating. At the same time the world is experiencing an uncertain and challenging period with disturbing reports on climate, health and environment. As a contribute to achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), the Norwegian government reported in 2020 that the national goal is a 90% cut (from 1990 levels) in emissions by 2050. From 1990 to 2019, the decline in emissions was 2.3% 1. The change over the next ten years will have to be radical if the goals are to be achieved. Technology alone cannot achieve the SDGs; it is how we use it in combination with resources, and last but not least how it is acknowledged, that does. Researchers have started to consider how environmental behaviour is connected to the relationship between design and people’s meanings, emotions and associations 2 3 4 and the need for research on the immaterial characteristics of materials have been stated 5 6. At the same time, sensory aspect and experience is often by-passed in architectural research and practice in favour of technical properties, price and production efficiency 7. Hence, no holistic material information is available to the architect or the user as guidance for sustainable design.

Natural materials such as earth and straw have a growing interest globally, with research focusing on their environmental benefits and one sees an increasing popularity of these materials in the western world 8 9 10 11. Mobile factories and the use of robots or drones also play a critical role in this change as they open up the possibility of utilizing local materials in a more time-saving and cost-effective way. Even so, there are still challenges in incorporating these materials into contemporary architecture. How can design, construction and sensory experiences with natural building materials contribute to a development towards a green material culture? This study presents an approach showing how some of the gap in research can be potentially overcome by investigating how working with natural materials through experienced phenomena can have a positive impact on the materials cultural value.

Soil and wool

Figure 1: Soil and wool

Problem statement

The Norwegian architectural research and education on natural materials is concentrated on wood, which is a well-established resource within industry and national building regulations. With the exception of wood, the knowledge about other natural materials in Norway is more or less limited to the professional environments within building conservation or self-builders, and so to say non-existent in contemporary architecture. One possible reason for this is that there is no particular tradition of building with earth, straw and wool in Norway. This assumption is based on two factors. Firstly, Norway has rich access to wood of good quality, the material is easy to process and works well in the current Nordic climate. Secondly, earth, straw and wool are materials that in pre-industrial times required a lot of manual processing. Today, Norwegian wool is treated as a waste product (Klepp et al., 2019), and earth is seen as a problematic material that often ends up being removed from construction sites, which contributed to mass transport accounting for 63% of all freight transport in the second quarter of 2020 in Norway 13.

One of the most fundamental issues is that despite the growing body of international research on natural materials, Norwegian architects, students and potential users have few physical examples where the materials can be experienced. Regardless the design research emphasizing the importance of material experience alongside the tangible properties in material selection processes, this integration in architecture education in Norway is observed to be deficient. Having worked in material courses on both undergraduate and graduate level at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) over a period of four years, I have observed a tendency to focus on the technical and economic aspects of materials. Not to mention the absence of teaching about materials that are categorized outside of conventional use, such as earth and straw. This is a challenge when research shows that natural building materials can be of great importance for reaching the SDGs 14.

Another issue is that a one-sided focus on one natural material can lead to vulnerability to climate change. To best prepare for an uncertain future, several alternatives should be considered. How we can better understand the consequences of material selection are perhaps the biggest challenge in architecture in our time. There is a need to address the issue of the gap between the international academic research on natural materials and the use of such materials among practice and architectural education in Norway. The drive of this study is to explore whether knowledge from interaction with the materials can contribute as a bridge-builder between these two separate worlds and further contribute to the development of a greener material culture. The research develops a framework to examine the architectural experiences of the materials wool, straw and earth as an alternative to wood.

Theoretical framework

Experiencing natural materials

Natural materials represent an opportunity for sustainable architecture as these have the potential to appeal to people as being ‘natural’ and ‘imperfect’, which are aesthetic factors identified as being significant in designing for sustainability 6. Furthermore, unfired earth and straw have a triple benefit in the life cycle, as the availability is great, the production requires little energy and the material can return to nature without damaging it 9 15. With this in mind, Ben-Alon investigated how earth can be integrated in contemporary architecture and indicated one barrier to be lack of knowledge and experience, especially outside academic research, which in turn leads to earth being excluded from building regulations and innovation 8.

In search of a proper approach to an understanding of the use of natural building materials, literature review on 'material design' and 'material selection' established that the sensory properties of materials together with personal experiences are of great importance when designers and architects choose materials 7 16 17. The establishment of material libraries worldwide, where students and professionals can visit, indicates that sensory experiences are recognized as an important element in material selection. Nonetheless, they often lack any systematic information on the tacit knowledge of the materials 7 18. A shift from a product-driven design focus to a material’s experience approach have led to the development of several methods. Such as ‘DIY-materials’, an explorative method searching for new materials 19, or ‘Design-driven Material Innovation’ an interdisciplinary approach searching for new applications and systems of materials for manufacturing 20. Most relevant for this study is ‘Material Driven Design’, described in the next section.

Choice aspects in material selection

Figure 2: Choice aspects in material selection

Material Driven Design method (MDD)

The MDD method developed by Karana, Barati, Rognoli and Zeeuw van der Laan have a material as the starting point and material experience within a material or a product as the expected outcome. The method consists of four phases:

Understanding the material. Beginning with tinkering, through exploring a material in a creative and naïve way, without having a project in mind. The goal is to understand the essential qualities, limitations, and opportunities of the materials. Parallel with tinkering, user studies will be conducted to reveal the individual experienced characteristics and benchmarking by comparing the material with others.

Creating materials experience vison in a society context.

Manifesting materials experience patterns to link a created vison from the previous phase to formal technical and sensory qualities of a product. Again, user studies are a tool to obtain insight of the meanings the materials evoke.

Creating product concepts, where previous findings are integrated into a design phase.

Since the publication of ‘Material Driven Design (MDD): A Method to Design for Material Experiences17, the number of research and educational courses within product design concerning the method has grown considerably. For example, universities in Sweden, UK and Italy have given contributions and reflections on the method 21 22 23.

Result: Material Driven Architecture framework

This project arose out of my fascination with how sensory experiences of natural materials affect our personal assessments. This interest was strengthened during the work on my master's thesis where local building materials were examined in several experiments. The material samples were presented as a traveling exhibition (Figure 2) that opened up for a dialogue about the materials. Conversations with the exhibition visitors gave the impression that the individual architectural valuation was apparently not evoked by measurable aspects, but more by vision and tactile properties of the material. For instance, architects were often more interested in talking about how the roughness or honesty of a rammed earth element appealed to them than in discussing the technical advantages and disadvantages of the material. At the same time, they found it difficult to describe in words why they found the material attractive. Given these points, there is a need for reference projects as well as a framework to support architects in understanding how natural materials affects our experiences.

Reflection on the MDD method and experiences gained with the method give the impression that it cannot be directly incorporated into architectural design. For example, exploring meaningful material experiences from an architectural perspective implies an understanding that the materials should end up in a spatial construction element rather than an object. Different from product design, architecture is more context oriented 7. Given that point, place is added as an aspect in the framework. Future green buildings should be more than a technical structure intended to protect humans from weather or being representatives of trends like ‘powerhouse’ or ‘passive house’. They should also fit into the physical and cultural context of the site, along with providing feelings of safety and identity. Moreover, they should provide sensory delight and be meaningful. Figure 4 illustrates through a floating iceberg how the experience aspect is an important part of material selection for architects; however, it is also more diffuse compared to more measurable aspects such as stiffness capacity or assembly techniques.

Material Driven Architecture framework

Figure 3: Material Driven Architecture framework

In search of a proper base for designing for material experience with natural building materials, this paper proposes a framework with the working title Material Driven Architecture. The framework is based on characteristics from the MDD method, as well as the selection aspects identified in Wastiels and Wouters work. A distinguishing feature of this framework compared to the MDD method is the including of context, where use, physical aspects and culture will influence the material’s experience. Materials ability to connect people to place, where we are and who we are is a central aspect towards sustainable behaviour. This approach fits under the concept of ‘sensemaking’, a term used to describe the process of how to “understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively” 24. Figure 5 illustrates the four phases in the framework, as a tool for material exploration. Although the phases are intended to be implemented as a holistic design concept they could also be seen as series that can be altered depending on the graduate level of students or time available.

Material Experience Catalogue

Figure 4: Material Experience Catalogue

1) Bridging the gap

An overall understanding about the material’s technical aspects is combined with tinkering where the materials are explored in a hands-on approach to gain material experience. This phase is similar to the first phase in the MDD method, ‘Understanding the Material’, where the methods (tinkering, user study and benchmarking) and the goals are the same. Earth, straw and wool appear to have a poor image as building materials. From observations of the master exhibition visitors, words like dirty, poor, itchy and unstable are noticed. As well as more positive loaded words like honest, natural, warm, and friendly. Acquiring an understanding of how to make buildings where these materials generate positive user experiences is perhaps as important as access to reliable technical data for the materials to become more widespread. An addition to the MDD method is step 5, ‘material exploration catalogue’ that summarizes the material experiences together with the technical aspects, as a process tool for further material exploration and a narrative approach of the materials experience. The catalogue will be supplemented with information during the exploration.

2) Contextual aspects

The second phase is aiming for a synthesis between the technical aspects, context and the material experiences. However, the material experiences should be the emphasis, as innovation in material science is not the goal of this framework. Hence, the technical data is to be seen as background information to develop material experiences that are relevant in an architectural perspective. Insight into the technical properties of a material is essential for handling a material in different climatic conditions. Context is an important and complex aspect in architecture, as there are many factors to influence how a material is experienced in a physical situation. For example, a new building placed in a wet climate in a large coastal city built on fishermen’s culture will be experienced differently than a transformation of an existing building on a rural farm surrounded by agricultural land in a cold and dry climate, although both projects were built with the same materials and construction principles. In order to make the investigations verifiable, a specific context is therefore introduced to which the material experiences are adapted.

Rural context

Figure 5: Rural context

Urban context

Figure 6: Urban context

3) Envisioned Future

Creating a new meaning for the material will be of great importance in the process of exploring how the materials can contribute towards sustainable building, as the acceptance amongst people will be of significance for their success in a potential future Norwegian material culture. Here all the gained knowledge from the previous phases is combined in a proposed future situation for the material. Climate change, population growth and the earth's threatened resources make us ask the question; how should we live? What experiences are essential to achieve a lifestyle we can enjoy? In the MDD method ‘Material Experience Vision’ is the second step. Due to the importance of context in architecture, ‘Envisioned Future’ should be implemented after context has been introduced as a leading element in the materials exploration.

4) Architectural Concept

In the final phase all the findings documented through pictures, material samples, videos, drawings and text from the previous phases are integrated into an architectural project intended to be built. A spatial construction consisting of the explored material can through qualitative studies of observation and spontaneous interviews provide insight into how the materials are received by users while it also can function as a reference project presenting the materials in a Norwegian context. In this sense, it also has the potential of being the object for quantitative research on the material’s technical aspects, although this is not an objective of this project.

Discussion and conclusions

This paper has proposed the framework Material Driven Architecture as a possible approach to develop understanding of how intangible characteristics related to sensory aspects, perception, emotions and association can be used on natural materials in architectural design. The challenge of measuring experiences and distributing them may be one reason why research on how building materials are experienced is not widespread. Methods for gaining a better understanding of this are therefore necessary if the knowledge is to be integrated into sustainable architecture. The framework outlined is to be regarded as a general rough draft, as every material-driven investigation is unique, and practice will most likely deviate from the framework in each research situation. As mentioned in the introduction, inquiries on building materials tends to be quantitative. Material Driven Architecture proposes a qualitative approach to material research. Still, the intention is not to highlight it as a preferred method over quantitative research. On the contrary, the aim is to create a broader perspective on knowledge about material experiences that can supplement quantitative data. The hope is that this research can contribute to further development of approaches for incorporating the previously mentioned materials in a future green material culture.

The proposal stands on the shoulders of a long and still inspiring culture of material experience investigations within product design. In the paper ‘Material Driven Design (MDD): A Method to Design for Material Experiences’ years of experience from four designers from different countries are incorporated 17. Hence, the MDD consist of a mix of well-proven methods and is in fact still being developed further at the Material Experience Lab at Delft University and Technology. However, when comparing the Material Driven Architecture framework to those studies, it must be pointed out that this is a first draft of a method attempted adapted to architecture.

It is difficult to arrive at any conclusions with regard to the effect of the framework, as the project is in the initial phase and has just begun the process of the experimental work. The expected outcome is to develop knowledge of the materials earth, straw and wool and to achieve greater understanding on how technical, contextual and experiential aspects influent the total experience of a material or a building. A merge of these aspects can hopefully contribute to bridging the gap between the technological oriented research on natural materials and the deficiency of knowledge and use of the materials among architectural education at NTNU. Future architects will play an active role in the work of achieving the UNs SDGs, and with this in mind students will be the participants in the further research. The students need to be introduced to an open-minded material exploration process based on scientific methods to prepare them for any material challenges to come. Future research should further develop this framework in a practice-based context where the phases is further studied, developed and tested.

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