Please can we use other materials besides just steel and concrete

on August 21, 2020
In a nutshell, people have built with earth-based materials for an incredibly long time.  Mud brick and adobe have defined the architecture of the desert areas of Africa for generations and there are many still-existing cob and thatch buildings in the United Kingdom that date back to the 14th century.  Maybe, in searching for ways to build sustainably and minimally, the answer is not really forward, but backward.  This being said, it would be entirely shameful if we did not use current knowledge and technologies to aid us to more efficiently bring earth building to the forefront.  In 2018, the Italian company WASP completed a home called Gaia which perfectly integrates old and proven building materials, mainly mud, with new methodologies of building like large format 3D printing. Using a rotating robotic arm, Gaia's wall system is entirely 3D printed out of a mud filament.  The printed mud walls, combined with rice insulation, offers everything you need in an envelope including self fire-rating, water protection, and thermal protection if you build thick enough.  Through the selection of materials, projects like this have environmental impacts of almost zero and can cost as little as $1500 USD to produce. With 3D printing, similar structures can be completed in just two weeks. Low carbon, cheap, and fast.  What's not to like?

Ways of natural building are not just limited to small homes though.  Wood skyscrapers are becoming more and more of a feasible replacement for the environmentally detrimental steel and concrete combination.  Just take a look at the 18-story Mjøstårnet building in Norway.  Now, while this is all boundary-pushing and incredible work, I would actually argue that the best way to begin to radically change the building industry is not here, but at the home level, on smaller scale projects like Gaia with less liability and money involved.  For people that don't exactly have the resources or experience to build large from the start, you have to prove to developers and investors that you're not crazy by first doing a lot of successful, smaller projects to equal or lesser cost as projects that they're used to.  You would have to accomplish this before you would be given the go-ahead to create something of 6 or so stories with all natural materials.  Luckily for us smaller practices, the single family home is desperate for an earthen upgrade that rids of all of the layering and covering up that comes with the usual lightwood frame system that developers have become so fond of.  By the end of most wood frame projects, you can't even tell that these buildings are made of wood because its all hidden behind fibrous insulation, gypsum board, and asphalt shingling.  We should be allowing people to touch the wood grain in their spaces and experience texture and imperfections so that their homes can begin to feel like real places rather than cut-and-paste blueprint products.  Don't cover up materials derivative of nature, celebrate them.

I assume that by now, a bit more historical context on our classic lightwood framing system is necessary, so let's get into that.  2x4 lumber is trivial, but developers in the mid-20th century would have been hard-pressed to find a material or method more efficient.  America was suburbanizing, and construction needed to keep up.  Out of suburbanization was born the aesthetic of compartmentalized family homes plotted on identical land strips.  Conformity was what really defined American idealism.  People really didn't care what their home as an individual entity looked like.  What mattered was that theirs looked like all of the others.  Using this sort of logic, any aesthetic nature could have become widespread, and perhaps the only real requirements for establishing a new normal are enough examples. 

What I'm trying to get at is there's going to be resistance in multiple areas.  To change the building industry, you not only have to prove to developers, construction managers, and investors that newer methods can be just as monetarily lucrative, but you have to convince the people that new building typologies aren't ugly. Most don't really do well with change, but change in the way that we build is absolutely necessary for the preservation of the planet as we have come to know it.  Changing some of our habits is certainly easier to grapple with than dealing with a transformed climate, so we have to flood the gates of building construction.  We have to get people used to new styles of living.  Everybody is stuck here together, so we need to understand that individual decisions have collective consequences.