How Inventive Materials of Old Will Save the Future of Architecture

We are living in uncertain times. The environment continues to fall into greater disrepair, and as architects and designers we are faced with huge logistical questions over how we are to build the cities of the future without compromising the health of the planet any further. It is clear that concrete and steel structures across the world are inherently bad for the environment in how they are designed and the carbon footprint that they have. Now, we are looking at two of the oldest materials around to provide us with the answers, with inventive design adding the possibility for both stone and timber to change the way in which we view the world.

Looking at the potential strategies to help create a sustainable future for architecture, urban planning and construction, it is startling how we should be looking to materials and strategies from the past. The answer could be right in front of us.

One of the easiest things that we can do is to look at using materials that have lower embodied impacts. We are now seeing research into skyscrapers that are built using stone, rather than concrete and steel. The removal of concrete and steel from as much construction as we possibly can is important to building a low-carbon footprint, sustainable future for the sector. This can be helped with stone and cross-laminated timber to give two examples.

There should also be a reduction in the reliance on cement throughout construction projects, through alternative materials such as fibre-based boards instead of plasterboard as one example. Timber, stone, recycled materials, hemp and straw, are all materials that are better served to the purpose of an environmentally friendly future.

Alongside the approach of using alternative materials to concrete and steel to build with, there are some other ways in which we can use a template of old to build a brighter future for architecture. Plans can have lightweight structures in mind, requiring shallower foundations, and designed with durability and a long life-cycle in mind. There should also be a focus on refurbishing existing buildings and bring them up to these new standards wherever possible.

We have seen in recent years examples of timber skyscrapers and entire timber cities being designed in various parts of the world. There is, of course, multiple things to consider alongside the sustainability and carbon footprint of a building, but also whether it is a strong enough material to withstand the elements and practicalities of different locations.

As you can see, it is exciting to witness new designs and research based around the use of timber and stone in construction materials, as an alternative to the now traditional concrete and steel frameworks that we are used to seeing in every residential and commercial building across the developed and developing world (from single-storey dwellings to the largest skyscrapers). We are in urgent times where an alternative to how we have been doing things for the past century must be urgently found. It is funny that we are finding the potential answers in the past, with carbon-neutral (or in the case of some types of timber – carbon negative) materials that give us a great chance to change the future for the better.

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