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Blaine Brownell’s Material World

Blaine Brownell – is an architect obsessed with the future of building materials. He edits a wonderful and strange magazine/catalog called Transmaterial, which features materials far beyond the ordinary wood, glass, concrete, and steel. He tells us that, by one estimate, in the last 15 years, more new products for building have been created than have been used in the rest of history. He gives us a tour of some of the trends of this new world.

Many of these materials consider what life will be like after fossil fuels. We’re “still enjoying the party the founders of the industrial revolution began”, modernism as founded on petroleum.

Brownell is excited by materials like Sphelar, a solar material made of a matrix of black spheres – this allows light to be captured from all angles, not just from the angle of incidence. It’s flexible, and can be made into wearable clothing, like a jacket that can power your mobile phone. Another amazing material is Photovol glass, which is a transparent, but shaded, glass which generates power. It serves double-duty, shading overly bright walls as well as generating power. Remarkably, the material can also store light, allowing it to be used in multimedia displays at night.

Power conservation is as important as power generation. Cabot Corporation makes a superinsulator – Nanogel – which is the lightest human substance on earth. It’s 99% air, 1% quartz, and can be used to fill polycarbonate sheets – this means that windows can be translucent, but also highly insulative, which means that windows no longer need to equal heat leaks.

Kirei boards are beautiful woodlike panels, made from sorghum stalks. Squak Mountain Stone is a concrete replacement, made from cement and paper waste – it’s lighter and doesn’t require reinforcement. And Alkemi uses factory scrap, set in resin binder, used as a beautiful countertop suface. These show another trend – the transformation of waste into amazing objects.
I can’t do justice to all the materials covered in the talk – there was too much, too fast – paints that change color with touch or static electricity, tiles that light up or go dim in your shadow, glass panels that open or close in response to the CO2 levels, allowing windows to open themselves if you’re in a sick building. It’s amazing to see so many individual examples of problemsolving – it’s quite inspiring, in a way, watching engineers tackle problems by building things that weren’t possible before and which behave in entirely new ways.