Materials- To choose or not to choose…that is the question.

The most important aspect of the design is understanding the relationship between technical design and knowledge of materials is essential to the production of sound solutions, whether they be evaluated as sustainable, economic or efficient in any other way. It is this relationship that is explored in this blog.

This relationship is pertinent to understand as most designers cannot comprehend even the most mundane building materials. Detailed knowledge of materials gives the designers an edge to innovate. The designer doesn’t need to master the field of materials but having substantial knowledge is required to design effectively.

For instance, a simple brick poses various questions to a designer. The query of the sourcing of its clay, the energy supply used in the kiln, the process of crushing, all this and more adds to making good design decisions when using this material.

By exploring the requirements of materials, its selection criteria and methods used, it is intended to point out the issues that are put forth to a design team. The most important variable of any project is its material. This variable holds the key to change the entire experience of a project. There are various aspects to be kept in mind when selecting a material initially is availability and suitability, familiarity with these issues is vital. Every designer has a ‘comfort zone’, it is both a strength as well as a weakness. It keeps the designer from exploration, innovation and often from making a subsequent move towards sustainable practices.

Suitability and availability have a considerable impact through the course of selecting materials. The suitability of any material depends on its assembly process, skills availability to work with that material, and the budget. This involves a dilemma whether the material is available as a superior component with good quality control standards or whether the choice will need the site staff to learn to work with it and understand its performance variables of new material. This process further gets more complex if a holistic and sustainable design approach is selected, here the performance criteria itself becomes a variable. The availability of a material is, however, a constraint on selection. It includes-

  1. Physical availability (can it be acquired?)
  2. Financial availability (is it affordable?)
  3. Environmental availability (is it a good and safe material to use?)

(Wienand and Watson, 2006)

Designers should ideally aim to move outside their comfort zone, this requires an acceptance of the risks although it can be worked with pre-testing and prototyping.

The agenda to select material is mainly to find a solution to a problem. Often this is intuitively achieved, for example, the building envelope the walls and the roof, the material aims to be waterproof. Conversely what if there is another design solution where we could turn it around. The material could retain it until it evaporates which helps to create a cooling effect. There are many ways of reaching the goal, but the designer needs to get rid of the preconceived obstacles and norms. They need to think out of the ordinary.

The problem needs to be deconstructed and looked at from various angles, to get the best possible solution. Another way of looking at the building envelope is to keep rainwater out and waterproofing isn’t always the only option. 

Buildings include many components some are cast in situ others are pre-engineered, transported and assembled at site. All are expected to have reliable performance and again they depend on the choice of material. The selection of a material and its projected performance work simultaneously. Performance criteria include-

  1. Structural stability – To consider if the material can withstand the imposed loads and effect of wind and thermal activity.
  2. Durability – The projected life of the material.
  3. Health and Safety – The material’s serviceability i.e. if the material doesn’t present a health risk both during construction and use.  
  4. Fire – The material’s resistance in the advent of fire. 

The next stage of performance criteria for consideration are leaning towards the design decisions to make, these include-

  1. Aesthetics- The value added to the experience of the project by a particular material.
  2. Weathering performance – The material’s behaviour against weather conditions.
  3. Maintenance – The ease of cleaning and repairing the material. 

The main responsibility of designers is to the client, but this also extends to greater accountability to society and the environment. The design process has to follow the formal codes and regulations, along with mindfulness to the welfare of the planet. This is safe to say a part of health and safety which is expected to include ecological health. Sadly, this isn’t true for the mainstream construction, there is progress but it is not significant enough to achieve this greater cause.

Lastly, the cost is the major element in play for the choice of materials and its association with quality. It is important to consider the hidden costs any material has. The designer has to take into account the price of the material as is, the transportation cost, the labour cost, the future maintenance cost, etc. Every aspect of cost environmental, human or financial, needs an economical perspective.

Remember when designing and drawing the technicalities of a project, the material is a variable when played with, it can control the entire experience of the project, choose wisely. 

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