I have a plastic lunchbox at home that my son uses, it used to be my own when I was his age, Tupperware of course. It is made of a single-use plastic (widely demonised) but has lasted nearly 40 years and could well be passed on to future generations. This demonstrates the appropriate use of a material in the way in which it was intended, material and use in harmony. The embodied energy and resources deployed in this item, over so many years, makes perfect economic and environmental sense, but only due to the quality and longevity of the design. This got me thinking about materials in general.
Back before the world became a rather small place as the availability of cheap fossil fuel allowed us to import goods from all over the globe, the materiality and ‘design’ of our buildings was largely a matter of economy and practicality. If you lived on the edge of a marsh you would likely utilise thatch in the construction of your roof. If your housing site was on a source of good quality clay you might well set up a brick works and build terraces in brick. And if you were located adjacent to a quarry of good quality easily-worked stone the chances are that you would choose to employ this stone within your building. Hence materiality was often linked directly to place and the architecture of a region really was seen as ‘regional’.
‘The Rich’ of course have for centuries enjoyed the luxury of being able to adopt fashions from around the world, sometimes meaning that the inherent materiality of a building might be wrapped in a clean new veil, brick hidden behind stucco render, fenestration altered, and detailing added or removed. The utilitarian buildings of the past provide a more honest response to location than the palaces. The 20th Century brought with it an ever-increasing multitude of choice allowing the designer to do almost anything they desired, fashion often overriding context and sometime also common sense.
Context is something however that is not always easy to apply to a building. Where is the context for a 24 storey apartment building in a predominantly low-rise city, or a contemporary high-tech teaching facility on the edge of town? Cobb, slate and thatch are unlikely to apply to these structures in any meaningful way, and why should they. Hence drawing on context and location ends up being about something else, something altogether more subtle, ethereal.
To add complexity to the situation, we often hear the phrase ‘high-quality materials’ applied to discussions about the suitability of a design, or otherwise. But what is a ‘high quality’ material? Is it defined by longevity, appearance, cost, embodied energy, ease of cleaning, durability? The 20th Century Modernists largely eschewed material appearance and decoration as it detracted from the simplicity of the sculptural form, the building as machine. The materials were simply the necessary stuff that created the form, with some exceptions of course. And yet we recognise that they created ‘high quality’ architecture. The Brutalists that followed them often employed reinforced concrete, leaving the material exposed in a completely honest fashion, their buildings becoming akin to natural cliff faces, outcroppings and strata. After all concrete was good enough for the Romans, why not Plymouth? It is also good enough for Paris, in the form of the Louvre extension. So why is concrete rarely, if ever, regarded as being a high-quality material?
And with Plymouth in mind, I still regularly fend off critical comments from people who refer to the buildings as concrete (a word that appears necessarily followed by ‘monstrosity’) when in fact the majority of the major city centre buildings are clad in expensive Portland Stone. Something is going awry?
it’s all about context. I don’t think that there are any bad or ‘low-quality’ materials, or indeed any high-quality ones. There are suitable and unsuitable materials for any application. The Portland Stone buildings of Plymouth look great when new, but they pick up algae and pollution quickly and hence must be regularly cleaned in order for then to keep their original bright appearance. The same is true for any porous material in our damp southwest UK climate, and this needs consideration when the choice is made to use it. In a warm damp climate these materials would probably simply go green.
Traditionally stone appears to be regarded as a ‘high-quality’ material, but stone has to be extracted from a quarry, an environmentally intrusive and high embodied energy process which might not make it the best choice of material, or may render it best used sparingly where most appreciated.
Some of the cheapest cladding systems and materials, such as those employed in agricultural buildings, are simply utilitarian in nature, a means to an end. However, in a rural context and employed outside of a highly insulated external wall, these materials will help any new building to fit in to its rural surroundings as well as performing as intended.
In contrast, a high-rise building will benefit from a high-tech, offsite manufactured system that is built to high tolerances and will need little ongoing maintenance, reducing the need to work at extreme height. However ultimately this might be aluminium, glass or glass fibre reinforced concrete rather than stone. And, of course, the disaster at Grenfell has added layers of complexity to how we now consider and design the whole build-up of these envelopes. Sometimes of course we are encouraged to include materials that go a little further in relating to context or regionality, and this is often best done as something highly visible where the users and general public will actually encounter it.
Stepping back in time there’s a reason why, for instance, the buildings around the southwest coastline have historically employed clipped eaves and bedded verges, slate-hanging and slate roofs, and that’s the copious quantities of horizontal rain and strong winds that hit them for 6 months of the year. We can learn a thing or two from this existing historical context.
At ADG we strongly believe in a contextual approach to buildings rather than feeling the need to follow fashion or a ‘house style’. We review material options against a matrix of attributes to determine a score for each based on all the issues discussed above, not least of all their overall environmental impact. The choice hence becomes analytical and one that can be defended when questioned. The result is a facade that responds to the brief, context and constraints imposed upon it and a building that performs well inherently.