Material Worlds is an online discussion series that gathers together experts and scholars who transcend the typical boundaries of expertise to posit new viewpoints on the equitable and resilient sourcing of building materials, not only to envision the future, but also to better understand the past and present of humanity’s impact on the nonhuman world. This series aims to promote sustained discussion about the impact of the building sector, examine new research in both academia and the industry, and establish a vocabulary of ecological architecture, all in the hope of engaging the newest generation of architects to reassess the discipline in the face of urgent change.

Opening Remarks
Carson Chan, Director, Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment

Moderator

Lindsey Wikstrom is the cofounding principal of Mattaforma, a design and research practice, and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Her Core I architecture studio explores the generative potential of material sourcing, commons, and renewability, while her Advanced IV studio focuses on the architectural and urban implications of biodiverse mass timber. Her research has been supported by the SOM Foundation, published in Embodied Energy and Design: Making Architecture between Metrics and Narratives, and exhibited at the XXII Triennale di Milano, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. Wikstrom has a forthcoming essay in Cite and a book project with Routledge.

Episode 6: Earth

May 17, 2022, 4:00 PM ET

Buildings made from earth are both ancient and futuristic. They are found in every corner of the world, no matter the climate, but are especially common in arid landscapes. Sometimes these buildings are big, sometimes small, sometimes long-lasting, sometimes temporary, sometimes pressed, rammed, or cast, and sometimes mixed with wood or stone, cement or steel. Earth is under all of our feet. It’s under every building. Earth as a material seems so sustainable and available, so why isn’t it more common?

Like trees, soil is extremely diverse. Since the industrial revolution, the building industry has had great difficulty accounting for nature’s extreme variation, and most often defaults to the most predictable, often synthetic, materials. To help make adoption more feasible in the contemporary built environment, designers, engineers, and material scientists are working on modernizing earthen materials and products that can account for variation and introduce new ways of making buildings using both on-site and off-site construction. Even though these new methods are shared on the Internet, are shipped internationally, and are being produced in factories and laboratories, rammed earth, poured earth, and earth blocks have their roots in our neolithic past.

Panelists

Lola Ben-Alon is an assistant professor at Columbia GSAPP, where she directs the Natural Materials Lab and the Building Science and Technology curriculum. She specializes in earth- and bio-based building materials—their life cycle, supply chains, fabrication techniques, and policy. Ben-Alon received her PhD from the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds a BS in structural engineering and an MS in construction management from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. At the Technion, Ben-Alon cofounded art.espionage, the Experimental Art and Architecture Lab.

Alia Bengana is a French-Algerian architect, teacher, and journalist. For the past 12 years she has specialized in the use of regenerative materials, with a particular interest in earth and fibers. She has a parallel career as an architect in her practice in Paris, and as an instructor (EPFL in Lausanne, HEIA in Fribourg, ENSA Paris-est). She also became a consultant, accompanying teams of architects on projects around sustainable reflections on the use of resources. She wrote a series of articles called “Concrete, the end of an era?” for Heidi.news, which she is also adapting into a comic book (to be released in fall 2022).

Mario Cucinella is the founder and creative director of MCA (Mario Cucinella Architects), an international design studio based in Bologna and Milan that specializes in research-based architectural design that takes a holistic approach to sustainability issues. In 2015 he founded SOS - School of Sustainability, a post-graduate training center aimed at training professionals in the field of sustainability. In 2021 Cucinella and the studio participated in COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, with the TECLA - Technology and Clay project, the first innovative model of an eco-sustainable 3D-printed home made entirely of local raw earth.

Joelle Eyeson is the cofounder of Hive Earth Studio in Ghana, West Africa. Hive Earth Studio is a multidisciplinary space where Eyeson and her team specialize in the use of locally sourced and eco-friendly materials for use in construction, interior decor, art, and design. Eyeson is an advocate for learning from our past and how our forefathers used eco-friendly materials from the earth, and using that knowledge to continue to innovate and push boundaries with what can be achieved in Africa—and shared with the world.

Episode 5: Concrete

April 15, 2022, 5:00 PM ET

Concrete is the one of the most consumed materials on earth, second only to water. We pour so much that it’s like adding a concrete Mount Everest to the Earth every couple of years. This anthropic rock’s utility and unmatched liquidity has long enabled dense cities, a characteristic of human occupation that is essential to living sustainably. However, concrete remains one of the most polluting materials in existence. Although concrete buildings and bridges reinforced with steel may make life easier and faster, the two materials together account for more carbon emissions than all car and plane emissions combined.

While concrete is the biggest consumer of freshwater on the planet, it also requires vast amounts of sand, extracted from beaches, riverbeds, and the sea floor; an activity wreaking havoc on ecosystems and causing violent territorial disputes. Plus, concrete might be deteriorating much faster than we thought. But, concrete is also considered an essential resource for infrastructure-resilience projects in regions facing extreme weather, climate migration, and rising sea levels. With this need in mind, is it possible to think of the material as being sustainable or equitable?

Is it even possible or responsible to imagine an end to concrete?

Panelists

Lucia Allais is an architectural historian and critic who writes about the relation of architecture, politics, and technology in the modern period and on the global stage. Her first book was Designs of Destruction: The Making of Monuments in the Twentieth Century, and her most recent article is a critical history of the carbonation equation for reinforced concrete, co-authored with Forrest Meggers. Allais is an associate professor at Columbia University, where she also directs the Buell Center. She is a member of Aggregate, and an editor of the journal Grey Room.

Elise Berodier is an engineer and scientist who campaigns for a transdisciplinary approach to developing sustainable concrete. She has been working in the field for over 10 years, in both urbanized and urbanizing countries. Her expertise ranges from the chemistry of cement to optimizing concrete production and repairing concrete structures, and she has developed projects investigating the actual context of concrete construction through the lenses of material science, knowledge management, economics, and building practices. She had worked with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Haiti, and is the founder of Béton Désarmant, a forum highlighting women using concrete in multiple fields.

Kiran Pereira is the author of the book Sand Stories: Surprising Truths about the Global Sand Crisis and the Quest for Sustainable Solutions and the founder of sandstories.org. She works as a social entrepreneur to find and promote solutions to the global sand crisis. Her work has been featured in the award-winning documentary Sand Wars and in media such as the Economist, BBC Radio5, Al Jazeera, Financial Times, ZDF Magazin Royale, and CNBC digital, among others. She lives in London.

Episode 4: Plastic

March 26, 2022, 11:00 AM ET

Plastic has enabled an era of hygienic environments, single-use consumption and a resulting accumulation of wealth, new advances in medicine and food preservation, global logistics, and increasing energy efficiency. But was it worth it? In half a century, over nine billion tons of plastic have been produced—16 times the weight of the global population today. If plastic were a country, it would be the fifth highest greenhouse gas contributor in the world, accounting for around 5% of all emissions. And the speed of plastic production and consumption is only increasing. Plastic will undeniably impact the health of living systems for generations. So how should the built environment respond? How might design help break down, reduce or eliminate the use of plastics? How might new scalable forms of reuse applications and technology along with plant-based plastics and polymer-eating bacteria turn the page?

Join us for an online discussion as part of Material Worlds, a series that gathers experts and scholars to present fresh viewpoints on the sourcing of building materials, not only to envision the future but also to better understand the past and present of humanity’s impact on the nonhuman world.

Panelists

Heather Davis is a writer, researcher, and teacher whose work draws on feminist and queer theory to examine ecology, materiality, and contemporary art in the context of settler colonialism. She is an assistant professor of culture and media at the New School. Her most recent book, Plastic Matter (2022), re-examines materiality in light of plastic’s saturation. Davis is also a member of the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary team of scientists, humanities scholars, and artists who investigate and make visible plastic pollution in the Great Lakes.

Nzambi Matee is a scientist, inventor, engineer, entrepreneur, and change maker. She pursued a major in physics at the Jomo Kenya University of Agriculture and Technology, where she obtained relevant foundational training in material science. Matee founded Gjenge Makers, a community-oriented organization created to address the need for sustainable and affordable alternative construction materials in Kenya and the Continent by using recycled plastics to produce paving blocks, paving tiles, and manhole covers. To date, Gjenge Makers has recycled more than 40 tons of plastic and created more than 130 job opportunities in the community.

Miranda Wang is a venture-backed climate tech entrepreneur who is building an innovative plastic-transformation company. She is the cofounder and CEO of Novoloop, a low-carbon advanced recycling and sustainable materials provider that upgrades common plastic waste into performance materials. Miranda is a Forbes 30 Under 30, a UN Young Champion of the Earth, and a Pritzker Environmental “Genius” Awardee. Outside of her day job, Wang lives in San José, California, with her husband Robert. She is an avid gardener with a keen interest in landscaping and nature. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

Episode 3: Carbon

March 1, 2022, 6:30 PM ET

Carbon is essential to life. It is the foundation of nearly 10 million different compounds, the second most abundant element in the human body, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe. As a fundamental building block, carbon makes the built environment possible. Yet carbon simultaneously makes the built environment a threat—as an invisible byproduct of life. The built environment contributes around half of the carbon emissions globally. Buildings, especially when they are mineral-based, have tremendous potential in acting as carbon sinks.

In the last few months, Climeworks opened the world’s largest “direct air capture and storage” plant, sucking carbon out of the air and turning it into underground rock; the EU announced a plan to remove five million tons of CO₂ by 2030; and the US launched “Earthshot” to remove billions of tons of CO₂ from the air, which was followed up by an infrastructure bill allocating $3.5 billion to build four carbon-sucking machines.

Carbon capture, carbon sinks, and carbon markets are transforming the way we might see our planet, our future, and our relationships with each other and with other living things for the foreseeable future. How will carbon as a material continue to reshape the world? How might the material flows, energy, and forms of our built environment adjust to these new interpretations of carbon?

Join us for an online discussion as part of Material Worlds, a new series that gathers experts and scholars to present fresh viewpoints on the sourcing of building materials, not only to envision the future but also to better understand the past and present of humanity’s impact on the nonhuman world.

Panelists

Holly Jean Buck is a geographer and environmental social scientist who is currently an assistant professor of Environment and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of the books After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and Restoration, which explores best-case scenarios for carbon dioxide removal, and Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero Is Not Enough, about how to approach fossil fuel phaseout. She holds a PhD in development sociology from Cornell University.

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran is the Global Energy & Climate Innovation Editor of The Economist and host of its podcast on climate change, To a Lesser Degree. His editorial responsibilities range from business and finance to technology and innovation, and he has produced numerous cover stories and won awards for his reporting. He is also the author of three well-received books on sustainability and innovation, as well as an accomplished public speaker. The Financial Times has declared him to be “a writer to whom it is worth paying attention.”

Robert Niven is the founder, CEO, and chair of CarbonCure Technologies, the global leader in carbon dioxide (CO₂) removal technologies for the concrete industry, with over 500 sites worldwide. Niven founded the company in 2012 with a mission to save 500 million metric tons of CO₂ emissions annually by 2030. CarbonCure is the past recipient of the Carbon XPRIZE, Cleantech Group’s North American company of the year, and BloombergNEF New Energy Pioneer. Niven lives in Victoria, BC, and spends his spare time with his family, pursuing outdoor adventure sports and supporting nature conservation, homelessness, and cleantech entrepreneurship initiatives.

Episode 2: Waste

February 10, 2022, 4:30 PM ET

You may have heard the idiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The difference between trash and treasure is dissolving quickly as we hurtle toward a mass extinction event. Now, more than ever before, it is our professional obligation to value all matter as much as possible.

The volume of construction and demolition debris headed for landfills continues to increase. Waste is not only polluting our planet in general, it also continues to risk the health of marginalized communities that suffer exponentially greater amounts of exposure.

Both creativity and vision are needed to move away from wasteful and exploitative production practices that don’t emphasize reuse. How can waste be valued as a resource for both design and production? Designing with circularity in mind involves new ways of sourcing materials, generating architectural narratives, and embracing new aesthetics. Leading designers have been on the quest to beautify waste as part of material circularity, and this requires re-examining systems of production, starting with the design process. From sourcing agricultural byproducts to urban mining or designing for deconstruction, what kinds of cultural and economic shifts in the built environment might normalize waste as a primary material?

Join us for an online discussion as part of Material Worlds, a new series that gathers experts and scholars to present fresh viewpoints on the sourcing of building materials, not only to envision the future but also to better understand the past and present of humanity’s impact on the nonhuman world.

Panelists

Tara Gbolade is co-founder of Gbolade Design Studio and a RIBAJ Rising Star winner. Tara is an Architect and Passivhaus Designer, and as such sits on the steering group of Architects Declare: a network committed to addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency. Her expertise in sustainable design and planning policy saw her lead the Harlow & Gilston Garden Town Sustainability Strategy. Tara is a founding member of the Paradigm Network: a professional network championing Black and Asian representation in the built environment; and she advises local authorities on the quality of major planning applications in London through Design Review Panels.

Alison Mears is the Director of the Healthy Materials Lab, Mears leverages her knowledge and experience as a long-term academic leader and her practice-based experience as an architect to confront one of the more serious and often overlooked environmental challenges of our time: the health of the built environment. She is also co-Principal Investigator of the Healthy Affordable Materials Project (HAMP). The Project is a long-term coalition of four organizations who work together to remove harmful chemicals from the built environment. Her work draws from the long tradition at The New School University’s commitment to promoting community-based sustainability, social engagement, and environmental justice.

Laurens Bekemans is an architect and co-founder of Brussels-based BC architects & studies—an architectural practice and non-profit research entity and materials laboratory—and most recently, BC materials—an urban mining company that repurposes excavated earth from construction sites. BC is BC architects, studies and materials. BC stands for Brussels Cooperation and points to how BC grew – embedded within place and people. Started in 2012 as a hybrid office, BC is manoeuvring the boundaries of architecture in a doers manner. With three different legal entities, the team engages in a variety of experimental projects through which it designs bioregional and circular architecture, researches educational and construction processes and produces new building materials using local waste streams such as excavated earth.

Episode 1: Mass Timber

December 14, 2021, 4:30 PM ET

Wood construction is ancient, and surprisingly more relevant than ever before. The United Nations predicts that nearly one Manhattan worth of floor area will be built every two weeks globally over the next 40 years (GlobalABC, IEA, and UNEP 2018). Since the built environment is responsible for almost half of global carbon emissions, it is essential that we redesign what these cities are made of.

Mass timber laminates small pieces of wood into scalable structural elements that have strength comparable to concrete and steel, enabling urban density, a key component in a low-carbon way of life. It has the potential to be more renewable and carbon-sequestering than any other structural material in existence. But questions remain. Who has access to healthy building materials like this? Are there enough trees to build the mass-timber cities of the future? Is mass timber fireproof? Will mass timber improve or reduce deforestation and biodiversity? And, ultimately, how might the built environment reflect a new type of relationship between people and nature?

Panelists

Anyeley Hallová is an equity- and sustainability-focused real estate developer with over 17 years of experience, from mixed-use developments to office headquarters for nonprofits. She started Adre in Portland, Oregon, in 2020 to focus on real estate projects that seek to create wealth for the Black community and for other underrepresented groups that traditionally lack access to real estate ownership and investment. Prior to Adre, she was a partner with project for 12 years, focusing on student housing, market-rate housing, residences, and office projects. Her civic work includes a governor appointment to Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) and board membership at the US Green Building Council.

Chandra Robinson is a principal at LEVER Architecture, a design practice recognized for material innovation and pioneering work with mass timber construction. Her projects encompass affordable housing, libraries, and other transformative buildings that advance social and climate justice. Robinson recently completed a campus for the equity-based foundation Meyer Memorial Trust. The Meyer headquarters is one of the first buildings made using mass plywood panels, and she implemented wood-sourcing criteria for the project that supported responsible forest practices and economic opportunity for rural communities, tribal enterprises, and businesses owned by women and people of color. In addition to her civic design work, Robinson is a member of the Portland Design Commission; a founding board member and treasurer of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA), Portland chapter; and a member of the advisory board of Hip Hop Architecture Camp.

François Dufresne, President, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) a recognized leader in the forestry sector, Dufresne has been president of FSC Canada since 2012. He holds a forestry engineering degree from Laval University and an MBA from York University. In his duties at SGF (Société générale de financement du Québec), he played a leading role in sustainable development initiatives relating to major expenditures in forest management, forest certification, and the First Nations of Canada. Through its contribution and vision, FSC Canada continues to exert its influence and leadership in the forest certification industry, promoting higher standards for responsible management of Canadian forests.

Dr. Peggi Clouston, Structural Engineer and Researcher, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Clouston is a professor of wood mechanics and timber engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has been working in the field of structural timber design for over 30 years. With over 80 publications, her research focuses on the development and structural analysis of advanced bio-based composites made from sustainable resources. She teaches courses in material mechanics, bio-based laminates, and structural timber design to architects, engineers, and building technologists. She is also associate editor of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering and has been a registered professional engineer (EGBC) since 1992.



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This series was made possible through a generous gift from Emilio Ambasz. The Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and the Natural Environment is a platform for fostering dialogue, promoting conversation, and facilitating research about the relationship between the built and natural environment, with the aim of making the interaction between architecture and ecology visible and accessible to the wider public while highlighting the urgent need for an ecological recalibration.