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Architects started caring about what their buildings are made from. That’s a good thing

Architects are increasingly involved in the material life of their buildings.

Architects started caring about what their buildings are made from. That’s a good thing
[Source photo: FC]

It’s almost always the case that the person who designs a building is not the one who builds it. That’s typically a good thing—let the experts do what they do best—but it can also mean that at a certain point, the creator of the building has to stand aside while others transform their vision into reality.

Usually this isn’t a problem. But sometimes the vision can get blurry. Materials are unavailable and awkward substitutions get made. Smooth curves in a 3D model get wonky in meatspace. High environmental targets get value-engineered down to hit a client’s budget.

Some of these problems, it turns out, are avoidable. Today, architects are getting more involved in guiding not only what their buildings look like in 3D models but also how they get built and from what materials. Rather than just specifying that their project’s general contractor uses a particular brand of exterior cladding or a color of ceiling panel and hoping for the best, some architects are designing their buildings around specific types of new materials and structural systems. They then work with their builders to find these materials from the best source. More than it has for decades, the material life of buildings is becoming a greater part of an architect’s work.

That’s taking the form of projects that set ambitious lifecycle goals for carbon emissions, designs that rely on bio-based structural systems, and an increased focus on the environmental impacts of the materials used to build projects.

“Architects are the foremost specifiers of materials,” says Kathleen Lane, managing director of climate action and design excellence at the American Institute of Architects. “It was always part of an architect’s job. But this is now an expanded ethic.”

The AIA has developed a set of principles to guide this focus, which it calls a Materials Pledge. Signatories commit to using materials that have a positive impact on climate health, ecosystem health, human health, social health and equity, and the creation of a circular economy. Since 2019, more than 330 firms have signed on.

Several honorees in Fast Company’s 2024 Most Innovative Companies architecture category have made a more holistic approach central to the way they design. They are showing that there are stylistic, performative, and environmental benefits to being more hands-on in how their designs get built.

ZGF, the designers of a new timber-based terminal at Portland International Airport, take this idea to the complicated realm of the materials supply chain. The gigantic roof they’ve created for their project is a feat of engineering that uses emerging architectural materials. Made entirely out of mass timber products, the nine-acre roof is an example of the ways designers are pushing new materials beyond humble expectations.

But how the roof came together is maybe an even more impressive part of the project. ZGF developed a highly specialized system to track the provenance of each piece of wood being used on the project, identifying foresters who use sustainable practices. To ensure the environmental benefits of using wood on the project were not outweighed by transportation emissions, all the wood was sourced from within 300 miles.

SOM, too, has created a new design approach that brings long term thinking to the design of its projects. Whole Life Carbon Accounting is a new service the firm is applying to its projects that evaluates, measures, and seeks to reduce carbon emissions through the full life cycle of a building. And WRNS Studio has brought a similar long-life thinking to existing buildings by finding creative ways to turn seemingly obsolete buildings into usable spaces for modern tenants.

These are just a few of the forward-thinking companies reshaping how architecture firms work. In conjunction with industry commitments, like the AIA’s Materials Pledge, and increasingly stringent standards set by building certification systems like LEED, architects are taking steps to ensure the projects they design are built to exacting and impactful standards.

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Nate Berg is a staff writer for Fast Company. He is based in Detroit. More

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