The future of materials with Grant Gibson


The importance of materials to our collective future was an overarching theme of this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week. Over at Humanscale, for example, there were talks and seminars that focussed on its use of fishing net plastic for its latest range of chairs; Camira showcased the use of materials such as nettles, hemp and flax in its textiles; Benchmark launched products created from red oak, an underused wood from the North American forests… the list goes on.

One of the most intriguing panel discussions on the subject was held at The Market Building, where bathroom brand, Coalbrook, brought together a panel that included architect Amin Taha, whose building 15 Clerkenwell Close used stone for its superstructure, Annabelle Cox, CEO of Tensei, a specialist in material innovation, and Na Li, co-founder of interior architect Holloway Li, which designed the company’s showroom.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the venue because not only did it provide a fascinating backdrop for the talk but was also a source of its inspiration. Conventionally showrooms are politely neutral spaces, created to allow products to star. Yet at The Market Building, Holloway Li elected to do something rather different. The practice took its inspiration from the town of Coalbrookdale, the manufacturer’s spiritual home, the site of the world’s first iron bridge and a place synonymous with the industrial revolution.

Unsurprisingly then, there are references to chimneys and furnaces and liberal use of cast iron on the ground floor. Using the material immediately imbues a relatively new brand with a sense of heritage and solidity. However, the architect also introduced a playful, contemporary sense of lightness too, with casts of Victorian bathroom wall panels in orange and amber resin. Different areas are delineated with curtains made from steel rings.

Meanwhile, the basement is a darker space, dominated by a pair of industrial boilers made of iron. Importantly, the two floors are connected with a gloriously tactile staircase, which was cut from a single block of limestone. As Li explained, the edge profile becomes progressive rougher as it approaches the basement level, as if it has been hewn from the ground itself. The whole thing works a treat.

Once it had been established how materials are capable of embodying a brand and transforming a space, the panel turned its attention to the question of material intelligence.

Cox left the audience in little doubt that the design and architecture profession needs to change rapidly. She pointed out that we don’t have enough properly managed forests to meet demand. (As an aside, did you know that the UK imports 80 per cent of its wood?) However, companies like Tensei are exploring other avenues using waste from agriculture, such as straw, to create fibres for paper. This is then used for packaging in the bottom of soft fruit cartons, rather than plastic. She also illustrated how the industry needed to value materials and be less willing to discard products as they fall out of fashion or no longer fit a specific scheme. She challenged architects, for example, to find a way to preserve that potent symbol of tedious office existence, the suspended ceiling, in new developments rather than send the panels to landfills.

Subsequently (and understandably) attention turned to stone. Amin Taha explained how and why he designed the controversial 15 Clerkenwell Close, using limestone, rather than steel and concrete, for the building’s frame. Interestingly, sourcing makers with the right craft skills proved problematic and he was forced to look to France, where the tradition of building in stone has been preserved. Working with director of the Stonemasonry Company Pierre Bideau – who created the staircase at The Market Building and was in the audience to provide another expert voice – he elected to leave the material unadorned. So it’s still possible to see the fossils embedded in the rock. The building divides opinion, it was short-listed for last year’s Stirling Prize, for example, while Islington Council’s planning department launched a campaign to have it demolished shortly after it was completed in 2017.

However, wherever you stand on its aesthetic, it is hugely sustainable, using over 90 per cent less carbon than a conventional steel or concrete structure. Taha admitted this came as something of a surprise for the practice when they commissioned the report but the results made them do some serious thinking – as well as making him ‘an inadvertent campaigner for lower and negative embodied carbon construction’.

More recently, he has proposed a 30-storey tower block made from stone as well as cross-laminated timber.

According to his calculations, the building could be carbon negative. Provocatively, he suggested that we need to re-think our built environment. He posited that if buildings made of stone and engineered timber are capable of sequestering carbon then maybe we should consider knocking down existing stock and rebuilding to preserve the environment?

And with that, the hour was up. What did the audience take away? Well, perhaps if we take the time to understand materials, then we can understand how the world works. And if we understand how the world works, then we have a better chance of averting the climate emergency the planet is currently hurtling towards. Oh, and we need to re-think our attitude to suspended ceilings.

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