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Azure January February 2023 issue cover

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Portrait of Material Cultures team

Material Cultures has an admirable goal: to steer the architecture industry “towards a post-carbon built environment.” Working with all levels of the A & D community, the U.K.-based not-for-profit, which was co-founded in 2019 by architects Summer Islam and Paloma Gormley (architect George Massoud joined as director in 2021), champions regenerative design and construction principles.

It advocates the use of bio-based materials and sustainable building methods that are economically viable and “touch lightly on the ground.” The group recently launched its first book, Material Reform, a collection of essays that call for a more harmonious relationship between the built environment and the natural world. Here, they — collectively — share some thoughts on how change can be implemented.

1
Recognize your responsibility

“It’s really critical that architects understand the consequences and implications of the way we build, acknowledge our role in perpetuating harm and accept that, as architects, we are uniquely positioned to positively influence not just material choice on building projects but also positive employment and labour practices both in the office and on the construction site.”

2
Be an agent for change

“The entire industry and its supply chains need to be involved in a transition to a more circular and bio-based construction economy, from contractors to policy- makers, saw mills to construction skills academics. The most effective levers, however, are in the hands of the state — policy-level change is one of the strongest tools we have to incentivize change in what is an oth- erwise conservative industry. Architects are uniquely engaged with different actors along the supply chain and across the industry; through our own work and the way we engage with the other actors, we can both demonstrate best practice and demand better practice from collaborators.”

A collaboration with sustainable developer Human Nature, the Phoenix in Lewes, East Sussex, will rejuvenate a former industrial site and be populated with buildings made from prefabricated timber and hempcrete insulation. People will be prioritized through the inclusion of parks, courtyards, community spaces, a health centre and more.
3
Explore alternative materials

“There is so much to learn from Indigenous knowledge and building practices around the world, from how to build with what you have at hand to how to build in low- impact ways and how to adapt the way we live to the climate we inhabit. We are excited about bio-based materials. These materials are regenerative; they regrow and, if planted and managed sustainably, they can provide environmental benefits too. In the long term, they can be composted and return to the bionutrient cycles from which they came.”

4
Shorten the supply chain

“Inherently, locally manufactured materials build value into the economic and social systems in the places in which we build. The shorter supply chain also means less energy is spent in transporting materials. It also requires the distribution of construction and manufac- turing skills across an economy, not just in urban or manufacturing centres. These are all things that are good for rural economies, but they are also good for our buildings. The less energy we spend in building, the better — and a more resilient construction skills economy can coalesce around more locally sourced natural materials.”

5
Reprioritize our relationship to the land

“The land is our most precious resource. We draw materials and food from it, and it sequesters carbon, is home to our ecosystems and is where we build our homes. The care for all living things on our land has not been a priority — to both our environmental and economic detriment. We need to understand the consequences of building with and on our land, making more informed choices about how we prioritize land use and who has access to that land.”

5 Regenerative Design Principles by Material Cultures

In its new book, Material Reform, U.K. practice Material Cultures champions sustainable building for a post-carbon future.

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