The cutting-edge Copenhagen lab is exploring materials that will transform what it means to build sustainably.
Next year, one of the most sustainable buildings on the planet will open on Bornholm Island, off the southern coast of Sweden. Called the Green Solution House, the 120-room hotel and conference centre will showcase some of the most advanced thinking being applied to zero-net energy construction. Every material used will be biodegradable, energy neutral or energy positive, with the entire complex engineered to eliminate the very notion of waste. Some familiar big gun eco-strategies – grey water purifiers, solar panels, passive heating and cooling, and composting – will be worked in to the project. As well, greenhouses on site will supply organic food, and their living walls will provide insulation. The project is being spearheaded by GXN, the exploratory arm of Copenhagen architecture firm 3XN, which for the past six years has been rethinking architecture from the inside out, and in the process developing a menu of eco-materials from scratch.
The still-small lab and its team of 10 occupy the top floor of a historical warehouse that is crammed to the rafters. Along one wall, boxes and petri dishes containing unidentifiable materials fill dozens of open shelves. On the other, designers hunker over desks, prodding and poking these same substances. The narrow room’s steeply pitched walls make the space feel more like an artist’s garret or a high-speed train tunnel. Metaphorically, it is both. GXN is zooming past standard enviro-wisdom and coming up with inventions for greening the planet – one strange, counterintuitive material at a time. “We’ve become a centre of discourse for new material research, a kind of first call for introducing new components into the building industry,” says co-founder and director Kasper Guldager Jørgensen. Rethinking the use of materials, he believes, constitutes the next frontier of green innovation.
While the lab’s day-to-day activity consists mostly of brainstorming (Jørgensen estimates that only about 10 per cent of the investigations lead to useful applications), the team also explores such standard material eco-gestures as recyclable carpet – though, in the spirit of rethinking the whole process, they examine each stage of a product’s life cycle, seeking alternatives for every bit of laundered fluff or rubbery crumb. During my visit, architect Tore Banke took me through what is currently being studied. Alongside those petri dishes containing granules of half-recycled carpet are sheets of flax, chunks of aerated concrete, bricks of golden yellow polyurethane, and other specimens of improbable matter the team might want to experiment with. Most wondrous of all is a luminous ball of aerogel, one of the lightest solids on earth, manufactured by pressure-cooking a combination of four chemicals into a silicate gel made up of 95 per cent air. “This is our golden egg,” says Banke of the near-levitational substance, smiling as he hands me what looks like a blue-tinged Ping-Pong ball. It’s so freakishly weightless that it seems to float around on my palm.
NASA first developed aerogel as an insulation for spacesuits. GXN has embedded it within conventional materials to provide lightness and insulation in highly specific applications, such as glass facades (although only on high-budget buildings, one would think, as it costs roughly $1 per cubic centimetre). More recently, NASA scientists have formulated a polyimide aerogel that is 500 times stronger than silicate aerogel and withstands temperatures up to 400 degrees Celsius. GXN seized on the development and posted it on their Facebook page with one of the studio’s favourite questions: “A future insulating material?”
The lab’s blue-sky approach is much more roundabout than the typical consumer-generated paradigm, where markets drive design. According to Jørgensen, that mode of thinking suffocates curiosity and innovation. Even his staff boasts a strategically complementary though unorthodox skill set, from industrial and parametric designers to an architectural psychologist. As Banke explains, the team sits down with a material and thinks hard about how to maximize its effectiveness: “Are we looking at it the right way? Maybe we shouldn’t make it for a frame structure; maybe we should make it as a composite.” If they need to leaven the heft of an overhang, they study what kind of matter best serves that purpose: Fibre-laced concrete? Algae insulation?
For one of the parent firm’s projects, the Horten law office in Copenhagen, GXN’s research led to the building shell being constructed not with steel, but with a composite framework: two layers of fibreglass that sandwich a high-density foam insulating core, with travertine marble sheathing the structure. Strategically jogged and inclined to shield the interior from overheating at high noon, the sculptural form also happens to look much more interesting than a staid flat-plane facade.
Jørgensen believes that by learning how materials are composed and how they interact, his team can work toward that hallowed enviro-goal of biomimicry. “We are trying to learn from the world’s way of organizing itself,” he says. GXN’s approach has come a long way from where green architecture was when the lab first started in 2007. The ubiquitous chatter then was focused squarely on the existing LEED-certified menu of available and “acceptable” materials and products, such as bamboo flooring.
During my tour, Banke points out a few more new fusions on the shelves: soy resin, jet-puffed aluminium foam boards, fibre-laced concrete, luminous phosphor crystals and magnetic paint. But there are some green standbys, too, such as cork. Even beyond what NASA can dream up, GXN sees cork as a potential super-material of the future, a natural, highly sustainable insulator, though it needs to be developed into a different form to be useful on a global scale. The next move is to convince builders, clients, peers and the public to buy into it, and the Green Solution House should serve as an excellent step forward. “If we really look into the materials when we design,” says Jørgensen, “we can change human performance.”