Dematerializing the built environment

Sustainability Report 2013

In a resource-constrained world, buildings must do better with less. Reducing resource mass is becoming a key sustainable design strategy and innovative building materials play a critical role. “Lightweighting” techniques and technologies can improve building performance, durability, and resilience, while correlating with LEED v4, BREEAM, and the Living Building Challenge emphasis on environmentally responsible material selection. Significant advances are drawing from discoveries in the fields of nanotechnology, biomimicry and materials science. A tremendous number of new products and materials that enable the “dematerializing” of buildings while improving performance, durability, and resiliency are beginning to reach the marketplace. They will engage participants in identifying risks and dealing with challenges to using these lightweighting techniques and technologies to improve building performance, durability and resilience.

However, progressive design and engineering teams face barriers to implementing these new technologies and materials, even in the most ambitious green building projects. A client’s budget constraints or reluctance to experiment are common reasons that well-vetted innovations falter in the final specification phase. Fortunately, there are many examples such as LED lighting and phase-change wallboard that have persisted and developed until succeeding in real steps toward market transformation and “dematerialization”.

For Greenbuild 2013 in Philadelphia, New Haven Director, Mark Loeffler and his friend, dMASS founder Howard J. Brown explored the cutting edge of material science and the real-world challenge to putting these ideas and advances into actual practice. “Dematerializing the Built Environment.” Howard began his career working with Buckminster Fuller before founding Resource Planning and Management Systems, a pioneering consultancy in corporate environmental management. He is the author of “Naked Value” and co-directs the website for which Mark is a frequent contributor. Mark served as Howard’s vice president of lighting and sustainable design for RPM Systems before joining Atelier Ten.

Howard showed how a profusion of radical new innovations for dematerialization of the built environment can help address global resource trends and environmental constraints. These included dirt-repellent coatings patterned after sharkskin, thermo-morphing bi-metallic cladding material, 3D printable structures, and micro-hydro power systems for tall buildings. Using specific project experience, Mark discussed the risks and obstacles designers and architects face when introducing such new products and materials to projects like the Frick Environmental Center and WWF Headquarters.

Subsequently, Mark and Howard were invited to speak at Building Energy, the annual conference of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association in March 2014 and are scheduled as featured presenters in October at ABX14 (formerly Building Boston) sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects. As this concept has gained traction, we are now working with progressive clients such as Goody Clancy and Leers Weinzapfel on consciously dematerializing our projects and translating material mass minimization into carbon savings.