Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, 2014 AIA President
William Stewart Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA, 2014 AIA President

Architects confront a dizzying array of new materials (and performance claims) any time they go to an expo, browse a design magazine, open their email inboxes, or thumb through the day’s mail at the office. How are we to distinguish hype from fact? Who has time to do the research, as mass customization and global manufacturing are working together to expand (exponentially) the available options when it’s time to specify a project?

After 1945—with new knowledge about materials that we derived from experience in World War II, combined with a flood of research dollars flowing from the government to the private sector—new products and technologies revolutionized the design and construction industry. Indeed, a quick glance at industry magazines published in the late-1940s and 1950s suggests a dizzying effect caused by so many new options, with similarities to what we are experiencing today.

Plastic became a mass-market success, being inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to shape into any form. There were also new, durable, fireproof, and easy-to-install floor tiles that contained asbestos, the newest “miracle” material.

Although architecture and design publications of the era provided extensive coverage and discussion of new materials, information came from the manufacturers themselves. Architects were certainly not derelict in their duties to protect the public health and welfare, but they just weren’t equipped to ask the right questions about the products they specified.

Fast-forward to today and, happily, there are solid and reliable sources for architects to consult as they address health, safety, and welfare by way of their material choices. The AIA website’s Materials Matter page (aia.org/practicing/materials) offers the most up-to-date information about the performance of materials in such critical areas as sustainability and public health. While that resource does not constitute endorsements of the products listed, the AIA Board of Directors is currently considering a strong position statement that may guide performance targets and life-cycle impact assessment as they relate to material choices.

And don’t forget: Last year the AIA joined the National Institute of Building Sciences to launch our digital Building Research Information Knowledgebase—BRIK (brikbase.org)—another resource for architects to find vetted research in several areas. Because architects specify the materials that literally touch people’s lives, we need all the help we can get to make the most informed decisions.

Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA
2014 President

Learn more about material matters at aia.org/practicing/materials.