Architecture is not only a time-intensive practice, but an increasingly complex one as well. Code revisions, environmental checklists, green material guidelines, and product eco-labels all contribute to the burgeoning intricacy of the material selection process. So it may come as a surprise that architects are making notable strides in materials and products research and development themselves, adding further complexity and variety to the traditional design career. Architects who enter the realm of manufacturing often claim that they were unable to find a particular product in the market and decided to make it themselves. But what does this mean exactly? When we probe more deeply, we find a diverse collection of motivations inspiring architects to play in the “materials sandbox.”

Exploring Interactivity: Watercolors, by B.lab Italia

Based a few miles outside of Milan, Italy, B.lab Italia founder Gianfranco Barban, trained as an architect, and designer Gregg Brodarick, who practices at his own firm, Studio BDG, wondered why most building materials remain static and homogeneous. Inspired by nature, they explored the idea that surfaces might change color, pattern, or opacity based on external stimuli. Tactile response was also a fundamental goal, and Watercolors, the collection of liquid-infused surfaces they developed for the B-surfaces line, invites touch.

Watercolors are modular floor tiles that contain multiple fluids encapsulated between sealed polymer sheets. The tiles respond to physical touch and may be used on various horizontal surfaces—from flooring to tabletops—to invite playful interaction. Watercolors contain a combination of opaque and translucent nonmixing fluids, a pairing that results in a clear, high-contrast visual pattern. Making use of an inherent delay caused by the fluids’ viscosity, the tiles show where they’ve been walked on or touched, appropriating architectural surfaces as a means for creative expression.

Employing Surprise: Wet Lamp, NONdesigns

Los Angeles–based NONdesigns exploits novel material combinations to create products and environments that enhance a user’s level of engagement. Principals Scott Franklin and Miao Miao make use of their backgrounds in architecture, interior design, product design, lighting, and fashion to create new experiences and generate a sense of surprise. NONdesigns’ Wet Lamp is one example of an unexpected marriage—in this case, between water and electricity. The hand-blown glass lamp has a water-submerged light bulb at its center. This placement of an exposed light bulb sets up an intriguingly simple dimmer switch: When a silver rod is slid into the water through a silicone gasket, the Wet Lamp turns on and becomes progressively brighter as the rod is submerged and delivers more current.

Blaine Brownell
Blaine Brownell

Despite its precarious concept, the Wet Lamp is a completely safe product that utilizes low-voltage power and easily replaceable bulbs. Users approach the Wet Lamp with caution, but then they can’t stop playing with it. Franklin says, “My mom always said not to play with electricity near water, but I couldn’t resist the allure of testing the preconceptions of such a familiar material.” Pursuing Principles: Pixa, SensiTile Systems

While pursuing his M.Arch. at the University of Michigan, Abhinand Lath developed the SensiTile Systems collection of materials because of his fascination with light. Intrigued by the fiber optics principle of total internal reflection, Lath set out to embody this principle in solid-surface materials for vertical and horizontal architectural applications. Upon first encountering one of Lath’s materials, the effect is surprising: light is transported throughout a polymer matrix and emerges behind shadows where one wouldn’t expect it. SensiTile is offered in several configurations, including an exposed polymer surface, a terrazzo base, a 90-degree mirror, and a multicolored dichroic film layer.

A recent Lath design, Pixa, acts as a concrete projection screen. Pixa utilizes SensiTile’s light-piping technologies to enable the placement of a precise grid of light guides within a concrete matrix. These light guides optically connect the two surfaces of the material and mate directly to an LED screen or projection system on one surface, allowing the digital control of each “pixel” on the corresponding surface. Pixa is also appropriate for use as a screen or divider panel and can be manufactured with a random, “organic” pattern of light terminals instead of a strict grid layout.

Testing New Frontiers: Buckypaper, Decker Yeadon

Nanotechnology has generated many new materials that defy conventional properties, but until recently, architects have witnessed these developments from the sidelines. New York–based Decker Yeadon believes architects should participate in such research and development, and Martina Decker and Peter Yeadon work with nanomaterials in their own lab for future architectural applications.

Fascinated with carbon nanotubes, the pair developed a method for creating a sheet of Buckypaper—a material more than 500 times stronger, and 10 times lighter, than steel. Decker Yeadon is the first architecture firm to synthesize the supermaterial, which it proposes using in building cladding. Although large-scale production of Buckypaper will take significant time and money to achieve, the firm—like the others described here—has certainly made an inspiring example with its research.