The more complex a technology, the greater the expertise required for its development. Yet the increasingly widespread do-it-yourself (DIY) movement contradicts this notion. As defined, DIY encompasses design and fabrication activities conducted without the assistance of experts. According to business scholars and marketing professors Marco Wolf and Shaun McQuitty, from the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast and Athabasca University in Canada, respectively, “individuals engage raw and semi-raw materials and component parts to produce, transform, or reconstruct material possessions, including those drawn from the natural environment,” such as landscaping, through DIY.
The burgeoning appreciation for DIY may be a direct response to advances in technology. Writing for Domus in 2012, Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli claimed that “the evolution in the role of technology has brought a cathartic return to the roots of making.” Yet this making is not merely amateur. Although DIY-ers may go about their work without a Ph.D. or a professional license in their respective fields, many have demonstrated a growing sophistication regarding material practices.
One proof of this is that designers are not just fabricating new products with existing materials—they are also creating materials anew. Based in Italy and the Netherlands, design scholars Valentina Rognoli, Massimo Bianchini, Stefano Maffei, and Elvin Karana recently addressed this phenomenon in their article “DIY Materials,” published in the journal Materials and Design this past July. Their article cites the increased demand for non-mass-produced products and the democratization of technological practices (such as inexpensive fabrication tools and open-source knowledge bases) as reasons for this development. Caterina Mota, a researcher who launched the online Open MaterialsJenny Lee, who founded the U.K.-based Studio Aikkieu and authored the material innovation guide Material Alchemy (BIS Publishers, 2015), are chronicling the DIY materials movement and calling attention to innovative experiments in molecular gastronomy, electronic circuitry, and musical instrumentation. While many DIY material experiments are playful forays that lack clear application—which is not necessarily a bad thing—a growing contingent show particular promise for the design of buildings and environments.
One example that Rognoli and her co-authors mention is by the Netherlands-based designer Tom van Soest. As its name suggests, StoneCycling involves the recovery of masonry-based materials from demolished structures and their transformation into high-value products for new construction. This process goes beyond the conventional practice of masonry salvage and reuse, which privileges intact modules. Instead, van Soest and team use a tub grinder to crush the reclaimed stones or bricks—including partial fragments—into fine aggregate and then form new modules with a kiln. The products bear the mark of the StoneCycling process; the WasteBasedBrick modules, for example, exhibit the colorful, combined aggregates, differentiating them visually from conventional brick. The company also makes tiles and furniture, both of which are similarly fabricated. Since no binders are used, energy usage is limited to material transport and processing—a small cost relative to the advantages of saving material that would otherwise be sent to the landfill (which, too, requires transportation and processing).
Another example is the open-source project. Initiated by the Anglo-Japanese Studio Swine in collaboration with Welsh designer Kieren Jones, the project focuses on the growing gyre of plastic waste in the world's oceans. The infamous Pacific Garbage Patches, for example, are floating collections of debris driven together by atmospheric and oceanic forces. Seeking to mine what they call a “plastic soup” for resources, the designers work with fishermen on the coast of the U.K., including in Cornwall, Kent, and East Sussex, to collect marine plastic from fishing nets and the local shoreline, before sorting the findings by color and grinding them into pellets. The pellets are then melted using custom-built equipment that can be moved to the source of the materials. Sea Chair, the studio’s first product fabricated with this material, is a three-legged stool whose ominous black plastic body balances incidental swirls of color with intentionally rough edges—evocative of the gyre itself.
Yet another example is Free inner Pressure Deformation (FiDU) technology, developed by Polish designer Oskar Zieta. While the StoneCycling and Sea Chair projects reconstitute waste substances into new materials, FiDU creates what Rognoli and others call a new identity for conventional materials. FiDU manipulates sheet metal to impart it with structural stability. Zieta and colleagues from the ETH Zurich, in Switzerland, weld the thin metal slices together and then inflate them to form lightweight structural objects. The process is an intriguing combination of control and unpredictability: Designers can specify the initial geometry precisely, but inflation causes the final pieces to bend and deform in unexpected ways under the internal stresses of air pressure. “Not everything that is filled with air is elastic,” writes Zieta in a case study of the technology on his . “The flowing folds and curves so familiar to the eye that clearly bring malleable plastics to mind have actually been transferred to metal.” Zieta and his colleagues have used the technology to create functional and artistic objects, including a stool, a bridge, a wind rotor, and even a freestanding pavilion.
DIY materials like these offer profound implications for the designed environment. Explains Karana, co-author of the “DIY Materials” article: “This is a new era for design, which suggests a shift from ‘materials of design’ to ‘design of materials'." One important result is the loosening of boundaries between disciplines. Noting that DIY practices have proliferated in architectural, design, and fashion circles alike, the approach often involves intense collaboration. “We see an ever-increasing number of examples that illustrate challenging couplings of materials science, design, engineering, and the social sciences for a common purpose of ‘design for meaningful material experiences,” Karana continues. “In other words, the borders between these professional disciplines fade as they work together on the common endeavor to find meaningful applications for a newly developed material at hand.”
Another important consequence is competition with traditional manufacturing. The paper’s authors do not envision DIY materials to be a serious threat to mass production; rather, they predict that the practice will positively influence the traditional system. “What we hope [for] is a renewed and important role for the designer also in the early stages of the development of the materials,” Rognoli says, “thus creating a dialogue between the design culture and industrial production not only as regards the shape, but also for what concerns the matter.”
Although most DIY materials and their makers cannot compete with established products and companies on production volume, cost, and safety or code compliance, they bring fresh ideas and innovative ecological practices to industries that can often seem stagnant and environmentally negligent. Moreover, DIY materials promise to change the very nature of material education. “A more hands on, more tinkering base approach will be encouraged,” Karana says—something architects should wholeheartedly embrace.