Blaine Brownell

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is the director of graduate studies at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture (as well as being a contributor to ARCHITECT). He has published four editions of Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials That Redefine Our Physical Environment, which emphasizes sustainability. As such, he has seen a distinct evolution in how architects engage with and deploy sustainable strategies. But are we moving fast enough to make the necessary impacts? “We need innovations,” he says, “and we need them at ever-shorter intervals.”

How has the materials and sustainability world changed in the years in between Transmaterial in 2006 and Transmaterial Next in 2017?

Over the last 10 years, there has been a great deal of development in integrating and advancing ideas like biomimicry and biodesign, and in areas like synthetic biology, genetic engineering, and bioinformatics. The author Kevin Kelly’s prediction in the 1990s [that] “the made and the born would converge” is coming true. We’re delving deeply into the components of life itself and—in a way—addressing life as a design project. When it comes to architectural awareness, sustainability has grown a lot. I’m talking in terms of programs, protocols, and quantification: “Where are we? How do we measure what we’re doing?” Public-interest design has found even more of a foothold; people are questioning the social implications of what we’re doing, and there’s a greater cognizance of the other 99 percent, so to speak. Clearly, there is much more of a social and environmental agenda than there was in 2006.

How is this knowledge and interest in sustainability being applied? Is there a change in how much it’s acted upon versus how much it’s talked about?

To the extent that architects have become more knowledgeable and have developed the necessary expertise to act, yes. LEED has been of great benefit as a first stage of sustainable awareness and practice; many architects have become LEED-accredited or know enough about sustainable design approaches. If you look at the 12 years since the first Transmaterial, there is significantly more information out there and better practices being adopted.

Yet at the same time, countries like the United States are struggling to meet climate targets. Simply put, if we don’t pursue oneplanet design, we won’t be able to live on one planet. LEED has been great, but it’s time for a much more radical shift. Maybe the U.S. Green Building Council will develop more radical approaches; maybe we will move into the regulatory realm versus the incentive realm. I think we’re well past the time for pure carrotbased decision-making when it comes to our carbon footprint.

At some point we have to either do the right thing or fail. Businesses will collapse; communities will collapse. It will come to that. When you look at architectural practice today, even though it’s come very far in terms of sustainable design, the needle has to move that much further.

It seems to have pervaded our general consciousness that a LEED designation means a “good” building. But it doesn’t go far enough in a lot of areas, especially with the serious issues we’re facing as a planet.

I feel like LEED suffers from generalities that my Transmaterial series suffers from when it comes to sustainable practices. What do I mean by that? I’ll offer up this story.

In 2006 I gave a lecture, and someone in the audience followed up with a really great question: “Can the next book incorporate a quantifiable symbol for how green each material is? Something like one to five trees.” A nice idea on paper, but then we entered into a deeper conversation about why that is difficult and potentially impossible. For starters, wherever you are in the world, if you’re ordering a certain product, its environmental performance will vary. If you’re shipping it across the world, that is different than if it’s made locally.

We also, at the time of the first Transmaterial book, didn’t have access to the tools to understand the carbon footprint or life-cycle assessment of these materials that we have now. The materials industry, mainly in the product sphere, has become much more sophisticated in terms of product life cycle. But there still remain questions like, “How do you determine a material’s absolute performance?” This is either a holy grail or a black hole, depending on your point of view; we may never be able to fully determine it. But maybe we can develop necessary guidelines of some sort.

Say you have a single individual living in a 10,000-square-foot house that is made with the greenest materials, but it has a massive footprint in other ways, relative to one individual. Compare that to 10 people living in a modest, poorly performing house. The latter example could be more environmentally responsible. At some point, population and material flows have to reconcile and be interrelated.

When I’m creating a book of cool innovative materials, there’s no reference. I have no idea how many people are going to use this material, or in what quantities. It’s purely ideas. But in the case of LEED, or whatever comes after LEED, at some point we will have to incorporate notions of footprint. This is of real interest to me. All kinds of dangerous and provocative questions arise as a result, like material rationing and access. But it’s the only way we’ll get to our goal of having a sustainable planet.