The beginning of a new year and decade marks the opportunity to assess recent developments in architectural materials. For many manufacturers and AEC professionals, 2020 represents a milestone for assessing existing sustainability goals. For others, this year could serve as a hallmark for advances in science and technology, such as the National Science Board’s 2020 Vision for the National Science Foundation. Increasingly, these aims merge in seeking the development of innovative processes and applications with ecologically beneficial goals. The following examples are paradigmatic building blocks for 2020: recently created modules, panels, and other construction-oriented materials.

One of the most emblematic building blocks is the clay brick, a simple yet energy-intensive material unit. Gabriela Medero, a civil engineering professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, has developed an alternative brick boasting an environmental footprint that is less than 10% that of standard module. Composed primarily of pulverized construction debris, the so-called K-Briq is sourced and manufactured on the site of local Hamilton Waste & Recycling and fabricated under pressure without the use of kilns. “The K-Briq looks like a normal brick, weighs the same, and behaves like a clay brick but offers better insulation properties,” Medero said in a BBC interview. “It is sustainable and not kiln-fired so it is far better for the environment and represents massive savings for the construction industry in terms of related taxes.”

CU Boulder

The prevalence of "live" materials has also gained ground over the last decade. In 2010, North Carolina–based architectural designer and BioMason CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier made headlines with her modified version of a brick created with Sporosarcina pasteurii bacteria. More recently, scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder have similarly created a bio-designed block using microbial builders. In this case, the researchers inoculate Synechococcus cyanobacteria, which similarly synthesize calcium carbonate by absorbing carbon dioxide, within a gelatin-infused sand solution. The resulting material, which requires no firing and thus no kiln, not only exhibits improved environmental performance but also has the durability of conventional brick. Intriguingly, the building modules remain “alive” after fabrication, with between 9% and 14% of bacterial colonies still growing after a 30-day period. The living material embodies an uncanny regenerative capacity: Even if a brick is split, the pieces are theoretically capable of growing into whole units.


The idea of a living module assumes a different form in Planty Cube, a vertical farming solution that can be scaled rapidly and real-time monitoring for year-round crow growth. Developed by Seoul, South Korea–based startup N.Thing, the system is based on a smart 5-square-centimeter individual planter called a Pickcell that contains seeds and a nutrient plug to facilitate germination. Equipped with internet-connected sensors and vegetation-specific LED lights, each Pickcell enables close monitoring and customizable growth control for an individual plant. The plug-and-play module fits neatly into prefabricated shelving units that accommodate multiple Pickcells. The adaptable system, which allows precise control from a smartphone (or may be fully automated), is inherently more customizable, scalable, and reconfigurable than other vertical farms.

While Planty Cube optimizes vegetation growth, Source, a roof-mounted hydropanel, maximizes water-harvesting. Developed by Scottsdale, Ariz.–based company Zero Mass Water, Source is an off-grid water-capturing device that requires just air and sunlight. A single Source array, which consists of two 4 foot-by-8 foot hydropanels, delivers between 4 and 10 liters of freshwater a day—depending on sunshine and humidity levels—and is enough drinking water for one to four people. Each array can store up to 60 liters of water, which is mineralized by the system with magnesium and calcium for optimal electrolyte balance and taste. Given the latest statistics by the United Nations reporting that a third of the world’s largest groundwater systems are under stress, and that two-thirds of the global population encounters severe water scarcity for a month or longer each year, Source is poised to offer a necessary reprieve.

ASB Glassfloor

Increasingly, product manufacturers are focusing on data as a resource for tracking, manipulating, and communicating via building materials. Stein, Germany–based ASB Glassfloor offers expansive, seamlessly illuminated flooring that conveys customizable information. Composed of an array of glass plates seated on an aluminum mounting system with integrated LEDs, the Glassfloor transforms any flooring surface into a projection screen. The company manufactures two products: ASB MultiSports, designed for switchable professional sports floors for indoor or outdoor use; and ASB LumiFlex, a video-projection floor intended for a variety of applications, including concerts and trade shows. Both flooring systems offer slip-resistant surfaces made of burnt-on ceramic dots with mirror-free etching patterns, and are mostly resistant to abuse from physical, chemical, liquid, pest, and heat-based sources. With the potential to completely reprogram, in real time, the visual characteristics of the ground plane—arguably our most familiar material surface—ASB Glassfloor ushers in the full experiential potential of the "internet of things" in architecture.