The Creative Use of Natural Materials

Natural materials in construction

The Creative Use of Natural Materials

Natural materials have been the foundational tools of architects since the profession began, but using them in new and creative ways is the future of architectural design. Using natural indigenous materials, in as close to their natural state as possible, is environmentally friendly and visually appealing. Sustainable resources used in building design is a smart, eco-friendly choice that reduces the carbon footprint of a structure without form and function. The sum of all energy used to transform a material from its raw state to a final building product factors into the environmental impact of its use.

Geography plays a significant role in deciding which natural materials work for various regions. Indigenous materials tend to have a lower environmental impact because transportation costs are reduced. Other factors must also be given consideration.  Adobe, for example, is an excellent natural building material in areas that are hot and arid. The clay base that makes the adobe is found in the same geographic region where its use works best, reducing the need to transport the material long distances. 

Sustainable construction takes into consideration the appropriateness of the material for the climate in which it is used. Some materials do well in cool, dry environments that degrade in hot and humid areas. The costs of degradation and replacement of material over time factor into an item’s eco-friendliness. By definition, sustainability means durability. Using materials that will withstand the test of time without the need for constant maintenance reduces the long-term environmental impact of a project. The creative use of natural materials is being seen in a variety of architectural designs that range from modern high-rises to quiet country cottages.

Community spaces

Community spaces, from parks to public squares, are seeing new designs that use renewable resources to create a pleasing space that invites people to soak in the natural world that surrounds them. Wooden boardwalks with play and climbing equipment combined with plenty of open green space make parks a peaceful place for families with minimum disruption to the natural landscape. Flat roofs are regaining popularity for urban buildings. The footage of rooftops was once limited to the storage of building equipment. The reimagination of flat roofs as green spaces for building residents provide a welcome place of respite amidst the urban sprawl. Natural materials such as wood and stone are used to develop garden-like retreats, helping to create more green space in areas where it is a precious commodity.

Materials used in new and exciting ways

  • Bamboo—Favored by sustainability experts as one of the best eco-friendly materials on the planet. Bamboo self-regenerates at an explosive rate, and it continues to spread and grow without replanting after harvest. It grows in a myriad of climates and can be found everywhere except Europe and Antarctica. The lightweight material has exceptional durability and is used for floors, furnishings, and cabinetry in new and exciting ways. Treated bamboo is also being used for outdoor structures such as deck coverings, screens, and greenhouses.
  • Sheep’s wool insulation—Replacing synthetic and processed material with all-natural alternatives at the heart of the organic architectural movement. Sheep’s wool does not degrade as quickly as other natural insulation materials. It is a resource that is prevalent, regenerates fast, and is easily harvested. The downside is that it remains a more expensive alternative than synthetic insulation. 
  • Wood—Wood is mother nature’s most perfectly designed renewable resource, and engineered timber is being used in new and creative ways. Though the harvesting of timber was once seen as detrimental, a better understanding of reforestation and resource management has put wood back on the forefront of eco-friendly building materials. 

Engineered wood products use wood that was once considered waste, meaning that fewer trees are needed to make more wood. With carefully crafted reforestation efforts and improved lumber processes, wood is seeing a resurgence as an environmentally friendly building product.