Materials, products, and construction systems are constantly evolving and following new technologies, discoveries, and market trends. The question is: are we, as architects, evolving with them? We have heard about robots working on construction sites, responsive and intelligent materials and the continued rise of 3D printing, but is it all white noise at the moment of starting a new design? More importantly, could these new systems continue to progress without sensitively and effectively taking people's quality of life into account?
How should we use materials—both in their traditional forms and in their future conceptions—so that our projects are making relevant contributions to the way we are inhabiting our planet?
In order to evolve, we have to know how, so it’ s worth beginning a discussion around these issues.
Construction and Materials in the Digital Era
By Antonia Piñeiro
With the seemingly permanent presence of the construction worker on site, the deep foundations of the construction industry seemed to be somewhat behind in relation to modernization. Until now.
Large social movements, driven by the concept of sustainability, have appeared as a contemporary reaction to economic systems that promote productivity over local artisanal work. The race to achieve efficiency while still respecting the environment has become a powerful driving force that moves the industry to incorporate new manufacturing and construction processes. The development of technologies for rapid mass production—such as prefabrication, 3D printing, and collaborative software—has come to be considered as a fourth industrial revolution.
To what extent can these new technologies and smart products make a difference in the quality of life of people all over the world?
Concepts such as up-cycling and intelligent manufacturing (large-scale development of machinery and high-level production systems) seek to counteract the environmental cost of traditional materials and processes. Stakeholders and contractors are investing in workforce training and robotics in the hopes of improving labor conditions and incorporating more efficient and safe methods. Architecture is also starting to embrace artificial intelligence through home automation, which has a direct impact on everyday life. Technology has been shown to be an ally in the pursuit of environmental protection as well as in individual comfort.
The slow revolution in construction has opened new and exciting opportunities for architectural design. Our challenge as architects is not to leave these opportunities in the hands of other professionals, but to appropriate them to use them in favor of community, livability, and good design.
Universal Design and Automation: Materials That Favor Wellness
By José Tomás Franco
Accessibility in our architectural designs is something that shouldn’t have to be discussed. Although it’s something that is usually associated with mandatory regulations (that vary in each country), the awareness of and care for the different people that will use our projects should be part of the essential essence present in all of its elements and spaces.
But accessibility is not just a design issue. The choice of materials and systems greatly determines the way users interact with the built space. Furthermore, some architectural decisions can be undermined by a poor selection of products and materials.
In the case of people with visual impairments, for instance, textures and environmental conditions (such as temperature and acoustics) gain importance, as well as the handling of colors, which must have a high level of contrast. In both interiors and exteriors, tactile surfaces can help to deliver textured codes that facilitate the movement for the visually impaired. Braille systems, acoustic devices or GPS can also be incorporated to support all these operations. For those with reduced mobility, slip-resistant surfaces can be specified to allow movement in a wheelchair or walking with a cane; adding support accessories on walls and in dangerous areas, such as stairs and bathrooms are also key to designing for reduced mobility.
Smart home devices and automation could be some of the main tools to achieve more universal accessibility, allowing users with disabilities to use the spaces through sensors and predetermined environments. Being creative with available materials and products is something that can also offer unexpected and even better results (if you don't think it's possible, check out this amazing house designed by So & So Studio). We are eager to see how this conscience –based simply on common sense– will force architects to intelligently rethink spatial design.
Dense but Dignified Cities: Shared and Small-scale Life
By Eduardo Souza
Cities are the greatest collective achievement of human beings. By 2050, almost 10 billion people will share our planet, with about 60 percent of them living in cities. Thinking about all of the infrastructures to adequately serve the entire population, in a sustainable way, is something that causes anxiety for planners, architects, and politicians. But it’s inevitable that our way of life must also change.
The relationship between density and quality of life still seems like a still-pending issue after decades of experimentation. Skyscrapers or low rise blocks? Tiny houses can also be good options, occupying previously disused spaces. Various forms of cohabitation dematerialize our preconceived notions of home: with shared areas, mixed-use spaces, collective kitchens, community zones, among others. It's vital that architectural products adapt to these new demands and that we, as architects, delve into understanding the materials in order to get the most out of them.
Equipment, furniture and new technologies have become increasingly flexible, efficient and “smart” to provide comfort and to improve coexistence of citizens in both private and public spaces. Whether it's the need to rethink the use and conservation of natural resources or space constraints—in extremely small homes, massive multifamily housing, or in sidewalks and urban parks—architects have a great responsibility to choose materials and systems that will allow a dignified life for people in the future, beyond the square meters available to design.
Refurbishment: Focusing On Interiors to Impact Psychological Health
By Soledad Sambiasi
With the rise of studies in neuroscience, the field of interior design has evolved at a very fast pace during the past decade. Several discoveries have been made related to how interior design and its main principles: balance, proportion, symmetry, and rhythm have a direct impact on our emotional responses. There are many studies that dig deeper into this, for example the Ceiling Height in Retail Spaces study, from the University of Minnesota, where "three experiments investigated the effects of high (10 ft) and low (8 ft) ceiling height on individuals’ notions of freedom versus confinement, and whether such effects influenced information processing".  Researchers concluded that ceiling height has a direct impact on the individual’s notion of freedom, creativity, and focus, it also proved how their mood is significantly improved.
As cities become more dense and we spend more time inside buildings, interior design becomes a key factor in determining the quality of life of people, particularly because of its direct impact on our emotional health.
Office space is dramatically changing as well. Twenty years ago, Haworth’s corporate clients reserved around 10 percent of space for communal use; today it’s closer to 40 percent. With the new working dynamics of this generation, more companies allocate resources to invest in redesigns and new furniture. Regarding this specific issue, there are interesting discoveries and initiatives such as Herman Miller’s 'Living Office', or the research developed by Velux in relation to the impact of the daylight in our daily life.
Thus, decisions related to color, lighting, spaciousness, furniture and natural elements can consciously shape human responses such as creativity, peace, and happiness. As cities densify, there will be less space for new buildings and refurbishment will gain ground.
Dealing With The Environmental Quality of Minimum Spaces
By Audrey Migliani
The 2019 citizen is being considered, more and more, as part of an 'indoor generation' who lives surrounded by concrete and almost no vegetation around. The major concern is the lack of connection with nature; the outdoors brings advantages that no technology can ever reproduce. Sunlight, for example, speeds up metabolism and improves levels of cortisol and melatonin, hormones that directly influence sleep quality and, consequently, daily well-being. In addition, doctors and experts say that natural ventilation decreases allergies, irritability and breathing problems.
It's easy to deliver these conditions in a house in the middle of the forest, or in a building by the sea, but it becomes more complex in an overcrowded city. One of the great challenges for architects today—and in the future—is to provide healthy living spaces in multi-family buildings with small housing units that are characteristic of the contemporary metropolis.
Being as efficient as possible using the right products and materials can be easy if we truly appreciate the available options (especially if we want to avoid using air conditioners or exhaust systems that will consume a large amount of electrical energy). In new projects, a good option is the installation of double-glazed (or reflective) PVC frames, to get warmer and quieter environments. Systems such as Brises-Soleil and ventilated facades should be considered as they significantly improve natural ventilation and light. For buildings where refurbishment is out of question, it’s possible, for example, to take actions to achieve adequate levels of soundproofing. it's ideal to adopt an acoustic blanket and quieter floors such as vinyl or raised options because they act as a noise barrier for neighbors. Drywall attenuates up to 30 dB between next-door apartments, so it’s also a good ally in the design process.
However, when these investments or changes are not possible, we still have interesting alternatives: wood and drywall bring heat; light colors and stones help to get cooler. Rooms with less furniture facilitate air flow which is pretty good. And it's also known that potted plants increase the freshness of the space, so it's useful to plant a vertical garden on the wall that has the most sunlight exposure.
Our positive influence on the good health of people is an important and valuable challenge, that could restore the relevance of our profession.
Raw Architecture: The Quality and Beauty of Exposed Material
By Eduardo Souza
Cladding can improve the thermal comfort of interiors while also generating aesthetically uniform façades. And they can also hide some errors and inaccuracies during the constructive stage. However, Vilanova Artigas, one of the forerunners of Brazilian “Brutalismo Paulista”, defended, among many other things, that "the hands of the workers" should be apparent in the final work to show who actually made the building. This was a constant facet of Modern Brazilian Architecture, where raw materials were left, whenever possible, apparent.
These kinds of decisions often take the aesthetic aspect more into account than technical or economic issues, but it’s undeniable that raw materials carry much more history. Whether it is the legacy of the nail that supported the concrete mold or the knots and fibers of the wood that show the life of the tree, it revives a sense of craftsmanship and exclusivity that’s not apparent in more uniform construction.
Although it seems contradictory, making materials visible is a more expensive choice, since it requires greater care during all stages of production. However, its beauty makes it still an option required by all types of customers, and the construction industry has responded to this by developing products that deliver natural and rustic results with moderate prices–from new types of concrete and moldings, from sealants and protectors for wood and bricks and to metals and glass with new thermal and aesthetic properties. Again, the key is to make the right choices and to deepen the inherent behavior of each material.
Layers and layers of low-quality materials seeking to imitate others have gained space in markets with weak local regulations and with investors that push the reduction of costs. The unpredictability of the future of raw materials doesn't seem to be very welcome in the competitive world of construction. But, in a world that seems to be losing more and more its connection to real nature, wouldn't it be important to continually 'return' to the effects of raw materials to learn –and never forget– the feel, roughness, and surprises of its surfaces?
Perhaps it's a good way to embrace these new technologies, without losing the sensitivity that made us choose this profession in the first place.
 Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu. (2007). The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. January 2019, from InformeDESIGN <https://www.informedesign.org/Rs_detail/rsId/3387>