| William Guild | Décembre 2020 |

 

Material Nature

Hempcrete is an organic and mineral compound and a particularly good example of a modern construction solution. Photo: IsoHemp Natural Building

 

The past few months have made me realise how much our homes had become more like storage units for our hoarding addiction than places we live in. As we moved back home to set up shop, working in the cramped room we ironically call ‘the study’, it felt like discovering our house for the first time again.

As I sat at my desk, gazing out at the clock on the church steeple, I thought about how well I knew this view now. From the crevices in the brickwork of the terraced houses on the left to the streaks of rainwater on the stones of church in the distance and the moss growing on the roofs of mews houses below. Looking back to the inside of my room, I inspected the cracks forming along the edge of the ceiling where the neighbouring house had decided to part company with our own. Swivelling to face the door, I could see that water had seeped in behind the earthy grey coloured wall paint on the landing. On the floor, a moth killer had burned a perfectly circular hole through the carpet, testament to the war my mother was waging against the infestation.

Away from the aseptic, impersonal world of the office, I have taken the time to appreciate the imperfections of my home. The tactility of a brick or the softness of a wooden door frame offer a much stronger sensorial experience than the whitewash walls and angular steel details that seem to occupy the pages of every interior design magazine today. Perhaps we still subconsciously subscribe to the aesthetics of the previous century. Modernists believed that if our life began in a hospital and ended in a hospital, then naturally we should live in one too. The bare walls that we now perversely associate with a contemporary sense of style were in fact inspired by the architecture of Swiss sanatoriums.

However, those very same hospitals are now remodelling to feel more like our own homes. Blank plaster-boarded walls are being replaced with timber panels that fill desolate corridors and waiting rooms with the scent of larch and walnut. Instead of a mere view to the outside, the outside pours to the inside, offering its healing virtues and a serene ambiance. The emphasis on cleanliness that once dominated Western society has now been replaced with the more balanced ideas of wellness and wholeness. This has given rise to a variety of new strategies including biophilic design that feed into a broader quest for reconnection with the natural world.

It is not to say that we should design our cities to look more like forests, plains or corals. Our requirements for living in society are complex and subject to interpretation. Instead we might think about how the materials that grow in such natural environments can be repurposed for our own needs. The extensive use of timber in buildings has been proven to reduce stress in the workplace and accelerate the recovery of patience in hospital. Furthermore, natural materials can be harnessed to improve structural and environmental properties. Timber and other organic based products can be sourced sustainably providing a continuous supply without damaging the planet.

To curb the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the construction industry, the use concrete and steel compounds will have to be limited to essential infrastructural projects. This leaves an unprecedented opportunity for structural timber – now capable of supporting over twenty storeys of built mass – to become a primary construction choice. Timber not only requires less energy to produce, it also captures carbon from the atmosphere and stores it within the building.

This not only applies to the skeleton but also to the skin of a building. Traditional insulation made from a mix of mineral wool fibre requires more energy to fabricate than it prevents escaping from heated internal spaces. It is also highly toxic and difficult to recycle. Passivhaus standards, which are often seen to epitomise sustainable construction philosophy, require a wide range of petroleum-based membranes to control the strict threshold of air changes through the building. Once these products have worn, they are thrown away and replaced. By contrast, a hemp or wood fibre compound provides similar insulative performance but with a much higher level of resilience. The product is grown as opposed to manufactured and can either be repaired or thrown away knowing it will easily decompose back into the soil.

Hempcrete is a particularly good example of a modern construction solution. It is an organic and mineral compound that relies on fast growing, water sparing crop (hemp) and an abundantly available binding agent (lime render) that provides an integrated solution for wall and roof insulation. Furthermore, its textured appearance can provide a suitably pleasing wall finish for a cosy atmosphere. This was successfully showcased in the Flat House project by Practice Architecture, which sought to repurpose a utilitarian farm building into a home. The exposed hempcrete wall panels enthuse the internal spaces with a warm, earthy feeling while also directly referencing the hemp growing in the fields beyond.

While many of these materials have been known and used for centuries, we are only now rediscovering their value both in terms of sustainability and wellbeing. It comes no doubt as a result of a shift in perception and behaviour where our sensitivity to climate change informs an increasing number of our decisions. Most recently, the disruption to our daily routine has cause us to recentre around the home. Perhaps we will see an accelerated trend to bring the virtues of the natural world into the places we live. In the same way that Modernist principles of healthy living came from the experience of tuberculosis, the dwelling of the 2020s may take inspiration from our homebound existence of the last few months.

 

William Guild
MSc. Architecture
william@familyguild.org