Natural Wonders | Monocle

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This year at design fairs across the globe – from 3 Days of Design in Copenhagen to the Venice Biennale and Singapore Design Week – there has been an increased emphasis on using innovative building products in the making of furniture and architecture. Designers and material technology companies are leading the charge and innovation has taken shape in a number of different ways, from finding new applications for old materials and crafting fresh forms with existing matter to the development of entirely new substances from waste products or with emerging technologies. Much of this focus on materiality has been driven by a desire to lower the industry’s carbon footprint: material production, installation and disposal in the building industry accounts for nearly 20 per cent of global  greenhouse-gas emissions. Add to this increasing consumer expectations and industry incentives for environmentally friendly work, and the shift shouldn’t come as a surprise. The result is an exciting new frontier that is influencing the forms, shapes and structures which designers, architects and makers are conceiving. Here, we profile 15 new materials and building products that have caught our eye and are shifting the paradigm.


Lirio Design House, USA


Despite being used as a building material in Europe and Asia for centuries, hempcrete has long flown under the radar – until now. Made from the woody core of the hemp plant, lime binder and sand, and traditionally used to insulate houses, designers are now employing the lightweight material to make furniture too. Case in point is Pennsylvania’s Lirio Design House, a furniture studio that is using hempcrete to make tables and stools because, unlike concrete alternatives, it is water resistant, absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces during its production and can naturally break down at the end of its useful life.

Jali terracotta bricks

Mutina, Italy

To reduce dependence on air-conditioning, architects are finding ways to channel breezes into buildings. One way is using perforated bricks, including this design by Spanish architect Patricia Urquiola and manufactured by Italian firm Mutina. Its modular geometry allows it to be placed both vertically and horizontally.

Acoustic panels

Kvadrat, Denmark

Cutting noise pollution is key to creating comfortable living environments. Danish textile specialist Kvadrat produces acoustic panels that not only provide sound insulation but also improves thermal and acoustic comfort. This is achieved responsibly too: the company has adopted the guidelines of the Science Based Target Initiative, which promotes ambitious climate action in the private sector.

Magnesium oxide cement

Waiwai, UAE

The manufacture of Portland cement produces significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Dubai and Tokyo-based design studio Waiwai have developed an alternative that uses brine generated by the uae’s industrial desalination plants for the cement mix (instead of lime). The process doesn’t produce emissions and uses waste products.

Food concrete

Fabula, Japan

Japanese firm Fabula has developed an ultra-strong cement by drying and compressing food waste. Baking organic materials and then grinding and hot-pressing them creates a cement that is four times as strong as concrete. This joint, created for Tokyo-based architects Mitsubishi Jisho, is made from spaghetti.


Qwstion, Switzerland

Swiss bag brand Qwstion developed Bananatex in collaboration with yarn and weaving specialists in Taiwan and the Philippines. A sleek, waterproof fabric that can be used for everything from clothing to upholstery, it is made entirely from the natural fibres of the abacá plant (a member of the banana family). The abacá plants used for Bananatex are also used to rehabilitate agricultural and forest landscapes in the Philippines. The plant is sturdy and self-sufficient, and doesn’t require pesticides or irrigation. The result is an environmentally sound fabric that helps wider ecosystems too.


Léon Félix, Switzerland

Inspired by traditional Islamic architecture, designer Léon Félix has developed Terra, a sliding terracotta shutter system. It includes a tray to hold water, which is then absorbed by the terracotta. As temperatures rise, water evaporates from its surface, cooling any air that flows over it: a natural alternative to air-conditioning.

Hemp mycelium sound panel

Coexist, US

Fabricated with hemp hurd and bound with mushroom mycelium, these acoustic panels are fire and mould-resistant, highly insulating and carbon-negative. Coexist, a Pennsylvania-based architecture studio, have tapped into the potential for hemp-based products to not only soften noise but regulate humidity levels too.


BioMat, Germany

Professor Hanaa Dahy leads BioMat, a research unit that operates from the University of Stuttgart. Dahy’s team develops biocomposite materials (manufactured using natural flax fibres and materials derived from vegetables) that can be used in construction projects in lieu of the likes of wood, aluminium and concrete.

Silt brick

Urban Radicals, UK

London-based architecture studio Urban Radicals developed this brick for this year’s Venice Biennale. It is made with local materials: silt dredged from canals, natural lime mortar, concrete and brick offcuts, and hemp fibre. A reminder that for materials to have a small environmental footprint, locally sourced parts should be used.


Holcim, Switzerland

Holcim developed EcoPact low-carbon concrete as part of its Essential Homes Project, a housing model with a low carbon footprint. The material is ideal for use as outdoor flooring thanks to its porosity: It is also luminescent and so absorbs light and reflects it at night, reducing light pollution and improving safety.


Natural Material Studio, Denmark

Natural Material Studio’s Procel is a biotextile (fabrics made from organic matter such as soybeans, corn and milk). The material uses natural pigments and, due to its organic content, its texture, colour and shape react to changes in temperature and humidity. It also has eco-credentials as it can be home-composted at the end of its life.

Knitted textiles

Tiffany Loy, Singapore

Textile designer Tiffany Loy teamed up with the Singapore University of Technology and Design to develop a fabric that can hold its form and won’t just slump to the ground – useful for products such as moulded furniture. Loy used different types of yarns; the stiffer parts hold their shape while the softer parts provide flexibility.

Paper skins

Paper Factor, Italy

Based in Lecce, materials firm Paper Factor turned to papier-mâché when creating its interior surface panels. Made from a compound composed largely of recycled paper, it is an appealing alternative to stone and concrete. The surfaces are lightweight, resistant to mould, offer sound and thermal insulation, and can be recycled.

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