50 shades of white

Surfaces consultants Brad Turner and Ian Hunter have used their past experience working with architectural practice Foster + Partners and backgrounds in industrial design to offer a bespoke service in materials choice to architects and designers. Pamela Buxton talks to the founders of Materials Council about their adventure in surfaces

The realisation that many architects and designers, especially those just starting out, lack technical knowledge of materials prompted Brad Turner and Ian Hunter to set up Materials Council, a consultancy specialising in the subject.

Turner and Hunter had previously worked in-house at architecture practice Foster + Partners and share a background in industrial design. They took the plunge to set up on their own last year, launching with Whiter than White, an exhibition at the London Design Festival that explored the pursuit of white in the built environment. This looked at how to achieve whiteness with different types of materials such as timber, metal and ceramics.

'We chose white because it's a universal obsession among architects and designers to get the whitest white available. But there's a lack of understanding about what it takes to get that maximum whiteness on the white scale,' says Hunter.

Materials Council aims to fill this and other gaps in materials knowledge by providing a specialist materials consultancy that can research material options for particular applications, acting as a bridge between the manufacturer and the designer. The consultancy's own resource base is enhanced by its collaboration with Architonic, the Zurich-based online product and materials resource. Current Materials Council projects include consulting on the design of a luxury spa in Dubai and a high-end residential property in the south of France.

'There's a hunger out there for this service. As designers ourselves, we understand the problem from the creative side,' says Hunter. 'Few practices can afford to have this resource in-house. The cost of us is taken into the project because it saves architects and designers time and money."

'We offer an expertise in materials, establishing the hierarchy of priorities and presenting the material options,' adds Turner. 'Because of our Foster's experience we have a fantastic network and knowledge of what's out there.'

Materials Council pledges to 'cut through the greenwash' by providing impartial advice on the performance and sustainability credentials of the materials. 'There's no such thing as a sustainable material, just what's most appropriate for the context...We make architects and designers aware of the issues so that they can make informed decisions,' says Hunter.

The consultancy aims to keep abreast of the latest innovations in surface materials, such as continued developments in high-performance glass technology and scope for integrating LEDss into laminated glass.

Below, Ian Hunter and Brad Turner of Materials Council identify five areas of surface innovation:

1 Interactive surfaces
The advent of conductive paints and micro-electronics is encouraging the design of walls and floors to move beyond being merely static features into being integral interactive elements of a space.

By creating a capacitive conductive circuit (like a touchscreen), an entire surface of a room can become an interactive switch or even controller for lighting or other electrical systems, for example media devices. Technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) allow similar control, but also offer much more advanced possibilities and direct communication with digital devices such as smart phones.

These circuits and controls can be disguised or decorated with non-conductive finishes, for example paints or wallcoverings, enabling them to be completely integrated into a decorative interior scheme.

2 Responsive building skins
As the intersect between external climate and internal environment, a building's envelope or facade provides some of the greatest opportunities to improve the performance of a building and reduce its operational energy consumption (heating, cooling and lighting).

Static facades can only offer a 'best fit' performance to climatic conditions, which can vary throughout the year. Responsive building skins allow us to optimise the performance of a building, reacting to changes in the external environment over the course of a day, all year round.

Passive-skin technologies, for example thermo, bi-metallic elements that curve or flatten in response to temperature changes, can alter the shading and ventilation of internal environments without requiring further energy input. Active shading mechanisms, such as integrated louvres, adaptive fritting and electrochromic glass, offer us more directly controllable alternatives.

3 Enhanced heat and light reflecting surfaces
Surfaces that reflect a high percentage of the sun's energy can be intelligently employed within design strategies to alleviate negative environmental phenomenon and, by reducing the damaging effect of heating and cooling cycles, prolong the life of external elements. Traditionally, this has been achieved through the use of white materials and surfaces, as can be seen in many Mediterranean villages, but this is not necessarily the desired aesthetic a designer may wish to achieve.

New, highly heat-reflective coating technologies allow darker materials and surfaces to be employed while providing the performance of a lighter-coloured surface, with gains in reflectivity of up to 23 per cent currently possible. In internal environments, surface materials and finishes are increasingly being developed with greater light reflectivity, maximising natural internal illumination and reducing the need for artificial lighting.

4 Self-cleaning, anti-pollution and hygienic surfaces
Photocatalysts are compounds that use energy from the sun to activate a chemical reaction. When applied to the surface of materials they can perform an array of astounding beneficial functions.

They can be used to break down common harmful pollutants found in the atmosphere, create a hydrophilic (water-loving) surface that is self-cleaning, and kill bacteria and viruses making them ideal for hygiene-sensitive environments, such as hospitals and laboratories.

Photocatalysts are not 'used up' during these reactions, but simply facilitate the reaction, meaning the property will last the life of the surface.

5 Energy-generating surfaces
Photovoltaic cells (PVs) are now an established technology applied to facades and roofs of buildings, old and new, to generate electricity and reduce their operational costs.

While the most common PVs, which use silicon wafer technology, are generally costly, cumbersome and are not always easily accommodated in architectural designs, organic photovoltaics (OPVs) use conductive organic polymers or molecules to absorb solar energy and produce electricity.

They offer far greater design freedom by being flexible, printable, coloured and translucent and also allow the implementation of energy-generating surfaces in applications and areas that were previously cost prohibitive or with practical limitations, such as north-facing elevations.

Although currently less efficient than traditional silicon PVs, they are leading the economisation of photovoltaics by being much quicker and cheaper to produce in large volumes.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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