Designing Tomorrow’s Spaces Today

Posted by Erdem Gorgun at


The impact of biotechnology on the future development of materials, new ways of constructing buildings, the negative impact of continuing as we are now on society and the environment, and the growing concern of how all this affects our lives were among the many varied avenues of discussion for an enlightening event addressing some of the biggest questions facing architects and designers over the years ahead.

Hosted by wood-based panel manufacturer EGGER at London’s Material Lab, the event boasted a stellar panel of experts, chaired by Peter Murray, Chairman of New London Architecture, and founder of Blueprint magazine.Panel topics ranged from advocating an innovative approach to materials, the shift from industrial to ecological techniques, using robots and machines to make new things, creating spaces for young people to develop ideas and new materials, and considering the biological systems that could revolutionise business and manufacturing practices.

Self-styled maverick Raphael Gielgen, Future of Work ‘trend scout’ for furniture brand Vitra, started with two questions to set the tone. He asked: “What do you have to do to stay relevant to your company in 10 years? And what does your company have to do to stay relevant in 10 years?

”From the discussions that ensued, it was clear that to a large extent, the answer depends on three actions: change; innovate; listen.

Panellist Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, leads a hub for biotechnology in the built environment, part of an EU innovation project. She spoke passionately about taking responsibility for the environment around us and working with living organisms to create new products and materials or to perform industrial tasks. Examples of this included using chemical reactions from urine to charge mobile phones at Glastonbury, bio-electricity created in a composting environment with microns turning waste into electrons, and the rise of bio-composites such as self-healing bio-concrete, where organisms are mixed into traditional material.She said: “The question needs to be asked, do we really need industrial-level 230v electricity supplies in every home? Can we design homes with 12v supplies because, if we did, then actually we could power our homes with our waste.”Such changes can perhaps only be enacted if the construction process stops to re-evaluate all aspects of current practice, questioning what is normal and why it has become so.

“Design is no longer just for the human. What we’re seeing is an expanded notion of humanism in which the organisms we live alongside, the materials and the environment that we live with, all become part of the sphere of care and value.”“It changes the focus of design so that yes, it is still very much about designing for humans, but it is about more than just designing for humans. It is about the responsibilities we have to sustain the other things around us

.”This could involve looking at everyday products in a totally different way. For example, how could a chair be more than ‘just’ a chair? Armstrong points out that NASA are looking at ways in which the chair can harness energy from the person sitting in it – with obvious beneits for maximising power on a space craft, but with a potential for contributing to the energy-saving agenda a little closer to home perhaps.She adds that the toilet could also take on a bigger role than just acting as a chute for waste, with a future that could see it play a part within a larger system of waste recycling within the home. 

Ehab Sayed, Founder and Director of Innovation at Biohm and PhD Researcher at Northumbria University, added further revelations to this glimpse of a new world ahead, by showing the audience some of the new material his company is making from living organisms and waste products. Sayed and his colleagues are driven by a vision of mutual integration between the built and natural environment via a circular economy based on a clear ethos of mutual beneit and doing what is right for the planet. He explained the background to his new form of carbon-neutral insulation developed using the fungus mycelium which feeds on organic and synthetic waste to grow into desired shapes.

Both Armstrong and Sayed are at the forefront of innovation in their ields and advocate that changing how we build our cities and lead our lives has to – and will – happen. Gielgun picked up the point that however desirable, change is restricted in the current construction industry because it is driven by giants, the big house builders and investment companies, adding that it is hard to challenge the status quo but it has to be done. He said there are so many standards in the construction industry that have to be adhered to that it is hard for new products to break through the barriers.

Panelist Leonne Cuppen, curator and founder of Yksi Connect, feels very strongly about giving our architects of the future the space and opportunity to develop new ideas and more sustainable products. Her work connects designers with industry, bringing all the parties together, focussing on social issues, sustainability, and circularity in relation to design. In her eyes, young people are highly connected with technology and motivated to make the world a better place in which to live.

She called for big companies to work with young designers to create something new. She recognised how hard it is for big corporate organisations to change but feels optimistic it can happen. The event inished off with some pertinent questions from the audience about the ethics of bio-technology and also the dificulty for architects to specify new products and materials that do not meet construction standards. The inal question touched on the lifespan of things in a throw-away society. It led to further discussion about making products that last a long time, and whether we should instead be looking to create products that are temporary but also do not need recycling.

Gielgen posed one of the most thought-provoking prospects, suggesting that all manufacturers could be facing a major disruption to the status quo in the not too distant future. “We are likely to see a ban of artiicial materials and that will be the biggest shock to all of the producers worldwide. I believe we will see a plastic ban, coffee cup ban, all of these things will only expand into other areas as time goes on so manufacturers will have to adapt to this, and probably faster than many are currently prepared to believe.

”Peter Murray summarised by suggesting that although the beneits of many of the futuristic ideas for harvesting energy or making better use of natural resources are pretty clear for people to see, we perhaps still have a long way to go to shift current industry practices and the constraints of building regulations. Getting new material onto the market is clearly challenging but there is a lot of optimism that this can happen, with the right education, investment and creative spaces for new ideas to lourish.Andrew Laidler, Director of Sales and Marketing at EGGER, thanked the panel for a fascinating insight in to the future of design and architecture and the role that biotechnology companies can play in promoting a new approach to construction. He added: “It’s clear that we all have to change and develop to stay relevant to our companies, and companies themselves have to change, innovate and listen to what the younger generations are asking for: a sustainable economy and a world free of materials that are harmful to humans and the environment.”

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