As professionals responsible for the health, safety and welfare of our clients and the general public, we must carefully evaluate the materials and products that go into the buildings we design. The task of sourcing and selecting new materials for a project requires a significant investment of time, effort, and ultimately, money.
Associate Professor Donna Kacmar, founder and director of the Materials Research Collaborative at the University of Houston, understands this plight well. “It takes time to actually find new materials," says Kacmar. "And then, once you find something interesting, you need to know about its warranty, how is it installed, etc. All of this takes time and a commitment to innovation. Most project schedules, fees, and construction costs are not well suited to innovation.” Luckily, there are a number of ways to source, research, and try new products. A handful of resources are outlined below; after all, half the battle is often knowing where to start the search.
Made in Houston
For the 300+ architecture firms and sole practitioners in Houston, Made in Houston is a great resource for finding local suppliers and fabricators to collaborate with. Created through the Materials Research Collaborative, the website sorts entries by material type and utilizes a standardized graphic display to indicate what services and capabilities each listed business has.
Materials Research Collaborative
For architects outside of Houston, try searching the Materials Research Collaborative website. Arranged by material type, each product is displayed with an image and comes with a breakdown of properties for quick reference. From answering the basic questions like available sizes and colors to listing values such as embodied energy and recycled content, this database is a great launching pad for ordering unique material samples.
Eco Business Links
Looking for salvage and surplus items? Eco Business Links provides a directory of businesses that supply (and accept) salvage building and construction items. Ranging from architectural ornamentation to lumber and finishes, this list is a good starting point for repurposing old products. In addition to salvage building materials, the website also includes other sustainable-focused businesses ranging from clean energy providers to organic eateries and personal care products.
When you’re not sure what you need on a project, try browsing Green Maven, which lists businesses, products, and service providers that contribute to sustainable design in a directory-style layout.
The Pharos Project and GreenSpec
Need sustainable and healthy materials, but don’t have time to do as much research as you’d like? Try tapping into The Pharos Project or GreenSpec databases. For a fee, you can access the resources of GreenSpec, including independent research on materials and top-level spec writing guidance. The Pharos Project will help drill down on issues like health, environment, and community by dividing their research into evaluation categories like VOC content, toxic substances, and renewable energy and materials.
For those firms or individuals who prefer to see a physical sample first, consider an ActiveMATTER subscription through Material ConneXion. For a fee, you will be sent a mystery box of new materials each quarter from this world-wide organization that researches new materials, technologies, and applications. The box is full of inspirational and unique samples that are cutting-edge and can be applied to a wide variety of design disciplines. In addition to the ActiveMATTER box, there are subscriptions available to their online database of materials. In-depth research is provided to subscribers on each material — the inventory currently amounts to over 7,000 products — with new items selected monthly by an expert jury.
There are many more websites and databases that can assist architects in selecting and specifying new materials, but ultimately it is up to the architect to guide the client in exploring new, sustainable options for each project. With these new tools and resources, we hope that the barriers to innovation will be removed.
Brinn Miracle is an Associate at PDR in Houston, Texas, and writes about architecture at her blog, www.architangent.com. With the support of her design-inclined husband, David, she recently completed the requirements for licensure and looks for ways to educate the world about the principles of good design.