This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2006 issue of ARCHITECT Magazine.
Products are the stuff of architecture, in a very literal sense, and yet it's fair to say that the building products industry and the profession of architecture maintain an awkward alliance. As a rule, architectural education prioritizes abstract principles over real-world applications, and in practice, the process of design generally takes precedence over the selection of products. On the other side, manufacturers are creating innovative products all the time—the kinds of things architects should be enthusiastic about—but they have difficulty getting the attention of designers and specifiers.
Enter Blaine Brownell, an associate at NBBJ's Seattle office who keeps busy in his off-hours transforming the profession's perception of building products. Given that the disconnect is partly a matter of marketing, of architects and manufacturers speaking different languages, Brownell's accomplishment begins with a shift of word choice: materials, not products. He uses a mix of media—e-mails, blogs, and more recently a book, Transmaterial: A Catalog of Materials that Redefine Our Physical Environment—to convey a new message about materials: That they can be exciting, surprising, and, perhaps most important, of benefit, not just to buildings, but to people and to the environment.
These days, Brownell is on a leave of absence from NBBJ. Having received a Fulbright fellowship to research sustainable design and material innovations in Japan—which he first experienced as the son of a Fulbright grantee and where he worked as an architect in 1991 and 1997—he's moved his family to Tokyo until next July.
“The thing that drives me,” says Brownell, “is not the subject matter so much as the potential. New materials can be fun to study, but they get really exciting when we use them. And if we can harness the creative energy stored in these new products to create a technologically advanced, intelligently crafted, and ecologically proactive world, wouldn't that be a marvelous thing?” Indeed.
Of Books and Blogs From the first, Transmaterial was intended to be a wallet-and satchel-friendly addition to the libraries of architects, students, and even nondesigners. “My colleagues, publisher, and I agreed that … to have a significant positive influence, [the book] would have to be accessible, portable, and affordable,” says Brownell. And if the book's pages appear similar to the entries on his Transmaterial blog (transstudio.com/tm)—small images, to-the-point descriptions—well, that was by design too.
The entire project started about six years ago as an occasional e-mail, called “Product of the Week,” that resulted from Brownell's work as a materials researcher. (In November 2005, he started posting his e-mails as blog entries.) Ultimately, the digital medium inspired its paper counterpart. “After all,” Brownell says, “Transmaterial is [meant to be] a gateway to resources. The sooner people can understand … innovative materials, the sooner we can spread innovation within our physical environment.”
He seems to have struck just the right note. The Product of the Week e-mail has 4,000 subscribers, and Transmaterial is already into its second print run after the initial 10,000 copies sold out. “It's one of our bestselling titles,” says Katharine Smalley Myers, publicity director at Princeton Architectural Press. A second volume is in the planning stages.
Brownell's other blog, Transstudio (“a forum for the major environmental, social, and economic issues that are transforming our physical world”), is for the moment on the back burner as he focuses on his research in Japan and maintaining his product e-mails. But he has every intention of rejuvenating it. “It's actually part of a long-term plan to write a book on the subject,” Brownell says.
Keep It Sustainable As awareness about humanity's impact on the health of the planet continues to grow, green design and sustainability have become hot topics for the architectural community as well as for those who work, live, and play in and around its structures.
Buildings utilize almost half of all resources, notes Brownell. If architecture is ever going to maintain an ecological footprint more in balance with the requirements of its context, he says, then change needs to begin with the people who create the built environment. “[We] must place as much emphasis on research and teaching as [we] do on practice,” he says. “In addition to function and form, I believe that architecture must have foresight.” As he defines it, foresight considers the “entire ecology” of the material and energy resources that go into a building.
To that end, throughout his book Brownell makes a point of noting, when applicable, the environmentally friendly aspects of a product or material—whether it's how it is manufactured; the benefits it confers to buildings, their users, and the surrounding environment; or how it can be put back into the production stream. Shown on these two pages is a small sample of what he's discovered.
Future World Not everything in the Transmaterial universe has an obvious use. Throughout Brownell's book and blog are entries on products and materials with names like Body Index, Aegis Hyposurface, Dimension Elevator, Super Cilia Skin, Lumalive, and Cubix. Reading the descriptions and looking at the images, you might think these high-tech, odd, or flat-out mysterious items came from the pages of a science-fiction novel or an episode of Battlestar Galactica. But they are very real.
Yet Brownell, although enthusiastic about advances in manufacturing and application, prefers not to see technology as an end in itself. “I think we must maintain a critical distance,” he says. “Technology can bring us amazing things, but we should always be vigilant about where it is taking us. Marshall McLuhan said that the artist is essential to society because he/she can foresee the changes technological development will bring about.”
And by informing other architects and lighting designers about the progress that researchers, manufacturers, and designers are making—whether it's a bleeding-edge use of computer-aided design or a new application of an existing material or product—Brownell hopes they will begin to think this way too.