We live in a material world, and we are part of the material culture.
“There is no point in lives of human beings (...) when they are not being intimate with artifacts” (Ingold).
This material culture has changed within the last centuries. The originally independent entities were then, especially since industrialization, pressed into rectangular forms and unusual properties were opposed to them.
Our perception of materials is influenced by industry. Materials are perceived as passive, arbitrarily transformable. In other words, “form came to be seen as actively imposed, whereas matter — thus rendered passive and inert — became that which was imposed upon” (Ingold).
This misperception and misuse lead to loss of resources and a tremendous amount of waste, reinforced by our linear economic system. There is the need for shifting away from this linear economy and developing circular concepts for objects and thus for the use of materials.
Waste is a symptom of design failure. Designers and engineers can decide about the number of materials involved in the product design. They can minimize it, for instance, or they can design for easy disassembly. The environmental impact of a product is dictated by various choices that are made during the design process. The number of alternative materials that have been developed for environment-friendly design and manufacturing, comprising materials from renewable resources, or recycled and revived materials, is continuously increasing. Though, designing environment-friendly does not only consist of seeking sustainable replacements of existing technologies and materials. It is important to develop more radical visions due to the need for a paradigm shift in production and consumption systems.
Growing Design can be one of them. It is a material design practice that addresses bio fabricated materials such as mycelium, kombucha, or algae. It embraces the elaboration of material functions that suit as material alternatives for a circular system.
Anyway, seeing the advantages and potentials of these materials, we should also reflect on these developments critically. Just because of securing the renewability of raw material, it does not entail to be fully sustainable. It is very important to have scalability in mind. Can a material still be environment-friendly, if it is produced in an enormous amount?
This problematique firstly lies in our current system in which resources are depleted. Materials whose characteristics correspond to ecological factors, but which are nevertheless blindly extracted, cannot contribute to a holistic, sustainable development either. It is important to treat nature and its resources adequately as an (eco)system to which we belong to.
My research semester was intended to explore the world of sustainable materials and material developments. As mentioned above, many designers and scientists are working on the development of new sustainable alternatives. But many of these projects end up at the same point and create just one more product on the market.
My central research question was to find out what criteria a material has to meet to be fully environmentally friendly. Sustainability cannot be solely considered as an environmental concern, it also incorporates economic and, in particular, social dimensions, i.e. regarding equality and justice as basic elements.
So, designing for and with the environment means to go beyond creating ecological alternatives. Many recently developed materials fulfill ecological criteria such as biodegradability, or energy efficiency but they dismiss the social component.
Materials are sensed differently depending on their setting and these qualities can change over time. The characteristics of a material and someone’s prior experiences, as well as social and cultural values unavoidably, affect how we act upon materials (Karana). They influence our behavior on several levels.
Hence, “to understand materials one needs to be able to tell their stories i.e. communicating of what they do and what happens to them when treated in particular ways (...) ” (Ingold).
For this reason, I approached them explicitly and implicitly. It turned out that loam meets many of these criteria and thus offers the best conditions to become a fully environmentally friendly material.
I see myself in this project as a mediator between us humans and the material, becoming the voice of the resource.
That leads to another issue – human-centered design. “The difficulty with a human-centered approach to design is that it often fails to look beyond the immediate user, toward the ‘‘other’’ that might be affected by a design (...). Human-centered design, applied to gain an economic advantage, all too often seeks easy solutions that satisfy users within unsustainable systems in a world of finite resources” (Schmeer). Accordingly, the problem of human-centered design is, besides leading to unsustainable modes of production and consumption, leaving ecological and non-human perspectives unaccounted - in this case, the one of soil.
As a consequence, our species has become progressively disconnected from the complex ecosystem that nourishes and sustains us. Hence, a user-centered approach – in this project – might narrow the possible outcome whilst a non-human-centered one could unveil new possibilities. This is not intended to mean that humans will remain disregarded in the project, however, they are not the focus of the project.
Telling the project from the perspective of the material?
“While it is impossible, as a human to fully adopt an other-ed perspective, there are ways of getting closer to it” (Schmeer 2019). Here design approaches like xenodesign, object-centered design, or thing-centered design can be helpful. I see the Material Driven Design approach as a means to examine the material holistically.
In object-centered design projects such as the project GoatMan by Thomas Thwaites, the designer tries to fully shift his perspective into the one of a
goat in seeking to create a cross-entity empathy.
Thing-centered Design (TCD) has a similar approach; it is a research and design method that uses the possibilities of the Internet of Things to explore and partner with things envisioning new design solutions and widening the capabilities. Thing centered design methods, developed by students of the TU Delft, such as ‘Object Personas’ or a ‘Decentering Thing Ethnography’ can be used to approach the matter differently.
The goal is to create a concept that aims at an adequate usage of the resource. By moving away from the human-centered design approach towards a ‘matter- centered’ one, it will be possible to achieve fair treatment of the material. It targets to promote the potentials of loam to approximate the stage of a healthier environment (that concerns us, humans, and all other beings in nature) but simultaneously it aims to emphasize a fair manner of using it. It tries to reconnect humans with its surroundings by conveying the correlation of matter and humanity, and thus also our dependence on materiality.
Becoming an expert of the matter
* Working with materials requires knowledge and a full understanding of them. Therefore, extensive research on loam was indispensable, both explicit and implicit. The following gives a short insight into my recent work on that:
Loam is a soil type that consists of sand, silt, and clay and occurs in various compositions under the upper humus layer in all parts of the world. It is formed either by weathering from solid or loose rocks or by the unsorted deposition of the aforementioned components. It can be classified based on its grain size components, as in the figure below.
A main component of soils is clay. Clay, an unconsolidated sedimentary rock, consists essentially of mineral particles smaller than 20 μm. Clay minerals form the smallest particles of soil and their silicate structure enables the binding of ions within their crystal gods. These ions contain nutrients for plants. Accordingly, clay minerals are the most important filters for pollutants. The clay particles form the binder between larger components, such as the sand and silt in the clay. Among the sediments, clays and clayey rocks predominate to a large extent (80%) and are formed by weathering of silicate rocks. Silicate rocks are the most common rocks of the earth‘s crust. They consist mainly of silicate minerals, such as feldspars or quartz.
Loam arises through the deformation of rocks which is caused by erosion, i.e. through the wind (aeolian), water (alluvial), or the movement of ice-age glaciers (glacial) and morays.
Most clays are relocated; i.e. weathered rock is removed and transported (for example by wind or water after being deposited by glaciers). If loams have remained at the place of their origin and parent rock, they are called residual loam.
Soils, and thus also loam, are therefore divided into different groups depending on the grain size on the one hand and on the formation process on the other. Based on their formation, there exist four types of loamy soil: alluvial loam, mountain loam, boulder loam, and loess loam.
Loam is malleable when wet and becomes solid when it dries. It swells through the addition of water and shrinks when drying. Thus, depending on its composition, loam in a moist state is a more or less vivid building material, which
becomes hard and load-bearing through air drying or firing. As a building material, it can store heat and has a regulating effect on the air humidity as well as on the humidity of adjacent materials. The number of its components, i.e. of sand and clay, as well as the type of clay, is important for the building properties. Its characteristics allow complete, infinite recycling of the resource unless it is contaminated by other artificial substances or fungal or dry rot spores. Loam is, therefore, suitable for circular processes, provided that a few conditions are met. However, it is important to mention that all mineral resources, including loam, are limited in their availability.
Additionally, loam improves the indoor climate by naturally regulating the humidity in the room through the absorption or release of water vapor. It can also be used for sound insulation and has heat-storing properties. Furthermore, it is reported that loam can reduce electrosmog. Likewise, it is used directly as a healing agent, as healing earth masks, or mud baths.
Another advantage is the worldwide availability of loam. It is a resource accessible to everyone and can either be extracted directly and free of charge or purchased at a low cost. This supposedly infinite and worldwide availability though is at the same time problematic, as it suggests that the resource will never be exhausted. A responsible mining, as well as the constant reuse of the resource, is therefore indispensable.
Due to its occurrence and plasticity, the material is even suitable for Do-It-Yourself construction. As building projects, in particular, do (and can) not succeed on their own, the idea of DIY can be taken further and it can be said that loam is also suitable for Do-It-in- Groups or Do-It-as-a-Collective (DIG/DIC). Emotional bonds create an attachment to the material and can be achieved through the involvement of the users in the formation process.
As can be seen, loam's a lot.
Loam is and has been widely used for many purposes, by humans and non-humans.
I started to create an online collection of loam that records scenarios from the past, usages of the present, and scenarios from the future. You can see it here, on Instagram. It is an ongoing process, a channel that wants to be fed with new scenarios - let me know if you have an inspiring scenario in mind!
How to become loam?
Besides gaining theoretical knowledge, it was important to explore and examine the material haptically. I used different methods of the Thing-Centered-Design toolkit. With the so-called ‘object persona’ one tries to put oneself into the life, the daily routine, and the social context of the object, in this case, the material. This is intended to generate a better understanding of its surroundings and ecology, i.e. the relationships between various living beings. It is a method that is essentially based on the subjective perception of the investigator, but which is supposed to facilitate and stimulate ways of thinking through the change of perspective. Here you can have a look at it!
Another method of this toolkit includes an interview with the object/ matter. The so-called ‚Thing Ethnography‘ or Data-Collection-Stage aims to collect as much valuable data as possible. For example through sensors. Once the data has been collected, it is organized in a way that is meaningful to the investigator. The data will serve as a basis for the interview. Finally, the Data-Interpretation-Stage or ‚Actor‘s Performance‘ follows. Here the actor (in this case the investigator) tries to put himself in the role of the thing or matter to best answer the interviewer‘s questions. Here is the link to it.
Approaching matter affords to understand it, to be able to speak or at least understand its language. It will enable us to react to it appropriately, to its wishes and will. If we manage to be on an equal footing with the resource and see it as more than just a supplier for our needs, then we could get back into a balanced relationship. So, now the question is, how to communicate with loam? What does it tell? How can we understand him?
I conducted a short project where I tried to achieve interspecies communication with bacteria. It was a short intervention to test and learn how such communication could look, conceptually. You can see it here.
What if we managed to enlive loam? What if we would co-live with it on earth? I speculated a possible (preferable?) scenario.
The aim of this thesis
The project is about rethinking our interaction with materials and things that are materials in movement. I don’t want to claim that nowadays the handling of materials is completely wrong and „unsustainable“ but it partly does lead to unsustainable modes of production, lots of waste and thus to exploitation. No secret and nothing new. That is why I think that it is important to rethink our interaction with materials, our way to use, and handle them (some Anthropologists e.g. Timothy Ingold, or Phycisists e.g. Karen Barad discuss this).
One way of revising this is to attribute a certain aliveness to materials. Perceiving materials, not as inert, passive mass, but instead think of it/ with it as active co-creators (Sympoiesis).
This aliveness does not have to be scientifically evidenced, i.e. it does not necessarily need to reveal a living world within, but also can become „alive“ through receiving an own spirit. It is not to say that scientific data and theories are thus completely thrown over, but are supplemented by animistic concepts.
... to be continued. I am working to make the theory I've worked on to become tangible.
It will be uploaded soon.