Envisioning a Perfect Building Material

Martin Mulvihill
While the “perfect” material for any given project may depend on the context, it is essential that we learn how to describe, design, and explain how we can improve the sustainability of building materials.

I am a chemist, not an architect, builder, contractor, or designer.

I once built a coat rack out of a 4×4. It wasn’t pretty, but its sheer mass kept it stable in the corner of my college apartment until I moved out 2 years later. I did not build that coat rack around the 4×4 because it was a “perfect” material. It was in a pile of weather damaged lumber on the side of the building, so I grabbed it and proceeded to drill, saw, hammer, and glue my way to what passed for something to hang wet coats on when we came in from the Portland rain.

Context is everything. We will always choose materials on the basis of multiple factors. My hope is that material health and sustainability will become an essential and actionable part of these factors, both for DIY projects in our homes as well as commercial scale building materials.

I didn’t consider the impact of the polyurethane stain that I used to finish my coat rack. If I were to build a coat rack again today, I still would not have simple or informative ways to consider my coating options despite my desire to make an informed decision. In order to know what coating to use I would want to know which are the least toxic, most efficient, and have the smallest carbon footprint, while still providing a finished product resistant to water and wear from rain coats.

“Information about toxicity, health, water use, and embedded energy are very hard to find for most building materials.”

Information about toxicity, health, water use, and embedded energy are very hard to find for most building materials. Information about cost and performance is more readily available. While the “perfect” material for any given project may depend on the context, it is essential that we learn how to describe, design, and explain how we can improve the sustainability of building materials.

The sustainability and safety of modern building materials is intimately linked with the chemistries that are used to create them. While we use some natural materials, like wood, even these must be treated with synthetic chemicals to meet modern building codes and performance standards. Increasingly, we use highly engineered materials, plastics, composites, resins, and foams to provide energy efficient and state of the art buildings. While many of these materials are safe for their intended use, some of these materials have been linked with health problems. Others are safe while they are in a building, but create health risks to the workers who made the materials, the contractors who built the building, or to the environment when the building is torn down.

When I envision a perfect building material, I want to make sure that the chemistries that are used – from raw material sourcing, to building, and through decommissioning – are all safe for human health and the environment. The materials should be sourced from reusable or renewable materials and they should be made safely and efficiently without creating harmful pollution or waste.

Over the next 12 months, I will be learning more about the current state of building materials and sharing my view of the current research, incentives, tools, and innovations that are being made to help us choose the best materials for every application.

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Martin Mulvihill
USGBC Senior Research Fellow, Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry (BCGC), and researcher in both Public Health and Environmental Engineering. Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in Chemistry and Nanoscience.