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Post-Petroleum Design and The Future of Sustainable Materials

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Five billion; that's not a population statistic, that is the amount of plastic, in tons, that currently exists on this Earth, according to George Elvin, author of Post-Petroleum Design (Routledge). If photos of trash circling in gyres around the Pacific doesn't alarm you, the related environmental costs of unearthing oil should raise questions about the sustainability of using this material for the built environment. According to Elvin, whose new book gathers case studies and stories of material science innovators, our dependence on the synthetic substance will wane as designers and architects invent new bio-plastics, engineer sustainable substances or rediscover new ways to work with old materials. We spoke with Elvin, who also runs Gone Studio and teaches architecture at Ball State University in Indiana, about five materials being used in new ways to help bring about a more sustainable future.

"The sustainable harvesting of cork is like shearing sheep; it grows back every nine years. Look at something like the Cortica chaise lounge by Daniel Michalik. It's basically a huge rectangle of cork, eight-by-three-by-one feet, and he's routed these curves into alternating patterns that create a serpentine shape. It's striking and simple, and he's mastered new techniques that really show what cork is capable of."

"It may sound surprising, but Lotus, the high-end British car company, is using hybrid hemp to make the body panels of their cars. They started using is for interior fabrics. It's a very interesting material. Look at how Werner Aisslinger is using it to create chairs. He worked with BASF chemicals to create an eco-safe chemical binder, and made hardshell chairs through thermoforming."

"There are some very interesting trends towards bioplastics and 100% plant-based plastics. What you see on the market now is not really 100% plant-based. It's still likely somewhat petroleum based; all-plant plastic has issues with durability and clarity, since it will break down or yellow over time. But many are using bio-resins and finding ways to make bio-plastic stronger. Every year, University of Stuttgart students do an engineering project fabricated out of bio-plastics. In 2013, they built the ArboSkin Pavilion completely from bioplastics. It used 388 unique, pyramidal plastic panels, a great example of custom fabrication."

"You'll see a lot more building material from this company, which "grows" bricks and other substances from mushrooms and natural materials. They can make bricks, like the ones used at the HyFi tower at MoMA last year, or insulation, and coating the material in resin makes for very interesting furniture. I think it's innovative and promising, and you'll see a lot more applications from them in the future."

"Of all the organic materials out there, wood is so versatile, and can be sustainably managed and harvested. What's new is that milling techniques are changing. With precise CNC (computer numerical control) or laser cutting methods, you can create precision joinery and can do almost anything. Only master craftsman used to be able to do this stuff, and now anybody can. We're seeing structural timber being used for bigger and more complicated structures, since you can precisely set completed joints via the computer, and more and more people being very experimental with the material, especially when it comes to furniture. The flip side is, it's changes what a craftsperson is; what does it mean to be one when everybody has access to this technology?"

Post-Petroleum Design is out now via Routledge.

·The 5 Natural Materials That Will Revolutionize Your Home [Curbed]
·More Sustainable Design posts [Curbed]
·Previous Hy-Fi coverage [Curbed NY]