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Concrete, steel are 'dinosaurs' of building world, says architect

Vancouver's Michael Green offers an insight into the plant-based construction materials of the future
Vancouver's Michael Green Architecture designs in wood. The Wood Innovation Design Centre in Burnaby, B.C., was completed in 2014.

In the design-build world, the term “sustainable” has taken on an almost mythical quality as architects and builders search for construction techniques that ease the burden on the environment.

But Michael Green believes no building will be truly sustainable until the industry moves away from the three big carbon generators — concrete, steel and masonry — and toward new materials that are closer in line with nature.

“The current trend in building is not going to work, and we need to find a completely new way of doing it,” said Green, the founder and principal architect at Vancouver’s Michael Green Architecture (MGA), during a Sept. 26 webinar presented by industry organization Architizer.

“I believe we have very much left the industrial age, and the materials of the industrial age are the dinosaurs of architecture, and we all have to understand and embrace the idea that they’re the dinosaurs.”

Since launching his firm in 2012, Green has been a leader in wood construction. In fact, the company builds solely in wood, using concrete or steel only in secondary structures and foundations.

Among MGA’s work are the Wood Innovation Design Centre in Prince George, B.C., which was completed in 2015, and T3 Minneapolis, a seven-storey, 220,000-square-foot mass timber office building, which, when it was completed in 2017, was the largest building of its kind in North America. Currently, MGA has been contracted to construct a mass timber building at the new Google headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Watch below as architect Michael Green delivers his TED Talk on building with biomaterials:

Green believes the way forward is through using new, bio-based building materials — grass, hemp and lime, mycelium and bamboo, hybrid bamboo, mycelium and kelp, soil and seed — and that’s the concept behind his newest venture, FIVE.

“It’s the idea of what could be the fifth material that could compete with the big four?” Green said. “What could be the biobased solution?”

Trees or any vascular plant are composed of cellulose fibres that are bound together with lignified tissues, giving plants a strength that enables them to carry big loads, Green noted.

Although forms in nature are circular, humans cut wood into rectilinear forms because it’s cheap and efficient. But that means current construction practices lead to a “staggering quantity of waste,” Green said.

“It’s the kind of scale of waste that means we’re using more of the world’s resources in incredibly wasteful ways, which means more energy goes into it and more carbon, fundamentally,” Green said.

“Our goal is to figure out, how do we create a structure that models itself more like nature to create less waste than a traditional box-like structure that you would see on steel, concrete or wood?”

Green proposes a combination of plant-based fibres, structural modelling, and robotic forming to create buildings that are closer in line with how nature builds.

“We’re trying to follow the essence of what the structure needs and no more, which is exactly what nature does,” he said.

Depending on the region, builders could source different plant materials, including flax, hemp, bamboo, or sweetgrass for this purpose. Material could even be taken from what are typically considered to be waste sources: wood gathered from the forest floor, waste wood products, or plant waste from agriculture.

The plant fibre can then be broken down and reconstituted into a kind of cross-laminated timber, which can be used in construction similar to the way that’s done with wood now, Green added.

Though research is ongoing into these types of materials, Green said a prototype isn’t yet available for testing, largely because it’s difficult for researchers to get their product to market.

He called on the design community to take a leadership role in pushing for change, as the need for more construction is only set to increase in the coming years.

“We as a community should take ownership of the notion that we have a voice, agency, and that we are leaders, and encourage each other to speak up,” Green said.

“Because the world needs to understand what we’re trying to do, and the world needs to invest in us as part of that process.”