Materials Matter: Solutions to an Age-Old Problem

If you listen closely, a brick will tell you exactly what it wants to be.

Just ask Louis Kahn, the iconic designer who firmly believed that architects stuck for inspiration should simply ask their materials for advice. (“You say to a brick, ‘What do you want, brick?’ And brick says to you, ‘I like an arch.’”)

“How simple and straightforward would it be if that’s all it took?” laughs architect David Wilbourne, AIA. “But of course, it’s not. We live in the real world.”

The relationship between material and design, he says, is ever-present, contextual, and critical. When done well, choosing materials is how a designer translates vision into tangible space. When done poorly, material selection can lead to outdated, unsustainable—and sometimes even life-threatening—buildings. (In June of this year, a London tower went up in flames, killing 80. The culprit? A low-cost risky cladding system composed of flammable materials.)

So we asked David, an architect in our hospitality studio, as well as a few other designers from across the firm, to tell us more about materials. How do you pick the right ones, both inside and outside of a building? Ones that look great, and perform even better, materials that will stand up to weather, time, and trends? How should the safety of materials factor into the design? And how do you juggle those factors within other important parameters such as client needs and budgets?

Here, our team walks us through this complex issue, from the tiniest details to the decisions involved in ensuring a 15-story building stays safe and standing. Their perspectives vary, but one sentiment rings true throughout: It all starts with the client.

Let’s start inside a hotel, where literally hundreds of people interact with your design on a daily basis, says David. You only get one first impression, and oftentimes, that’s the lobby. So every material you choose to use, from the flooring and the wallpaper, to the fabric on the furniture or the furniture itself, must make a statement.

At the same time, the selections you make need to stand up to the wear-and-tear of a heavily used public space. A 17-foot silver tufted sofa might look incredible and make a powerful statement for a brand like AC Hotels, but you’ve got to be careful. “You don’t want to see it destroyed within the first two months,” says David. “Anything with frills, fringes, buckles—if someone can mess with it, they will.”

Striking a balance between beauty and function is exactly why our clients come to us. “Our interior designers know which materials are long-lasting and look like a million bucks, without actually costing it.”

Respecting form and function equally is no easy feat when designing interiors, and becomes an even bigger challenge when confronted with designing the structure and façade of building, he says. There are just as many factors (budget, project schedule, brand standards) with the added complexity of the building’s locale.

“You don’t build a log cabin in the desert,” explains David. “There’s a substantial contextual element to what we do, and the first step is understanding how the materials you choose to work with will look, feel, and function in the surrounding environment.”

For example, David and a few other hospitality architects are working on a Hyatt Place in a beach town that breaks with the hotel flag’s prototypical red brick with tan EIFS (a type of fabricated stucco). The heavy-handed materials don’t make sense in the beachy location, so we collaborated with our client to develop a design that works within the parameters of the brand prototype and the hotel’s location, selecting concrete panels instead of brick. The change gives the façade a more contemporary, fresh feel that is more contextual to the coastal locale.

Materials, then, are also first impressions. They’re how people connect with a space; by touching, seeing, and experiencing, memories are made. “And isn’t that the whole point of design?” asks David.

“When we take the AREs (that’s Architect Registration Examination) to get our license, they’re not asking us questions to figure out if we’re creative designers. They don’t care. All of the questions come down to safety. The licensing board wants to make sure you know how to design a building that will keep people safe.”

That’s Jay Woodburn, AIA. As principal and lead architect in our workspace and higher education studio, he’s a self-professed technical architect who loves the nuts and bolts of design and how a building gets put together. Materiality is a particularly fascinating topic for Jay because it’s a conversation that includes both the creative and the technical.

“There are architects who start first with vision,” Jay says. “But I’m immediately thinking about the parts and pieces inside the walls that affect the performance and longevity of a building.” Especially, he says, as it relates to the unintended consequences involved in material technology innovation.

Materials fail at different points and at different times in their life; there’s an entire science behind materiality and safety. A two-by-four wood stud, for instance, is essentially kindling, because it burns almost immediately. So we don’t build skyscrapers with it. (As buildings get larger, they have more people, so they have to be safer.) Time-tested materials like brick, concrete, stone, and steel have their limitations too, necessitating the development of entirely new options with additional features.

Cladding systems are a perfect example. For hundreds of years, buildings had thick, uninsulated exterior walls like a castle. In the late 1900s, this was commonly replaced with steel studs, fluffy insulation, a layer of sheathing, and a thin brick veneer. “But over time, we discovered this system was bearing the brunt of weather damage. Water and vapor slowly trickled in through the cracks, rusting the steel studs and connections.”

So the building code was changed and architects started putting insulation on the exterior of the building too. And then things innovated a little further and entire cladding systems were created that combined both the insulation and the exterior material in one product, still all to code.

“There is always a learning curve any time you start to construct buildings differently,” Jay says. “There’s a discovery period, and sometimes those discoveries have unintended consequences. You might save energy or preserve the wall structure by using products in a new way, but it can create a totally new problem that we never had before, like fire spreading up the outside of a building.”

So why do material mishaps occur when we can all agree safety is priority number one? Think about cladding a massive building. If the panel used can be five cents cheaper per square foot, says Jay, that’s a huge dollar amount. “It’s a million-dollar number. And if it’s compliant with code to use this extremely cost-effective material, then there are plenty of instances where it’s ultimately going to get used.”

Here’s where we rely on Sharon Clark, AIA, CSI, our in-house specifications expert. She’s a pro when it comes to preserving the intent of a designer’s vision while factoring in the limitations of the real world: a client’s budget, rapidly changing codes, and innovations in material technology. Every day, she reads industry news alerting her to updated code considerations, new materials, and best practices, which she then distills into a monthly alert for Baskervill designers to help them stay on top of it all.

“There are a lot of innovative solutions and ideas out there when it comes to making a building more visionary or more sustainable,” Sharon says. “The main challenge for any architect is convincing others – owners, engineers, contractors – to try a new material instead of value-engineering it out.” One of the cheapest materials out there is also the safest—concrete. “But, it’s not always pretty, and it’s usually not applied in very innovative ways,” adds Sharon.

Ultimately, as Sharon reminds us, these foundational material selections make an impact on a property’s long-term livelihood and presence. Who doesn’t want a major investment in a building to last for the long haul?

There is a sharp distinction between short-term costs and long-term investments, especially when considering the expected lifespan of your building. And questions of longevity and use is one that spans all types of buildings across all industries. A developer working on a mixed-use building that will ultimately be leased out is going to have very different priorities than a university hoping to add another iconic building to its campus, one they’d like to see standing 150 years from now, says Sheena Mayfield, Assoc. AIA.

Sheena’s a project designer in our community studio with experience in both manufacturing and logistics and workspace, so she’s worked with many types of materials on a number of variable building types. “Conversations about material selection are incredibly project specific,” she says. “A lot of times our decisions will stem from the client, who has a preference for a certain style or palette. Other times we can start with the mass of the building to determine which materials will work the best. A skyscraper is going to need very different materials than a small office building.”

Sustainability is a passion of Sheena’s, and selecting materials that contribute to a building’s overall efficiency or environmental impact can add a layer of complexity. Though there are many new materials being designed to enhance the sustainability of a project, they’re not always the safest.  Mass timber, for instance, is turning up in a handful of towers around country. These “woodscrapers,” as they’re called, are touted as being incredibly sustainable, since timber is a renewable resource, but some criticize the material for being an obvious fire hazard.

Applying timber construction to tower design is a relatively new frontier for the design industry. For the past several centuries, construction has primarily taken advantage of materials like brick, concrete, and steel. Though not considered the most sustainable materials available, Sheena suggests, if they stand the test of time and allow a building to last for hundreds of years, ultimately they are sustainable. Timelessness, then, matters when you’re talking about innovation in sustainable materials. “It’s all a give and take in terms of trying to figure out where to apply the innovation and which materials to select,” Sheena says.

It can seem like an impossible task: Design a building that is beautiful, functional, up-to-code, safe, sustainable, cost-effective, and durable. But if you think about it, Sheena says, this is the challenge that architecture presents at every turn. The complexity of the issue is why it’s so important to have a team of professionals from various disciplines together within one firm with the vast experience needed to reconcile all of the considerations required to design the very best building possible.

“It’s both very complex but also very straightforward. It’s our calling as designers.”


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