Reader Maurits Ruis tells us of Material Explorer, a site launched last week
in coordination with the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and by a consulting group called Materia. It's a database of new materials for use by architects and industrial designers, with a standardized ratings of material characteristics (density, weight, resistance to heat and chemicals, etc.). It manages to be both fascinating and frustrating.
The fascinating: The search engine lets you select a wide array of characteristics of your desired material, or search on a material's name; trying to find which combinations lead to which materials can easily occupy an afternoon. The descriptions of the materials are quite detailed, reasonably well illustrated, and complete with information about the manufacturer. For a designer looking to experiment with new stuff, this site could be very useful.
The frustrating: While there's a demo page allowing for sample searches, full use of the site requires a sign-up process. (It's particularly frustrating that the terms of service claim that one can opt-out from Material Explorer email spam, but there seems to be no way of actually doing so when signing up.) More importantly, none of the characteristics and keywords used by the database have strong connections to sustainability. There's no way to search on "amount of chemicals used in production" or "biodegradable" or "recyclable."
As a way of digging into what kinds of new materials may be available for a project, it can be useful, but it is lacking some key features. But for our purposes, Material Explorer is a proof-of-concept, a demonstration that such a compendium can be built and can be fun to use. What we need now is the Sustainable Design Database of Materials -- does one already exist? If not, who's up for the challenge?
The main issue with ecomaterials databases is that they need a lot of attention to fluctuate with product availability. Most of them (like Material Explorer) are geared toward architecture and building, and very few are useful to product designers. (I keep my hopes up, even though the charming soy-plastic samples I ordered were eaten by texan sugar ants).
Site-specifics are also really critical: Australian suppliers are of no use to me, my budget, or project footprint if I have to ship their stuff to Canada. But a database large enough that it could be searched by location would be excellent. One final barrier is the lack of information about life cycle costs provided by manufacturers.
That said, several attempts have been made. Lacking consistent funding and attention, and typically funded by universities or coddled by geeks like myself, they can fall by the wayside after the website launch. The obvious exception is the exceptionally well-funded Material Connexion, which is owned by Steelcase. Because of its steep subscription, I still don't know if they even look at ecological impact, but as a materials library (both real and digital) it's second to none.
This WC post lists a few of the best databases out there.
Design inSite (Technical University of Denmark) is one resource that does address some of the quantitative issues you bring up
Ecospecifier (RMIT, Australia) has added more to its site, and sorts products based on terrestrial impact, material use, energy reduction, etc.
Ok, so that's what's out there that I know of.. I'd actually be very interested in a structured wiki approach to gathering and maintaining this sort of information, if there were enough interest and knowledge base to build it.
Isn't this what GreenBlue is supposed to do? (McDonough & Braungart's NGO spin off). At least for chemicals...
I agree on your comments on the Material Explorer, sustainability is a mayor missing issue. So far the Explorer just seems to be a conquest for hip materials which is a bit of a hype in architecture today. Lets hope your feedback will ignite an evolutionary process of the site that will eventually lead to an addition of issues on sustainability.
Furthermore it would be interesting for the branch to have a comparable site on innovative building systems. Features like the Styrofoam homes, as mentioned lately at Worldchanging, and the Bubbledeck floor (http://www.bubbledeck.com/), designed to reduce the necessary amount of concrete in a building could be presented on such a site.
More comments on the Explorer to be found at the Dutch architecture website http://www.archined.nl/archined/FutureMaterials0.0.html .
The Material Explorer was actually a initiative by Materia itself: there is no direct link with the TU Delft. Materia is made up out of architects who now focus 100% at informing other architects and designers (and anyone else interested in new materials) about the existence of new innovative and inspiring materials. Materia is independent and as such believes the site should be freely accessible to all instead of paying the very steep subscriptions rates requested by other material databases.
The whole idea is to give a broad and general overview of the materials, allowing the user to either search by keyword (material, architect project, manufacturer, and so on), material group, sensorial properties, technical properties or a combination of these. For each material there are some photo's, a descriptive text, and descriptions of the material group, sensorial and technical properties and country of origin. Furthermore, if there is a well known project made with the material, it will also be described. The manufacturer information is also provided with contact details and a direct link to the web site. If you want really specific information you can contact the manufacturer.
At the moment we are still optimizing the database and are looking forward to all feedback. However, we can tell you the search for renewable materials will be included in the next weeks. The same goes for searching by country of origin. What we will not include are prices, because it is virtually impossible to keep track of them and they vary heavily by country, montage, quantity and so on.
Furthermore we will adjust the demopage so it will actually work as a demopage; we just didn't have the time right now due to the exhibition Material Skills last week.
Regarding to the subscription: registration is necessary because then visitors can collect their favorite materials in their own on line favorites folder(s). This way the Material Explorer can truly be a tool in the search for new, innovative and inspiring materials. As stated in the membership agreement, Materia will never send spam, but we will inform you of important alterations made to the database, for instance new materials, new features and so on. In every email we send there is a standard de-subscription line. Furthermore it is always possible to contact us directly as is mentioned in the membership agreement.
If you have any tips about new materials, please don't hesitate to send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex, thank you for the information and correction. I look forward to seeing renewable materials added to the database.
Actually, Jamais, the signup isn't so bad. Compare that to using Material Connexion--it's the best database of materials on the planet, but you have to pay $30,000/yr to subscribe to it. (Although FYI, Dawn, you can sweet talk them into getting a free trial for a few hours, or day, I forget. Anyway, enough to get a good feel for the db's knowledge-depth. Its content is also more product-oriented than Material Explorer's, which is more architectural.)
At the other end of the spectrum is Transmaterial by Transstudio.com, which is so free you can download their whole book as pdf's... but it's not a searchable database.
As for materials db's searchable by green characteristics, IDEMAT (by TU Delft, surprise surprise) would be what you're looking for, except it's not searchable online. I believe you have to pay for a downloaded searchable version, but if you use the SimaPro life-cycle analysis software (http://www.pre.nl/default.htm) it comes with IDEMAT included in it. Not positive about this.
And as for GreenBlue's db, it isn't publicly available yet (they're still gathering data.)