THERE IS MORE TO ARCHITECTURE THAN SPIN AND SHOPPING
Emerging Technologies and Housing Prototypes Salvador Pérez Arroyo, Rossana Atena and Igor Kebel Black Dog Publishing, 2007, £24.95 Ken Livingstone would do well to take a cue from this book and commission cutting-edge research to inform the housing proposed for the Thames Gateway. Sponsored by Madrid City Council and written by a faculty member and postgraduates at Rotterdam's Berlage Institute, this book is part new-product catalogue and part design work from the institute's Domesticating Technology Transfer unit. Technology transfer is not a new concept - Renzo Piano has worked with the industry since the 1970s - but the construction industry would benefit more from dedicated research and development expenditure than relying on technology transfer.
The more useful first half of this book, which aims 'to reduce the technical and cultural distance between materials, producers, designers and consumers', is dedicated to emerging technologies, but is uneven. Product descriptions often include terms assuming a higher level of material science knowledge than is presumed in the introduction. Some examples are oddly specific: for example, wet lay-up for GRP is ascribed to SP Systems from the Isle of Wight - one of many GRP fabricators. The example of phase-change material does not include specifiable board products incorporating the benefits of PCMs - i. e. mimicking thermal mass.
The book suffers from a lack of clarity on what is meant by 'emerging'. Each product's introduction year is listed and some are yet to be released, while others date back to the 1930s, and in too many cases, the listing states that this informarion is 'not available'. And is it appropriate to describe Kapilux by Okalux - acrylic capillary tubes sandwiched between glass sheets - as an emergent technology?
One student case study refers to eminent mechanical engineer Michael Ashby, whose graphical depiction of material qualities achieves far more than this catalogue of suppliers, which could date very quickly. Potentially the most interesting case study is a high-rise adaptive housing system by Lorena Franco, but neither context nor habitation are addressed.
The book's greatest strength is the provision of contact details for manufacturers. The authors note the recent emergence of material brokers who stand between the industry and specifiers.
This book is a welcome attempt to put architects directly in touch with the makers of products.
Appropriate specification and adoption of construction materials is a critical battleground for creating a sustainable built environment. Quality of information is vital, yet too many books on materials are catalogues of images with few words. There is more to architecture than spin and shopping. I recommend J E Gordon's The New Science of Strong Materials or Nicola Sattmann's Ultra LightSuper Strong, rather than this enterprising but muddled endeavour.
Michael Stacey is a professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham and director of Michael Stacey Architects