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Material Cultures

Similarly, architectural qualities of buildings like scale, proportion, sequence, and surprise reflect and record the collective values and ideals of the culture that produced them. Material cultures explores these reciprocal relationships between people and buildings.

Material Cultures describes the material and human qualities of the four precedents that inspire our devotion to them. Through design, architects shape materials into buildings, and those materials engender unique places, sculpt human experiences, and generate lasting cultural value. Even buildings of ephemeral materials become durable if people consider them worth keeping.

11 Durable

Thermal Table

Thermal table

Buildings exist to shelter human activity and provide comfort: shaping the space, and our experience. Human occupants also leave visible and invisible traces on durable buildings. The image projected on this wall uses a special infrared camera¸ which instead of light, senses the invisible heat radiating from warm objects like people. In this image, brighter tones and light colors show hotter temperatures, while darker tones and blue or purple colors show cool and cold temperatures.

Attendees are encouraged to press their hands against the wall for a moment, and then take it away to reveal an imprint from heating up the building. The materials in some buildings, like ICTA-ICP and Haus 2226, contribute to human comfort by storing excess heat until it is needed.

Shown here: Attendees of the opening reception on February 27 exploring the transfer of their heat to the wall with the thermal camera.

Photo: Mic L. Angelo

Thermal Table

Buildings exist to shelter human activity, durable buildings must do so for a long time, with minimal energy. This table represents the thick floor assembly at the Research Center ICTA-ICP building designed by H Arquitectes + DATAAE in Barcelona, and ways material choices contribute to human comfort. When needed, the top surface of the floor is heated by pumping water through an array of tubes embedded in the concrete. Pumping air through the hollow cores takes full advantage of the thermal mass of the structure to store heat and maintain a steady interior temperature. The dimpled texture on the underside of the slab exposes more surface area of mass, breaks up sound reflections, and diffuses light.

Thermal Table

Move the slider to see the thermal output within the concrete table.

Panel cedar

The exterior cedar siding of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in British Columbia is preserved by charring the outside face, based on a traditional Japanese process of 焼杉板(yakisugi-ita). The memorable façade heightens human experience thorough multiple senses: vision, smell and touch.

Charred Wood Panel

Peter Wiederspahn AIA explains the charred wood exterior siding of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre.

Panel glass

In addition to the screen of aluminum fins wrapping the US Courthouse in Salt Lake City, the glass itself is fritted, a special kind of printing that bonds to the glass to help control solar gains without unduly blocking the view.

Panel poly

The bioclimatic skin at ICTA-ICP wraps the robust and durable concrete frame with an operable system of aluminum frames supporting corrugated polycarbonate panels. The contrast of heavy and light, durable and ephemeral, becomes a legible expression of architecture as a long-term and adaptable framework for human comfort.

The interior partitions at ICTA-ICP are a part of a thick zone of envelope that starts at the bioclimatic skin, separating the unconditioned common areas from the conditioned spaces. The warmth of wood stands against the concrete framework, while signifying the intention to enable reconfiguration.

Panel plaster2

The Porotherm walls of Haus 2226 are protected and sealed with a smooth lime plaster finish inside and out. Sunlight makes the exterior plaster harder and more dirt-repellent over time, creating a timeless and enduring aesthetic.

Weathered panels


Exterior walls are the visible face and expression of architecture. Building enclosures mediate between exterior and interior environments, and are thus subject to natural and human forces of weathering which break down and wear their materials. Over days, seasons, and generations the sun, wind, rain, snow, ice, cold, heat, moisture, insects, pollution, and vandalism leave their mark; measuring the passage of time and materials’ ability to resist it. These panels compare two sets of identical exterior material samples. For the past six months, one set was stored in a controlled environment while the other was exposed to a New England coastal environment.

Photo: Mic L. Angelo

Learn more about each of the buildings that represent each building material in Building Biographies.