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Maria Dragoi interviews George Massoud one of the members of Material Cultures

2 May 2023
By Maria Dragoi

You just released a book, 'Material Reform'. How does it sit amidst your upcoming exhibition at the Building Centre and continuing practice?

Our upcoming exhibition at the Building Centre expands on some of the themes in our book - how the construction industry is complicit in our environmental and social crisis, through its extractive systems of design, production and inhabitation of buildings, and how a shift to biobased regenerative construction materials is necessary to repair the damage we have done. We focus on straw and timber, and their operative role in a decarbonised future from the scale of the molecular to the territorial by producing three commissioned films all of which explore the impact of our material cultures on our land. We also plan on exhibiting a prefabricated thatched building fragment that demonstrates the potential for using bio-based materials at scale.

The book is a series of ongoing conversations we are having in the studio - themes, questions and concepts we engage with to address the degenerative impact of our industry. The work we do in design, education and research rejects extractivist economics and rethinks our relationship to the land for the benefit of all life.

There seems to be a trend in associating sustainable materials with downscaling and moving local - do you agree? What does this mean when competing with big industry?

Not necessarily- there needs to be a cultural shift to see the systemic transformation we are advocating for - its goals, power structures and rules need to change. It is difficult to imagine a regenerative future without reimagining our relationship to the land - access to it, how we use it and its management. A shift away from the extractive models and cultures of consumption that have proven to be destructive for people and the integral ecosystems we are part of.
I don't think a low-impact approach and industry are in opposition to each other. Smaller-scale industries that can be replicated everywhere create a more resilient biosphere in our regional environments.
Inherently, locally manufactured materials build value in the economic and social systems in the places in which we build. The shorter supply chain also means less energy is spent in transporting materials.
It also requires the distribution of construction and manufacturing skills across an economy, not just in urban or manufacturing centres. These are all things that are good for rural economies, but they are also good for our buildings - the less energy we spend in building the better, and a more resilient construction skills economy can coalesce around more locally sourced natural materials. 

Having the option to specify sustainable materials is crucial for practitioners - how do you see these techniques being implemented on a larger scale? How does that shift happen within the industry?

Well, we first need to move away from a "sustainable" mindset to a regenerative one - we should expect much more than mitigating negatives. Architects should be held accountable for the materials they are specifying, and their long-term implications. If a product is branded "green" or "sustainable", we should interrogate its networks of extraction and production - rebranding certain products, or offsetting carbon emissions is not enough.
The entire industry and its supply chains need to be involved in a transition to a more circular and biobased construction economy, from contractors to policymakers, saw mills to construction skills academies. The most effective levers, however, are in the hands of the state - policy-level change is one of the strongest tools we have to incentivise change in what is an otherwise conservative industry. Architects are uniquely engaged with different actors along the supply chain and across the industry. Through our own work and the way we engage with other actors, we can demonstrate both best practice and also demand better practice from our collaborators.

What are some common misconceptions about working with sustainable materials?

People think that buildings made of natural materials do not last. This is ironic considering some of the oldest buildings in the world are made of natural materials. It is difficult to move away from this mindset - modernism did a very good job at using materials such as glass, steel or concrete to represent permanence, durability, power and control. 

What do you hope to see for the future of mainstream material culture?

Scaling-up is impact - we are developing building systems that facilitate the application of biobased materials at a larger scale, taking advantage of developments in fabrication technology.

What can people not involved in industry or architecture do to take steps towards a more sustainable future?

Untangle, learn and expose the destructive cultures of our current modus operandi!

'Homegrown: Building a Post Carbon Future' was made possible by the kind support of Built by Nature.

Maria Dragoi is a writer, curator, and painter. She is interested in the intersections between technology and material cultures, housing, and ecology.