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Material Experience

When people discuss the built environment that we inhabit, the idea of “realness” is often thrown around. “Is that real granite? Wood? Leather?” But why is this such a topic of discussion, and how does this “realness” actually impact our day-to-day experiences in a space?

For the sake of exploring our interpretations of this concept, it can be said that the most general definition of a “real” material in this context is that it is an object taken from nature, and minimally refined or modified by humans. Real wood is essentially straight from the trunk of a tree, and uniform in its composition the same way that it is when growing. Real stone is carved straight from a quarry and unaltered beyond a polished finish at most. The list goes on. Meanwhile a “fake” wood may be a resin composite or vinyl board made to share the appearance of a textured grain surface, or even just a highly refined wood board that requires a piece of veneer to give the appearance of the traditional idea of a piece of wood. Such alternatives exist for countless “real” materials that offer both benefits and sacrifices compared to their natural counterparts.

And whether it be a societal or cultural concept which influences the idea that something being straight from nature rather than “man-made” is somehow inherently better, there are no doubt significant differences between these two types of materials. Beyond the knowledge of something being “real”, there exist intrinsic material properties that can have a large (even if unconscious) impact on the experience of a built space. While these properties are often easy to miss through photographs or when viewed from a distance, they can often be “felt” both mentally and physically when face-to-face with these materials.

When thinking about an item made from a “real” material, whether it be a countertop or a coat, two things in western society are very often associated with that idea; value and quality. Value, most often monetary but often in concept as well, is undeniable with these “real” materials. Not only do they almost consistently cost more to buy (consider the cost of a faux-leather jack compared to a genuine leather equivalent), but also to produce.

While man-made materials are often made in bulk within factories that rely heavily on machinery and repetition to create fairly uniform products, materials pulled from nature are unique in every sense. Wood or stone may split differently depending on the gain of a particular sample, or a hide may color differently based on the exact source of it in relation to others in a sample group. It becomes necessary to invest in the ability to adjust sourcing and refining methods on-the-fly to contend with the infinite variety that nature can produce in the materials we most often use.

And alongside that value comes the qualities that natural materials are praised for. The soft warmness of wood that synthetic planks never seem to get just right. Or the cool, dense weight of a stone that can somehow be “felt”, even without holding it in your hands. While these properties are often a highly unconscious aspect of different materials, they are undeniably recognizable, perhaps simply from so many countless generations of humans living in and around the natural world before these man-made materials came around. When looked at truly side-by-side though, it is hard to miss the differences.

On the other side of this table, are the “man-made” materials. Often highly refined and frequently not the material that they visually appear to be. While inherently these are still made from naturally occurring materials (as they are all we have to work from), they are often so altered and mixed that they lose the physical and intrinsic qualities often experienced with “real” materials. The aforementioned composite wood plank may have wood as part of its physical makeup; but is otherwise so refined that a wood-like texture must literally be applied to it as a clear indication that it is meant to be imitating wood. Such textures and other measures to mimic the natural world can sometimes lead to an “uncanny-valley” of sorts, where the object seems just a little too “perfect”, uniform, or different from the natural expectation of such a material that is infinitely unique traditionally. And once again this is even before comparing the experience of physically holding or touching such a surface, during which the more naturally-recognizable aspects of texture, temperature, and weight (to name a few) can be more easily discerned.

At the same time though, these materials often sport man-made improvements compared to their natural comparisons. Such manufacturing processes often can significantly reduce costs of these materials. And material composites have the added benefit of sharing material properties with their additives, which can often lead to things like a faux-wood deck that requires zero-maintenance and extreme longevity compared to a natural wood deck that will age, warp, and splinter over time. Or a synthetic stone surface that is far less vulnerable to cracking than a natural stone, which contains non-uniform areas of strength and weakness from its formation.

Yet despite all these differences, each material, “real” or not, must also contend with countless economical and ecological impacts surrounding their production. Behind every wallet-impacting cost also exists the facts that these materials can both harm and help our environment and world as a whole. Cutting down forests leads to habitat destruction and a hindrance on the planet’s ability to combat greenhouse gasses (although the forests can be grown back). But production of many man-made materials often utilize plastics, chemicals, and other byproducts that can almost irreversibly impact our environment as well. Meanwhile transportation of exotic natural materials around the planet leads to more burned fuel and costs, while cheap factory labor for manufacturing synthetic materials has the potential to contend with poor labor practices and the repercussions of outsourcing jobs. With how complicated these topics can be, like most in our world these days, this issue comes down to the key point of research.

Knowing what is wanted, or learning what is ideal to be a part of a project, from the form of the space down to the materials it is built from, is a key aspect of design and construction. In our field we strive to not only work with our clients, but work with our colleagues, consultants, suppliers, and researchers to take all these tradeoffs into account, and help make informed decisions on the feasibility and impacts of the work that we do every day in design.

Finding a balance between sustainability and quality is a challenge that is ever-present. And putting people first when it comes to the design and construction of a space like we do here at AGD, means much more than just shaping a space. It is a constant cycle of learning and exploring these complex topics to continually refine our work methodologies to make the greatest positive impact that we can. Working with clients through material boards, samples, and more is key to helping create the exact experience that each unique individual needs to truly feel the way that they need to in their completed project, alongside investigation into how these decisions impact the greater world as well. All in an effort to find a balance in design.

This all being said, every day there are advancements in material science that help push man-made materials closer to their natural inspirations in every way possible, from individual experience to global impact. And depending on a person’s determination to research and invest to find the best balance between both worlds of materials, there is certainly a product out there (or on the horizon) for everyone’s needs in building the environment most ideal to them.

Written by Evan Ricaurté


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