This spring, Parsons Healthy Materials Lab hosted the seventh annual Role Models Contest. We had a record number of exemplary submissions from across the globe and from students representing a wide range of disciplines. Entries came from Brazil to Israel and from New York to Alabama. Students were from familiar programs such as Industrial Design or Architecture, and from programs we hadn’t seen represented before in this contest, such as Psychology and Bioscience.
Every year, the Role Models Contests asks big questions. We believe design can be transformational in our local and global communities. We’re looking for student work that breaks boundaries rarely crossed in the marketplace. Specifically, we ask students to submit design projects that consider the impact of climate change, advocate for social justice, and innovate with healthier materials. It is a big ask, and students responded with remarkable projects this year. These questions can’t be answered in one discipline. They require cross-disciplinary thought. We are especially interested in projects that utilize techniques of one field of study and borrow from another. It was clear this year that healthier material consideration has developed well beyond where it had been in years past. Students are no longer simply creating a new material in their kitchen sink. They are now showing projects that not only create a material but also experiment with applications for it. They show how material innovation can disrupt global and local markets and advocate for just labor practices.
We are inspired by our two grand prize winners, both of whom did all of the above, and had a special consideration for locality and regional material knowledge.
Congratulations to this year’s winners!
Grand Prize: Chalk-Based Regeneration - Felix Sagar
The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London
Filter Cake Cob: Chalk-Based Regeneration in the Chalk Bioregions proposes using local materials diverted from the waste stream to rehabilitate dilapidated industrial buildings. The project focuses on a Shoreham Cement Works building that is no longer in use. It uses the local material ‘waste chalk filter cake’ mixed with straw, another local ingredient diverted from the waste stream, to make new walls for the building. Waste chalk filter cake (WCFC) is disposed of after construction projects that tunnel through chalk, which is common in Southern and Eastern England. While this material has been used to regenerate chalk grasslands and infill quarries, this project pushes the material further and wonders if it can also be used to regenerate local buildings that represent an industrial past.
local materials diverted from the waste stream rehabilitate dilapidated industrial buildings
Chalk cob can use the existing structure to its advantage, making it particularly suited to regenerating buildings. This method requires precise sequencing, with a process of reduction and addition driving the transformation of the building. The project proposes that an individually tailored infilling strategy be used to construct the outer structure and internal spaces. In the case of the former Shoreham Cement Works building, the process starts by removing the asbestos cladding. Then a limecrete base is added to the concrete foundations to protect the lower part of the wall from rising moisture. Triple-layered cotton fabric is attached to the existing steel frame while a roof is constructed over the space. Chalk is then built-up along the exterior walls using the enlarged cob construction method, and limecrete insertions are built into the cob to form openings where needed as construction takes place.
Additionally, the project proposes turning the renovated building into a chalk cob facility and construction school so that they can use the knowledge learned from the restoration of this site to develop the craft of chalk-based regeneration further and support the progress of this new local industry.
From its removal of the harmful materials on the site to using local healthier and innovative building materials, all while supporting local agriculture, diverting materials from the waste stream, and creating the basis for a new local industry and educational facility, Felix Sagar’s proposal was a standout.
From the Judges:
“The aesthetics are incredibly compelling. This is absolutely beautiful.”
“There was a specific site specified in this situation. It takes into account a real-life context and expands the thinking holistically. That is commendable.”
“I think it’s critical that the material would typically be used in agriculture. It would just be discarded. This is an appropriation of an underutilized material that is then used in the space of building material. It’s an amazing project.”
“It’s part of that natural building movement that is gaining strength at the moment. The idea of industrializing it in this way and at this scale is interesting. That’s also why the specificity of the site is interesting because it’s an abandoned location where they have this material in excess. It would take longer to spread out and become a norm, but for the particular proposal, it could be a real poster project.”
Grand Prize: Cocua - Diana Marcela Romero Millan
Technical University of Munich - Campus Straubing
Cocua: A Biomaterial from an Unexplored Andean Resource uses the pith of the Colombian plant Arboloco in areas such as packaging, building, and product design as a bio-based replacement for plastics. In recent years, we have seen other plants such as hemp and bamboo used similarly, but the solution to our current plastics problem needs more than one answer.
Arboloco, a fast growing plant, may be a replacement for plastics
Despite the exciting properties of arboloco’s pith, its existence is practically unknown. No transformation processes and applications have been documented until this project, making Cocua a genuinely unique project in terms of material innovation. Arboloco is fast growing and has short collection cycles, which increases the profit margins for producers. It has a renewal time of 8 to 11 months, compared with 9 to 12 years of cork oak. Furthermore, it does not require the toxic binders commonly used in cork oak products, such as epoxy or phenolic resins. Cocua can be made into either an agglomerated material or a blockboard material. The blockboard material is simple: raw pith, shaped and sized, is mixed with water and dextrin. The agglomerated material is made by grinding arboloco’s pith and mixing it with glycerol and agar or carboxymethyl cellulose. It can then be pigmented using natural dyes made from coffee, turmeric, or beetroot. It is then pressurized to create various shapes with diverse applications. The final product is both sound-insolating and heat resistant.
Cocua is an innovative exploration that transforms an endemic resource with currently limited uses into something that could promote the enhancement of biodiversity while generating new incomes for rural communities in Colombia.
Diana’s project answers so many of our big questions. It advocates for social justice by proposing new income streams for rural communities, uses a plant that none of our judges had heard of, and replaces various plastic products with something that is crucially both healthier and viable.
From the Judges:
“The amount of research that went into it is convincing, and the number of products they created from the material is really interesting. It seems like something viable.”
“I like the specificity of it and how local it is. There’s something really nice about encouraging people to explore the fauna and the flora around them. To take these deep dives into these types of materials and think about what could be used right there and not necessarily needing the application on a massive global scale.”
“This has a real design approach to the exploration of the materials.”
“It’s talking about the fact that politically a lot of the problems of climate change are created in industrialized economies, and the people who are feeling it are in parts of the globe that didn’t generate all of the problems. So thinking about where the solutions lie as being outside of the West is making a political statement in itself.”
Honorable Mention: Carbo - Weronika Banas
Parsons School of Design
Carbo is an at-home carbon capture device. It challenges how we connect and understand the complex natural systems around us. Carbo helps visualize and materialize the invisible gas that causes so much damage to the climate. It safely captures carbon dioxide within the home by “enhanced watering” or mineralization of the mineral filter, which happens when carbon reacts with other minerals and takes on a new chemical form, from which it cannot escape or leak. A humid atmosphere speeds up this process, which is why the device requires watering, much like a plant.
Carbo raises people's awareness of carbon in our atmosphere
Carbo is aesthetically inspired and has the capabilities of a houseplant but is much more efficient in terms of carbon capture. One Carbo filter should be able to capture approximately 30 g of CO2 in 48 hours which is the equivalent of 7895 snake plants.
The project was paired with the design of an app that would enable Carbo users to track their carbon capture, connect to other like-minded users, and share ways to reduce their personal environmental impact. It also serves to help users understand how we can increase carbon capture more broadly.
While Carbo was interesting and innovative, well-researched and well-designed, it was debated whether society needs another consumable product rather than a tool to potentially reduce carbon’s impact on global climate change. However, it was a unique project that ignited a lively conversation amongst the judges.
From the Judges:
“I thought this was an interesting idea and it has so many aspects to it, including an app––what a surprising idea.”
“This could look wonderfully organic in your home.”
“Carbon in our atmosphere is an invisible problem and to visualize it in your home makes it tangible.”
“I do think it’s exciting to try to bring ideas of carbon capture into the home, but from a practical, carbon removal perspective, there is definitely an LCA that needs to be done. I think it’s fundamentally more about awareness raising and norm setting.”
this year, students' comprehension of material health was developed well beyond that of years past
Every year we at Healthy Materials Lab look forward to seeing the diverse and thought-provoking student projects submitted to the Role Models contest. This year’s applications were exceptional and well-conceived. Although we could only award a few winners, many excellent projects raised questions and provided answers that the judges found intriguing and enlightening. We can’t wait to see how our winners and entrants develop their projects and thoughts about material health. Now more than ever, our world needs innovative thinking––this year’s Role Models proved they’re up to the task of building a healthier, more just world. We’re so thankful for their hard work and intellectual pursuits, which give us all hope for a healthier future.
See you all next year as we look, once more, to see what the future might hold and who will be our next Role Model.
March 31, 2022
Announcing our 7th Annual Healthier Design Innovation Contest!
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