“working with local materials is learning to appreciate what a place has to offer”
cit. a biophilic year - #232
In a design project, material choices are not just important for their look and physical properties. They also have the power to add an extra level of meaning and depth to the space: a sense of place.
the role of materials
The use of natural materials is a constant in biophilic design. Natural materials add texture and a level of complexity that recalls nature, they offer wide sensory richness, and help introduce variability in the space.
Every natural material has its own place of origin on Earth, and preferring local natural materials is a powerful way of connecting designed spaces with their surroundings.
Local materials embody the uniqueness of local nature, making a space belong to its place. A sense of belonging that will extend to the occupants of the space as well.
Rather simple in theory, this principle is often underrated. This results in spaces that look the same wherever they are on the globe, missing the opportunity to be locally meaningful apart from being beautiful (think about retail spaces for example).
If building materials and finishes are the first that come to mind when speaking of materials, the connection to place doesn’t end there.
Every single material in a space is an opportunity to strengthen the bond with the surroundings, including accessories, finishing touches, and everyday necessities. This is where everyone can act, even without being a designer.
What characterizes your local nature? Is it woods and evergreen trees, sandy beaches and blue skies…you name it. Whatever these specific local features are, the objective is bringing them indoors – which can begin simply by foraging branches, stones, and other natural elements.
This exercise has a number of added values. Repeated throughout the year, it introduces a connection to seasonal variations in the space. Also, it makes time to stay outdoors, something we desperately need as a society.
Another way of connecting to the surroundings is eating more locally grown (and seasonal) produce. This enriches our food choices with a layer of thinking and presence that goes beyond just grabbing packages from the shelves of a supermarket. Plus, it’s another way of weaving the seasonal cycle in our daily lives. Also, why not try and grow something at home too?
local materials and sustainability
The choice of local materials is also connected with sustainability, as the impact of transportation is clearly going to be lower.
Sourcing local might as well become an opportunity to rescue materials and give them a new life and meaning in the place they belong to. Think about wood. If trees are to be cut (always with care and logic) to make space for a building, it would be nice to incorporate that wood into the material palette of the project!
Going local might also turn into a chance to experience the process that goes from nature to building material. And since closer to the eyes is closer to the heart, this can inspire a deeper appreciation for those materials, reminding that they were once part of nature and aren't just born for us to use them.
Choosing local materials is then an opportunity to add value to designed spaces and their occupants' lives. An act of meaning aimed at restoring a much closer connection with the uniqueness of the places we inhabit.
The quote that opens this article is drawn from my book ’a biophilic year: 365 thoughts on the essence and practice of biophilic design’. If you have the book, you’re welcome to reach out and request which topic you'd like to see next in this series!