Material Cultures workshops support shift towards sustainable building practices

Material Cultures workshops explore new approaches to promote sustainability in the construction industry

block house by material cultures, example of the work that came be done following the material cultures workshops
Built in 2021 by Material Cultures, Block House in Somerset is inherently low-embodied carbon, using a natural material palette of locally sourced timber, hempcrete blocks and wood-fibre insulation
(Image credit: Felix Koch, courtesy of Material Cultures)

London-based Material Cultures' workshops are serious about the studio's commitment to sustainable architecture. The young practice, founded by Summer Islam, Paloma Gormley and George Massoud in 2019, is pioneering in its ways of championing meaningful progress towards a post-carbon built environment. Its USP? Proposing careful thought in architecture’s material selection and construction methods, and an emphasis on low intensity, locally sourced, natural options, drawing on each project’s context. 

‘Construction and maintenance presently accounts for over 40 per cent of total UK carbon emissions. Eleven per cent of the industry’s carbon emissions are derived from the manufacture of materials. Current housing models depend on large amounts of high-energy materials, mass-manufactured overseas, with short lifespans. If we are to halt the progress of ecological breakdown we need to radically rethink the logic of current construction methods, the materials we use and our approach to growth. In doing so it is likely that we will need to both recover some of our forgotten technologies and develop entirely new forms of architectural language,’ says the team.

selection of sustainable materials promoted by material cultures

Examples of sustainable materials and methods used by Material Cultures

(Image credit: Courtesy of Material Cultures)

Launching the Material Cultures workshops series

The trio’s newest venture is a series of workshops, conceived in collaboration with writer and builder Caitlin McNamara, that challenges existing construction practices. It is a great example of their passionate yet practical approach and tackles head-on the lack of options in the sector when it comes to working towards a low-carbon environment. 

‘When I was learning to build, I struggled to find the type of education that I wanted,’ says McNamara, who is leading the Material Cultures project. ‘Construction colleges were affordable, easy to access and taught me practical plastering skills but I was often the only woman in the room and natural or low-carbon materials were rarely on the curriculum. Courses run by heritage organisations specialised in the materials that I wanted to learn but were often expensive and in locations that were difficult to access.’

Material Cultures at the Brick House Build

Material Cultures at the Brick House site build

(Image credit: Courtesy of Material Cultures)

She met with Material Cultures in 2022 through her work as a lime-plasterer, and they started to develop a new educational programme together, delving into both the theory and practice of working with natural and low-embodied carbon construction materials. The result is Material Cultures’ Building Workshops, a range of a-few-days-long sessions (some on weekdays and some on weekends, for maximum flexibility) at HG Matthews Brickworks, a 100-year-old traditional brickworks (and the first UK brickmakers to use biomass for brick drying). 

The courses are taught by experts (50 per cent of whom are women) and will encompass live-build elements on a structure designed and constructed in 2019 over the course of seven weeks as part of the Central Saint Martins MArch Programme. They are also designed to be highly inclusive, addressed to people of all abilities and backgrounds – be they seasoned professionals, or absolute beginners. Additionally, 25% of the tickets are subsidised. 

Material Cultures at Grizedale Arts

Material Cultures at Grizedale Arts

(Image credit: Rachel Hayton)

The first workshops, released for April 2023, focus on building with hemp and lime; more are to follow in May, exploring clay and straw. Meanwhile, further dates are yet to be announced for materials such as lime rendering, lime wash and clay rendering. 

‘The interest in and demand for our workshops has been overwhelming so it turns out other people wanted this too,’ McNamara says. ‘Our hope is that these workshops shake open opportunities to generate new forms of culture in the construction industry. Climate breakdown is indiscriminate and universal so educational opportunities to prepare for and mitigate its effects must be available to all.’

Material Cultures’ Building Workshops can be booked via materialcultures.org

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).