Green innovations from the Pacific Rim

August 11, 2010

From fully recyclable architectural resin panels to self-cleaning glass, Blaine Brownell has pretty much seen it all when it comes to sustainable building materials. For the past eight years, the architect and blogger has written about hundreds of cutting-edge green materials on his blog,, and cataloged in two books: Transmaterial (2006) and the newly released Transmaterial 2 (2008), both from Princeton Architectural Press.

Searching for inspiration and the next wave of truly sustainable building materials, Brownell in 2006 boldly picked up and moved his family to Japan for an 11-month research project. During his stay, Brownell conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of architects, engineers, artists, scientists, and material innovators across the country, from Tadao Ando to Toyo Ito to Yasuhiro Yamashita.

“I really wanted to push the boundaries of my thinking on sustainable materials and the cultural effects of new materials in sustainable design,” Brownell told me during a phone interview shortly after returning to the U.S. Japan is a hotbed for green material innovation and sustainable design techniques, due mainly to the country's limited local resources and minimal land mass.

“I saw all kinds of fun, exciting glimpses into the future,” said Brownell, pointing out innovations like mirror-duct systems that can drive daylight as deep as 60 feet into buildings, new spherical-shaped solar cells that absorb sunlight at any angle, and super-bioplastics that have shape-memory properties and are fully recyclable.

One of his favorite products: Reben, a paint developed by Suzuran Corp. that is made entirely of natural materials—namely powdered washi paper, seaweed glue, scallop-shell powder, and natural pigments.

“It's inflammable, resists bacteria and mold growth, and it regulates humidity in a room, so it can soak up the humidity in the summer and release it during the winter,” said Brownell. The paint is also loaded with titanium dioxide to help fight odors and smog. “It's so safe you can even eat it, at least according to the manufacturer,” he added.

Brownell is compiling his interviews and case studies into a book, Matter in the Floating World, to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.


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