A material world

Brendon Robins of Spatial Design Architects explores some of the recent trends when it comes to specifying key building materials for house designs

There is a phrase ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ and it is true that major new developments in products happen less frequently in construction than other sectors such as technology or communications.

Brick first became a staple building product nearly 10,000 years ago yet is still a vital part of the mix today. However, the industry has made big strides in recent years and there are now some fascinating and interesting product and design trends that are having a major influence on the self-build sector.


Metal is becoming an increasingly popular choice and is something we have used extensively as a practice. Many of our new and refurbished houses have included the use of low maintenance zinc cladding. Zinc is a highly flexible, malleable and recyclable material with lots of customisable options. A plethora of zinc colours are now available and as many as eight distinctive surfaces. Zinc is an elegant partner for many building materials because it can also be embossed, formatted and textured, allowing for imaginative designs. Zinc also offers more flexibility than other materials as the minimum pitch required is 3º (although 5º is preferred).


The use of glass is constantly being innovated. We like to design large windows that connect the garden and the interior. This is best achieved with minimum frames, and locating windows where you can blur the boundary from inside to out with a level threshold. Rooflights are also an exciting trend because they allow designers to create different interior effects. We recently used a bespoke frameless 5 x 1 m rooflight on a new house to create an interesting upwards vision and a very long and light space. Rooflights also come with the option of coloured finishes; for example, Cambs Glass offer a 23.5 carat gold leaf glass along with silver and copper leaf options.

Polished concrete

Another interesting trend is the use of concrete – not just structurally but as an internal design choice. The increasing popularity of underfloor heating has in turn seen polished concrete floors become a common all-in-one alternative to wooden floors. It can be installed in just a few days without any additional trades or contractors needed on site and is available in a wide range of specific colours or textures. Additionally, it is now possible to include concrete furniture, worktops, countertops, tiles, art installations, surfaces, wall panels and other features.

Sound insulation

Many new homes have almost a complete absence of soft furnishings – only hard surfaces which may look aesthetically attractive but can produce noisy and unpleasant acoustics. The Danes in particular have a love of bare surfaces and are solving the acoustic problems by lining the ceilings, and sometimes walls, with acoustic panels (see image top right). Now specified throughout the UK and Europe, these are made with 100 per cent natural wood fibres to provide high sound absorption, high durability, natural breathability, low cost life cycle performance and a high level of sustainability. They can be left untreated or painted in virtually any RAL colour.

An alternative solution is to cover the walls in a site-fabricated stretched fabric acoustic wall solution. The system is made up of three components: track, acoustic core and an exterior finish. The sound absorbing core allows for up to 90 per cent sound absorption while the fabric surface provides an attractive finish in an endless choice of fabrics, therefore suiting any interior design.

Heat saving

Typically, over 90 per cent of the heat used in a shower or running tap is lost down the drain. One new solution uses coiled copper pipes to transfer the heat from descending warm waste water to the pipes through which cold mains water travels up, progressively getting warmer before it is fed into the shower system with no pressure loss.

Another solution relates to open chimney flues which contribute to heat and energy loss when not in use. One simple innovation, demonstrated at the recent Homebuilding & Renovating Show, is to close the gap off with a chimney umbrella.

Two future trends

Self-healing concrete is an exciting new trend. The design life of concrete structures can be compromised by micro-cracks, which allow for the ingress of water, carbon dioxide and chlorine ions into the structure. Self-healing concrete will address concrete damage at various lengths and timescales and will continually monitor, regulate, adapt and repair without the need for external intervention.

Another very interesting new innovation is one that may radically affect our use of glass – transparent, renewable wood. A team of engineers at the University of Maryland have developed a patented process to turn wood translucent, making it more durable and giving it enhanced strength. Watch this space!