New materials for more sustainable architecture

Photo of Piotr Baszynski
The architect Piotr Baszynski works on the development of biobased building materials. Here he can be seen preparing a material sample for mechanical tests.

The architect Piotr Baszynski has so far always ended up in the places where he has been best able to pursue his current interests. As a result, the 33-year-old has already lived in Poland, Spain, China and Germany. A few years ago he reached a decision: “I was no longer content to work only on architectural designs; I also wanted to be part of the academic world.” That is how he came to be involved in the Cluster of Excellence Integrative Computational Design and Construction for Architecture (IntCDC) at the University of Stuttgart. The cluster is the only one of Germany’s 57 clusters of excellence that specialises in architecture. “The research here has brought my nomadic lifestyle to an end, for now”, says Baszynski.

But let’s start at the beginning. Baszynski studied architecture at Warsaw University of Technology in Poland, his home country. He spent one year on a student exchange in Spain. At the time, he was interested in possible applications for so-called swarm algorithms in architecture. This involves using biological swarm behaviour as a model for optimising solutions.

Ambitious design and avant-garde tools

Soon after, he became interested in China. “Many young architects my age were going to China to see how they build there. There were numerous projects that were so huge that people from Europe couldn’t even imagine them.” For a year he worked for a Chinese firm of architects. “Back then one of the things I was interested in was the use of robots in architecture. However, though there were hundreds of projects in China with the potential for advanced computational technologies, such solutions were rarely used – because labour costs there are so low.” That is why he set out to find somewhere new – a place where he might find more ambitious design and avant-garde application tools.

“And then the opportunity arose to work for the LAVA architectural firm in Stuttgart.” Baszynski worked for around two years there on various major projects, including one at Frankfurt Airport and another involving a science campus in Saudi Arabia. His next step took him into the academic world: since 2018 he has been a research assistant at the University of Stuttgart, and since 2019 has been doing his PhD, supervised by Hanaa Dahy. A junior professor, she runs the Department of Biobased Materials at the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE).

Greater sustainability poses big challenges

The question Baszynski is addressing in his PhD is how biobased materials could be used in the development of modular residential architecture – as window and facade profiles, for example. A biobased material might, for instance, contain hemp or flax fibres.

The idea of using new materials in architecture is extremely important, explains Baszynski. It is part of the necessary shift of the entire construction sector towards greater sustainability. At present, the sector accounts for around 50 percent of global energy resources, and its carbon emissions are also enormously high. In addition, there is an increasing shortage of traditional, non-renewable materials.

However, introducing new materials also entails numerous challenges, Baszynski adds: the new material must be thoroughly understood and tested, and it is still difficult to separate it into its individual constituent parts for recycling. What is more, society as a whole still needs to be persuaded: “Just imagine you are planning to build a house and someone suggests that you use hemp as a building material”, says Baszynski. That is why the architect also believes that part of his job as a scientist is to reach out to society about his own research.

This is something he intends to continue doing from Stuttgart for the foreseeable future. As he says, he likes the city a lot. “I like the way it is spread across hills and the fact that it is not only an industrial town but is also closely connected to nature. This means you can spend your leisure time in the forests or mountains.”