Imagine a material that’s chemical free, naturally fire retardant, fully recyclable, water resistant, sound absorbing, thermally efficient and has antimicrobial properties to boot. It might sound too good to be true, but this super-material has been right under our noses for centuries: cork.
Humans have long known about the versatile qualities of the bark-based matter – ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used it for various functions, such as building insulation, to help keep ships buoyant, and even for footwear. Interior and product designers have been returning to this 1970s classic for a while, but it’s only recently, as research into bio-materials has increased, that architects have rediscovered the construction potential of this plant-based medium.
The Stephen Lawrence Prize and RIBA Stirling Prize runner-up, Cork House project (below), designed by architects Matthew Barnett Howland, Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton in collaboration with the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, shone a spotlight on the material and its properties. Made almost entirely of recycled cork, with 1,268 blocks of the stuff used to construct its pyramid-shaped spaces, the experimental prefabricated house shows what zero-carbon, sustainable homes of the future might look like (cskarchitects.co.uk).
Nimtim Architects, which recently updated a south London Victorian terrace with a cork-clad extension (below), is also turning to the natural substance as a problem-solving building material. ‘It ticks all the boxes when it comes to thermal and acoustic performance, but it is also breathable, free from synthetic resins and carcinogenic materials, and it creates a healthy environment inside the house,’ says project architect Alexandria Mackinnon. Sustainably harvested from the bark of an English oak tree, the cork brings an intriguing textural element to the property’s exterior, while continuing the colour of the existing brickwork (nimtim.co.uk).
It was its weather-resistant quality, meanwhile, that appealed to architect Lisa Shell when she transformed a dilapidated 1920s timber-framed structure on a coastal Essex salt marsh into Redshank, an artist’s retreat (opposite). The elevated cabin, inspired by Maunsell Forts and bird-watching huts, is clad in cork to protect it from the salty sea air. The rugged aesthetic blends into its surroundings, echoing the coastal landscape (lisashellarchitects.co.uk).
These innovative projects showcase cork in a contemporary context and have the potential to influence the wider construction industry as well as the built environment in time to come. Cork could well be unstoppable as the building material of the future.
This article appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020
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