The raffia plant is incredibly useful to Madagascan villagers. Wood from the trees is used to construct just about all the simple houses in rural areas, while the leaves are entwined to thatch the roofs. Raffia fibers are also used to make ropes, baskets and hats, shoes, and paper. But the villagers know to harvest only some of the leaves at once. That way the tree will continue to grow. It's a real lesson in sustainable use of a natural building material.

Closer to home, the materials used in architecture are so familiar to us that they only get noticed when the result is widely disliked. Cumbernauld, a town near where I was born in Scotland, regularly wins worst architecture awards for its abysmal, depressing mess of concrete and flawed urban planning. Long-suffering residents reportedly have even asked for the whole town to be razed (

Yet a different example near by in Edinburgh demonstrates what can be achieved with thoughtful use of materials. While the new Scottish Parliament has divided local opinion, I love how it combines steel, concrete, oak, granite, and grass lawns to give a building that architect Enric Miralles wanted “to grow out of the ground”.

OK, but what role does advanced materials research have in architecture? Judging by the Materials Research Society's Spring meeting this year in San Francisco, not a lot. The symposium on Materials for Architecture attracted so few submissions that it ran as a single poster session. This is despite the fact that elsewhere in the city, the new California Academy of Sciences building has been designed for sustainability. The architects Arup are using renewable or recycled building materials and are including 60?000 solar cells. Natural lighting and ventilation will reduce energy use, and storm water runoff from the roof (which is covered by a garden) will be reused.

This begins to demonstrate some of the possibilities, but there are many more. Electrochromic windows, solid-state lighting, and integrated solar cells are all examples of advanced materials that could have an impact on architecture. Since about one third of all the energy consumed in the US is used in buildings, such developments are essential. Materials that sense changing conditions and alter their optical, thermal, or structural properties will offer new possibilities. And novel metal and ceramic foams may find use in buildings of the future.

It is time to issue a rallying cry: there are new and interesting research areas in developing materials for architecture, and architects must be persuaded that it is worth overcoming conservatism in materials use. Even concrete, so maligned in Cumbernauld, has much to offer. Last year, an exhibition in Paris calledConcrete: prepare to be surprised! really did show that it is possible to be creative using concrete in architecture.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70192-X