Mud, Mushrooms, and Algae for a Luxury Experience

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Linda Olofsson Walsh | Designer

At the heart of the travel industry is the luxury hotel or resort, providing an uncommon experience for some and a level of comfort aligned with lifestyle for others. Add to that a new factor, the demand for sustainability that is gaining traction with travelers worldwide. Can luxury hotels meet sustainable objectives? What is sustainable luxury? Will the drive for eco-friendly hotel interiors and building materials redefine the aesthetic of luxury hospitality design?

With travel-oriented consumers now hyper-aware of greenwashing and unwilling to settle, investors are focusing on sustainability requirements for new hotel construction, while existing hotels strive to catch up with their close associate, the fashion industry, in the drive for sustainability. But multiple factors, including the longtime practice of updating room interiors and public spaces every few years plus the quantity of materials used in hotels every day and quickly thrown away, make it more difficult for hotels to achieve sustainability. Furthermore, to date, sustainable materials have not screamed luxury let alone fit the budget. But promising options might soon change that and introduce new aesthetic possibilities based on natural materials for luxury hotel environments.

Eat Your Way to Building Materials! 

Well, not exactly, but materials of organic origin are providing new options for design and building materials. The discarded shells of a foody favorite, the oyster, offer a variety of uses, some ready now others in potential These shells and other types of seashells can be made into tiles, available from multiple vendors, for use on interior and exterior walls, as flooring, and for decorative applications. Crushed oyster shells are an alternative to gravel for pathways—a lesson learned in Colonial Williamsburg, where they are still in use—and as an indoor and outdoor hardscaping feature. A combination of soil, crushed oyster shell powder and other ingredients will yield bricks, and as a replacement for silica, oyster shells could be a boon to the ceramic industry. Among fabrics made from upcycled oyster shells, there is an insulating wool, soft to the touch, that naturally inhibits bacteria growth, extending the lifecycle of the material. But most importantly and with the largest positive environmental impact, oyster shells as a coarse aggregate can be used in concrete .or as a replacement for cement, which releases up to 8% of global CO2 as a chemical by-product and through fuel use in its high-temperature processes.

Another organic material, algae, can be converted into a plant-based, nontoxic alternative to plastic. Algae refers to a group of seaweeds, kelps, and other plants with short cultivation times and the potential to sequester carbon dioxide that can be made into packaging and other products, including seaweed-based cups, wraps and bags, and the biodegradable hydration sachets featured at the 2019 London Marathon. Runners enjoyed edible seaweed pouches filled with a sports drink, replacing approximately 200,000 plastic bottles of the 900,000 projected for that year’s event.

Then there is mycelium, a natural fungal growth, which we wrote about in a long-ago post. Its strong network of threads from which mushrooms grow is customizable and can replace the use of timber, brick, flooring, furnishings, foam, plastic insulation, and other applications.

For fabrics and wallcoverings the use of natural dyes from plants and fruits (blueberries, beets, lemon and orange peels, as well as turmeric, spinach and cabbage leaves, to name a few) are another possibility for introducing environmentally benign materials into luxury environments and avoiding the hazardous chemicals and toxic waste associated with commercial dyes. However, the process of working with natural dyes is expensive and there are other considerations to be worked out, including the duration and intensity of color.

Building With Newspaper, Sand, and Mud 

There is also Finite, a concrete alternative made of desert sand, generating half the carbon footprint of traditional brick and concrete but of comparable strength. And now we have timber made from newspaper by a process that coats individual sheets of discarded newspaper with solvent and plasticic-free glue, then tightly rolls the glued sheets into logs, creating a material that can be cut, milled, sanded, and finished with paint or varnish like any other wood product.

As an alternative to popular terrazzo, Foresso is a new composite sheet material made of timber, resin, pigment, and other ingredients that is cast onto a birch plywood substrate. Finished by hand and sealed with a hard wax oil, it is a practical sheet material requiring no specialist equipment for installation.

Made entirely of mud, a 3-D-printed house, constructed in northern Italy in 2020, presents an intriguing option with great potential for the construction industry. The project took 200 hours over several months using large machines with specialized nozzles that delivered a house of sinuous curves, as well as its furnishings, from the clay of a nearby riverbed. Dwellings have been made from clay for eons, but the combination of high-tech and natural, easily-accessed, local materials takes it to a new level. Skylights embedded in the domes of the house provide natural light, but customization for heating or cooling and windows in such houses can be tailored based on location. The next step will be to produce multi-story structures using 3-D printing. The technology offers endless options, including a handsome finish made from mud.

Going Forward

For eco-friendly materials to be embraced for luxury use, the concept of sustainability might require a new image. An intimate connection to the ideas of careful stewardship and economy of means may have obscured its aesthetic possibilities in the thinking of hotel industry decision makers. But today’s, as well as future generations of designers see the possibilities. In London, full-time instructor Sara Kenyon at KLC School of Design notes, “…the heart of what we are teaching our students at the moment is very much about sustainability.”

If a celebrated artist were to create a public installation using only eco-friendly materials, sustainability would quickly take on a new aura, inspiring the swift development of more environmentally-sensitive, bespoke options. In the meantime, identifying a trend, Linda Olofsson Walsh, a designer on IA’s hospitality team, reminds us that  “…new high-end dining and high-end luxury hotels have more of that eco twist to them….something a little bit different to all the bling.” Capitalizing on that approach with the variety of sustainable choices now available could deliver forward-looking, sustainable luxury for the hospitality industry.

All the materials discussed above suggest the experience of new surfaces, textures, enclosures, and products, offering possibilities to inspire the creative sensibilities of designers and architects in the service of eco-friendly structures and ambiances. There is an appetite for sustainable solutions and along with the old, a new aesthetic. Certainly, now is the time to adapt these materials and create a fresh sense of luxury for enthusiastic travelers and a carbon-neutral planet.

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