Humanscale Design Concepts Explore Emerging Materials Revolution

Humanscale has announced its participation in the U.S. Pavilion at the XXII International Exhibition of La Triennale di Milano, on display from March 1, to Sept. 1, 2019. Titled RECKONstruct, the exhibit focuses on the Triennale’s theme for the year, Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival, with an exploration of an emerging materials revolution in the U.S. Showcasing three concepts conceived by their in-house Humanscale Design Studio, the company addresses approaches to sustainability including circular economy, bio-fabrication and biomimicry. It also features Smart Ocean, a chair incorporating almost two pounds of ocean plastic.

Developed in partnership with Arup, MIT’s SHINE Program, Novità Communications, NextWave Plastics and Stickbulb, RECKONstruct reveals the potential for a different circular economy and the opportunities within material life cycle as a critical call to action.

“Our industry can’t just manufacture products a little more efficiently and expect to solve our environmental issues,” says Jane Abernethy, Humanscale chief sustainability officer and RECKONstruct curator. “As a pioneer in sustainable design and manufacturing, Humanscale is honored to represent the United States in the important global movement to truly reshape mass production.”

Using a design charrette process, Abernethy challenged the Humanscale Design Studio to develop a stool in three different ways; one entirely made of waste (circular economy), one grown from natural materials (bio-fabrication) and one that mimics nature’s own engineering solutions (biomimicry).

Design Charrettes

As part of the charrette process, Humanscale designers spent a day focused on each sustainability approach identified, using it as the basis for that design, and in the process, learning to apply these ideas in practice, giving them a deeper understanding that can inform their designs going forward.

“Some of the materials we were working with are so new that they’re not ready to go into mass production,” says Abernethy, “but others have potential to be used for future products. This exercise allowed us to push ourselves to think differently and challenged us to find new solutions.”

Circular Economy – Design led by Sergio Silva

The goal for this stool was to transform material destined for landfill into a quality product.

“In order to find a reliable source of waste that could be used for production, we identified partners, processes and materials including a felted fabric made from scrap textiles,” shares Sergio Silva, industrial design consultant at Humanscale. “We combined that with an innovative, compression-molded material called UBQ, made from household waste. The final design involves a process that can easily go into production today.”

Biomimicry – Design led by Jacob Turetsky

With the help of biomimicry expert Lindsay James (professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University and principal of Chrysalis Strategies), the Humanscale team learned how to use nature as a model for solving design and engineering challenges.

“For this challenge, we looked at the Venus Flower Basket, a deep sea sponge whose body is made up of silica nano-structures arranged in a geometric framework which achieves surprising strength and rigidity through minimal material usage,” details Jacob Turetsky, industrial designer at Humanscale. “Combined with the freedom of 3D printing, we were able to develop a stool that was light, comfortable and uses minimal materials to support a person.”

Biofabrication – Design led by Paul Sukphisit

In conjunction with biofabrication professionals, the team explored how natural materials such as fungi, yeast, algae and bacteria could act similarly to traditional manufacturing materials such as foam, cement, textiles and plastics.

“Using our learnings, we developed a stool that is not manufactured; it is grown using natural materials, making it organic, biodegradable, free of toxins,” explains Paul Sukphisit, industrial designer at Humanscale. “As a result, it also requires significantly less energy to produce.”

The final design utilized mycelium mushroom roots to provide a stiff structural base and a soft cushion seat.

Life Cycle Assessment

To evaluate if, and how, its new designs were more sustainable than standard production, Humanscale then partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SHINE (Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise) to conduct a life cycle assessment. This assessment measured the environmental footprint and handprint, or how it can help fix the broken nature that surrounds us, of each stool.

“Most sustainable products are a little bit better than the status quo, but still can have negative environmental impacts,” says Abernethy. “Usually, this is because sustainability is considered later in the product development process, when many of the decisions about materials, manufacturing process have already been made. From the beginning of this project, sustainability was the starting point, before any other decision, to really push the limits of sustainable design,” she concludes.

Humanscale’s design concepts on display at RECKONstruct represent the emerging materials revolution taking place in the U.S., revealing the potential for a different circular economy and the opportunities within material life cycle as a critical call-to-action.

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