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Primitive Materials Future Building (Q+A) G#16244

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Primitive Materials Future Building Q+A

Primitive Materials in Future Building Q+A

Are ‘primitive’ materials the building blocks of tomorrow?

Some text is struck out to keep to webinar time limits, it is included here for a more comprehensive response.


A Brian Murphy of Green Building Encyclopaedia

Q1 What are the ‘primitive’ materials that have been used historically, and how can they be successfully used in modern construction?

  • Lets not be put off by ‘primitive’
  • I prefer simple: unsophisticated, uncomplicated; raw: natural, grown; historic: indigenous, local, traditional: and probably most important tried and tested, survived the test of time
  • Cement-Free, Plastic-free, PVC-free, VOC-Free, formaldehyde-free, ZODP, ZGHGP, Carbon Black-free, titanium dioxide-free
  • Reduce or eliminate reliance on Chemistry, Hydro-Carbons, Plastics, Synthetics, Off gassing, Adhesives, Binders, Admixtures, composites, conglomerates, polymer migration,
  • Skills training may have happened but ‘lack of time to care’ prevails in our ‘fiduciary driven industry’
  • Simple may well find its place again.
  • I am a firm believer in the right materials, with the right properties for the right application in the right places
  • Sometimes that has to be plastic or cement
  • Healthy, Environmental, Resourceful, Appropriate, Competent, Effective, Yardstick
  • Green Buildings are rarely metal-free, plastic-free or cement-free they all have a role to play, we can keep them to a minimum

The ‘primitive’ materials

  • Timber
    • In the round: posts, beams, fence posts
    • Quartered: Fencing rails, Wattle for daub, staking of thatch
    • Ads then Machined: Joists, Rafters, Columns, battens
    • Brettstapel: Solid wood panels without glues
    • Less Primitive:
    • Laminated: Ply, Gluelam, Crosslam, LVL,
    • Waste particles, wood based boards: MDF, Chipboard, OSB
  • Earth Construction:
    • Earth Bricks/Blocks
      • Soft and malleable: make airtight
      • Set: Sun dried: add thermal mass
      • Fired
        • Bricks
        • Extruded cellular hollow blocks: Insulating
      • Turf with grasses as roofing
      • Turf as mortar in stone walling
      • Rammed Earth
        • Clay
        • Chalk
        • Chalk and Flint (Pines Calyx)
        • Reinforced stabilised with lime or cement
        • Reinforced with plant stalk
        • Decorative: Colours, Mineral, Aggregates
        • CAT retail building beautiful glass sheet stop people licking it
        • Clay & Straw
        • Cob
      • Clay and Tyres in Earth ships
      • Can be shaped with scissors or chain saw
      • With Boots: DPC/M and Hat: overhanging roof
      • Low skill entry, ideal DIY, BIY
      • Lime or earth render and plaster
    • Natural insulants
      • Wood derivative:
        • Cellulose flake, recycled newspaper/magazines
        • Dense wood fibre: batts, boards
      • Plants
        • Flax
        • Hemp shive+lime (Hemp-lime) Hemcrete
        • Straw in board format (but does not like UK climate)
        • Coconut husk
        • Cotton (but chemically intensive)
        • Grass
      • Animal
        • Sheep’s Wool


  • Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), Wales
  • Sheep’s wool insulation
  • Straw and other shrubs
    • Straw bale construction
      • Modular, big and heavy blockwork,
      • Dense setting on harvester: Good U value
      • Framed option, spacing responding to modules
      • In walls and even in roofs
    • Straw as Thatch
      • Thickness increases with refurbishments
      • Low density good conductivity Insulation
        • Solar radiation protection
        • (poor U value Today)

Why use ‘primitive’ materials

  • Primary reason:
    • Renewable in our lifetimes, (Trees)
    • Rapidly renewable (seasonal crops)
    • Non-renewables
      • Fossil (oil and derivatives),
      • Stone (mostly)
    • Lowering carbon emissions
      • Absorbing carbon from the atmosphere to grow the plants (Carbon Sequestration)
      • Low energy manufacturer
      • Conventional Building +50 tonnes of Carbon
      • Bio-based building -50 tonnes of carbon
      • You need to choose the right materials with the right properties
    • Reducing overheating
      • Conventional insulations (plastics and mineral fibres)
      • Let the radiant heat of the sun into buildings
      • Once inside will not let the heat out (winter thermal conductivity insulation)
      • Primitive materials (others too) don’t let radiant heat in in the first place
      • You need to choose the right materials with the right properties
        • (Decrement factor: specific heat capacity, density, k value)
      • Moisture Vapour Permeable
        • Breathes and lets the moisture out
        • Vapour open construction (no VCL and BM, use ATL and WTL)
        • Hygro-scopic insulation absorbs moisture from the air pockets into the fibre
        • Lets the insulation insulate
        • Moisture in Hydro-phobic insulation cannot be absorbed so it stays moist and stops insulating
        • You need to choose the right materials with the right properties
      • Impact on health and wellbeing
        • Overheating can lead to a range of health problems but ultimately death
          • 30,000 died in summer of 2003 in EU, 300 in UK
        • Moisture vapour condensing on cold non-absorbent surfaces reactivates spores in the atmosphere
          • Spores lead to mould, mould leads to asthma, toxic mould leads to death and unusable buildings
        • Uncomplicated materials free from chemicals and plastics do not off-gas VOC, formaldehyde, etc.
          • Airtightness without energy/carbon intensive ventilation makes building unhealthy or deadly
          • There are healthy building standards becoming popular trying to address this
        • Unfortunately some people react badly to natural materials
          • They may never get to benefit from all the other natural material properties
          • Wool irritates skin
          • like glass or stone wool insulation irritates skin
          • Dust may irritate breathing (still use dust masks)
          • Usually the materials are in the construction
          • Others are on the surface


Q2 What are the barriers to integrating more sustainably sourced natural materials in new projects?

The barriers

  • Existing Supply chain – standard construction
    • Supply chain grip, Price structures, Familiar companies, Familiar people, obligations
    • They know what they know, they have the skills training,
    • They know how long it takes, they know how to price it
    • They know how to make a profit and how to cut corners
    • All supports and reinforces business as usual
  • Clients/project teams/QSs on board
    • All must be facing in the same direction
    • If the client want primitive she needs a primitive team surrounding her
    • Cost plans must be based on primitive materials used in primitive ways priced by primitives
    • Cost plans are usually based on violet materials
    • Building Price Books are violet prices
  • Technical knowledge
    • Primitive manufacturer must aspire towards British Gypsum’s White Book
      • One step as a time it will take years
      • Knowledge Transfer: Physics of Building, Science of materials, crunching of numbers
      • Every permutation of products, accessories, components > assemblies and performances
    • Manufacturers Associations (ASBP, HL, BB) Authoritative literature
      • Highly illustrated, 3D, iconography
      • BDA, AJ, Cape, (1970’s)
    • Approved documents
      • Building Regulations (Performance = unlimited options)
      • Approved Documents: (Familiar, conventional, Tried and tested solutions, tables of sizes)
      • Tertiary Documents by manufacturers associations give guidance on other methods
        • BCT and RSPB created theirs with my help
      • Lack of data
        • Traditional materials have known performances and thicknesses (BRAD and test books)
          • But eroded by bad practices
        • New and primitive may not be know and promoters of them need to support us to specify them
          • Properties tables
          • Performance tables
        • Data Sets, Equations, Calculators, Output tables


  • Timber beam on rammed earth walls, Pines Calyx

Q3 How do we make a conscious use of these materials more accessible to design team and technically achievable?

What can be done to increase use of natural materials?

  • Researching on physical properties
    • Brexit means we will no longer have access to 50% EU funding for R&D
      • Except as consultant to EU projects, but will we be invited to the party?
    • Reliant upon UK companies paying 100% to UK universities to do R&D for them
      • An unlikely scenario, UK has a bad reputation for % of income on R&D
    • UK Government must step up to the plate and provide better access to better funding
      • EU R&D Contributions redirected to UK companies
    • Build on R&DIY models
    • PEF not LCA and EPD
      • Individual products (EC) not Elemental Assemblies (BRE GGtS)
    • Testing materials / collecting data
      • Push to discover the limits
        • Not driven by (BRE GGtS) averages
        • Incentives to improve not BAU
        • Its expensive but essential
      • Collate all past know-how
        • Share failures to learn from (AECB great at this and PassiveHouse+ will benefit)
        • Capture Guru Know-how before its too late
      • Reinforce it with Evidence
        • Enable Evidence Based Design
      • Updating literature
        • Create it in the first place
        • Understand we do not know what the manufacturer knows
        • Reps are limited in numbers and we do not want to meet them
        • Better Literature please
        • Graphic Illustrated like AJ and BDA in the 1970’s
      • Give designers useful tools (Specifications, BIM)
        • B‘I’M PDS Product Data Sheets (first, its cheaper)
        • BI‘M’ ready Models (later, they are expensive)
        • Robust Specifications (BIM-ready Uniclass)
        • Data Sets, Equations, Excel Calculators, Targets, Results tables
        • U & Decrement, PEF, LCA, EC, EE, SC, Waste, Calculators
      • Updating Policies and Building Regulations
        • Manufacturers Associations with Authoritative Documents
          • representing their sector capabilities
          • Written as Tertiary Document to the BRAD
        • Then go see the DCLG and get cites in the Ads
          • Challenge targets no more business as usual
          • Encourage a drive towards low or zero carbon future built with primitive materials


  • Timbrel Dome roof, Pines Calyx

© GBE NGS ASWS BrianSpecMan aka Brian Murphy
1st December 2017 – 11th December 2017

Primitive Materials in Future Building Q+A

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Brian Murphy aka BrianSpecMan BRM @ Build4 CAPEM Showroom

Brian Murphy aka BrianSpecMan BRM @ Build4 CAPEM Showroom

© GBE NGS ASWS BrianSpecMan aka Brian Murphy
1st December 2017 – 7th December 2017

Primitive Materials in Future Building Q+A
See also:

GBE Events

GBE Webinar


  • Materials
  • Properties
  • Products
  • Insulation: Thermal and Acoustic
  • Load bearing
  • Space division

GBE CPD Titles

GBE CPD Satisfied Customers

GBE Checklist

  • Rammed Earth Walling
  • Earth Construction
  • Unfired Clay
  • J40 Damp Proofing
  • P10 Thermal Acoustic and Fire Proofing
  • M20 Render/Plaster
  • M10 Screed/Flooring
  • F42 Straw Bale
  • H9_ Straw Thatch
  • Z21 Turf mortar
  • Z21 Earth Mortar

GBE Jargon Buster

  • Primitive
  • Unsophisticated
  • Traditional
  • Natural
  • Indigenous
  • Bio-based

© GBE NGS ASWS BrianSpecMan aka Brian Murphy
1st December 2017 -11th December 2017




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