Dani Hill-Hansen on biobased materials

It really matters how biobased materials are created and how much we consume

Dani Hill-Hansen works as project manager at EFFEKT, where she combines her two master’s degrees in architecture and in Sustainable Design Engineering. You can meet her at our conference Biobased Building materials/ Biobaserede Byggematerialer on the 21st and 22nd of august. Here she will talk about learnings from the ‘Doughnut for urban development’.

In the following you can read an interview with Dani.

What is your background, and how do you work with biobased building materials on a daily basis?

Growing up around construction sites with my father, I developed a keen interest in buildings. Raised a middle child of five, in the forested mountains of Maine, I have always had an appreciation for nature. For these reasons, it’s not surprising my work is in steering collaborative sustainability projects. Initially I studied interior design in the US, focusing on sustainability topics like indoor air-quality, cradle-to-cradle and LEED certification. A study abroad experience in Denmark in 2010 shifted my focus towards architecture, leading me to pursue a master’s degree at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, where I lived off the grid in a desert shelter I helped build and a curriculum based on ‘Organic Architecture’ – focuses on integrating nature in design with a very hands-on approach. After moving to Denmark, I taught sustainability courses at DIS while working in smaller residential architecture practices. With a desire to push the industry towards a sustainable transition I took an additional master’s degree in Sustainable Design Engineering at Aalborg University in Copenhagen. For the past two years I’ve been combining these skills as project manager at EFFEKT in projects such as Reduction Roadmap and Doughnut for Urban Development – with aim to steering the industry towards systemic sustainability solutions. I don’t work with innovating or specifying building materials on a regular basis – Rather, my work is about oscillating between global, systematic issues and solutions and translating that knowledge into practical applications for the industry.

What should we be particularly aware of when building with biobased materials?

Often biobased materials are defined as a silver bullet solution to the building industry’s impact problem and it’s simply not true. We often talk about the climate crisis as a carbon reduction issue, which it is, but we can’t forget that at the same time we need to mitigate biodiversity loss and generate natural systems. When we built with biobased materials, we must be aware that they can have the same issues as heavy, emitting materials like steel and concrete if they are created with degenerative agriculture and forestry, and if they are overconsumed, so it really matters how biobased materials are created and how much we consumed. We must ask – is created in a degenerative or a regenerative way? Is it created on the other side of the planet or is it created next-door? What is the life span of this material? Does it take century to grow or is it it rapidly renewable? Is this material created in a way that leads to excessive waste in production or does production mimic the cycles of nature? And of course, when we talk materials, we often consider the physical properties, but it’s just as important to ask questions about who is behind the creation of the material, and investigate people and living systems are empowered through the creation of this material or disenfranchised along the supply chain?

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities regarding biomaterials in construction?

Beyond the technical and legislative barriers to using bio-based materials, of which there are many, we have as an industry forgotten that biobased materials are all around us. If you walk around any Danish city, you will see half-timber buildings that are centuries old, and they have lasted. And if we pulled away layers of those buildings, we would find all kinds of materials in those buildings, such as insulation made from rocks, straw, and discarded papers. We have built with biomaterials for as long as we have been human settlements and cities but today, we have, socio-technical system (material testing standards, building codes, EPD data requirements) that expect biobased materials to perform in the same technical context designed for industrialized materials like steel and concrete. So, in a lot of ways, one of our biggest challenges is that we have forgotten how to work with these materials and how well they perform for long lasting, low impact solutions.

In terms of opportunities – they are endless. If we can just harness a small percentage of the genius embedded in nature, we can create incredibly smart and resilient buildings out of biobased materials. If we think systemically, we can work together with the agricultural industry to use agricultural waste as insulation for the transformation of the existing building stock. We can also make incredibly smart, nature-based climate adoption solutions. And unlike rare minerals associated with heavily industrialized materials, we can grow biomaterials locally, which has many benefits beyond immediate access to sustainable materials. So, we can improve the Danish landscape, while reducing our dependency on increasingly unstable, global supply chains.

Can you suggest three ways we can move forward and use more biobased building materials in construction?

We must always remember that we cannot solve our over-consumption problem, by consuming more, so we have become more selective about how much build in the future. In the use of all materials choices, we need to ask the three following questions:

Is it needed – does this material choice align with sufficiency principles? How little material can we use, while serving the purpose.

Is it regenerative – does this material choice reduce climate instability (mitigate carbon impact), while at the same time restoring biosphere integrity (regenerating landscapes)? 

Is it equitable – Do the companies and business model behind this material distribute benefits and burdens in a way that is fair and just? 

These preconditions should direct material specifications in building practice. It’s more important than ever to set the bar high and scrutinize material decisions.

Which projects do you find exciting when it comes to biobased materials?

We need solutions at material, building, and systems scales. One material I have my eye on is “Material Evolution” a new cement start-up. They use a unique alkali-fusion process that operates at ambient temperatures, eliminating the need for energy-intensive kilns and significantly reducing the carbon footprint of cement production by 85% and including 95% industrial waste in the product. While this is certainly not a biobased material, it’s essential to identify sustainable alternatives for heavy-emitting materials for hybrid construction in the future.  On a building scale, I think the “House of Nature” by ReVærk showcases innovative use of biobased materials, integrating historical building techniques and modern sustainable practices. Utilizing wood-fiber insulation, a screw pile foundation, and natural ventilation methods, it minimizes environmental impact while maximizing durability and functionality – exemplifying how traditional materials and methods can be adapted to create low-impact, contemporary buildings, rooted in nature. Finally, “Veje til biobaseret byggeri” research project is working to adopt a systems approach to building solutions by exploring the integration of biobased materials like straw, wood, and seaweed into Danish construction, investigating the potential for sustainable land-use, farming, production, and application of these materials, to reduce the building industry’s carbon footprint, while addressing the biodiversity crisis through proposals for efficient land-use, sustainable farming practice and landscape regeneration.

What are you talking about at Biobased Building Materials, and what do you hope participants will gain from hearing it?

With the work I do I’m always trying to oscillate between the global, systemic understanding of the climate crisis and contextualize that knowledge all the way down to a material space. Frameworks like the ‘Doughnut for Urban Development: A Manual’ which I will present, gives us limits to work within and a vision for the future. I would like people to walk away with an understanding that material decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. We must always consider the global context of our local decisions, both environmental and social with every decision, across different scales. We have the opportunity to empower or disenfranchise living systems and people around the world – and if we want to be a part of the solution doing more good – being regenerative – must be a precondition. Today, we have both clear targets and tools to measure impact. We need to activate our collective capacity to create a better future. 

Do you want to hear more from Dani?

At our conference Biobased Building materials/ Biobaserede Byggematerialer on the 21st and 22nd of august you can hear her exciting presentation and much more. Read more about the conference and register here.

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