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Materialexplorer.com: free online info on the latest materials

Harrie van Helmond

English-language website materialexplorer.com went on line in February. Harrie van Helmond tested the site.

A study by Arnold van Bezooyen in 2001 into a database of materials was where Materialexlorer.com started. Research and development of the database took place in the ID-StudioLab of the Faculty of Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology, and the method of selecting materials was developed at Cambridge Engineering Design Centre. Materia, an advisory office that positions itself between designer and manufacturer, has turned the database, containing information about some 230 materials, into a 'web-based materials database'. New materials are added regularly. Materia selects products for inclusion in the database. The texts for the products are provided by the manufacturer and then edited by Materia. In the future manufacturers will be able to place an ad in the form of a web link. This system ensures free access to the site and raises the level of content above that of a publicity folder.

The site offers two ways to source material: a search engine that checks the product texts. (Type 'Koolhaas' and you get the product 'Lighting Dichroic Discs' by Arup's lighting design studio that, we read in the appended text, numbers Koolhaas among its former clients. The product, incidentally, is used on a building by UN Studio.) Or you can search for a material according to the properties that it has to possess, properties that are divided into technical and 'sensorial' qualities.

The appearance of the book Skins for Buildings (see Archined, August 30, 2004) was a sign of increased interest for the visual and tactile properties of building materials. Among the book's editors and one of the initiators of Materialexplorer is Els Zijlstra. The criticism in the book review has in part been remedied on line. The illustrations of the materials are straightforward and the limited usefulness of the description of the sensual properties of each material proves much more useful in the reciprocal search method because it offers the possibility of searching according to properties. Recycling possibilities are also listed. But it remains a search method without attention for how price relates to quality and without any advice on how not to apply materials. This site will, however, enable material fetishists to indulge their habit of forever hunting for new discoveries that are sure to steal the show.

It wouldn't be bad if the website showed not only successful but also less fortunate applications of the latest materials. And the latest materials is what this databank is about, for there's nothing here about standard materials). A list of buildings on which the materials have been used would be a welcome addition, because approaching what are often foreign manufacturers with practical questions about availability, importer, prices, quality tests and so on is a time-consuming affair for an initial scan of possible applications.

That said, the information on the site is even more wide-ranging, to the point, and specific than in the book. Browsing around this sweet shop is a treat.

But one minor shortcoming: as with archaic materials like brick, standard concrete or timber window-frames, judicious application is the key. Every manufacturer should take heed and add practical information to the site.