16 Materials Every Architect Needs to Know (And Where to Learn About Them)

16 Materials Every Architect Needs to Know (And Where to Learn About Them)

A building’s materiality is what our bodies make direct contact with; the cold metal handle, the warm wooden wall, and the hard glass window would all create an entirely different atmosphere if they were, say, a hard glass handle, a cold metal wall and a warm wooden window (which with KTH’s new translucent wood, is not as absurd as it might sound). Materiality is of just as much importance as form, function, and location—or rather, inseparable from all three.

Here we’ve compiled a selection of 16 materials that should be part of the design vocabulary of all architects, ranging from the very familiar (such as concrete and steel) to materials which may be unknown for some of our readers, as well as links to comprehensive resources to learn more about many of them.


Concrete is the most widely used building material in the world, making it a good starting material to get to know. However, it also has a significant environmental impact including a carbon footprint of up to 5% of worldwide emissions. To get to know all about designing with concrete, the concrete center has a collection of useful reports many of which are free with registration.

2. Wood 

One of the oldest, most traditional building materials around the world is of course timber. The material is beginning to take on new forms thanks to engineered wood products, and with high-rises buildings and even translucent properties, this diverse material is being taken to new heights. rethink Wood has a great collection of resources to learn about, and help architects design with, wood.

3. Steel

The city skylines as we know them exploded out of our discovery of Steel, commonly used for reinforcement but serving as beautiful skin in several examples. 

4. Plastic

Although this may seem like a cheap, unsustainable material to some, one should not be so quick to judge the possibilities that plastic holds. We produce so much of it; why not recycle it in the form of architecture or bioplastics? What about the whole new world that comes with 3D printing? The American Chemistry Council has a great overview of plastics as a material, as well as a rundown of their major uses in architecture, with links to further resources for each.

5. Stone

Another material used over generations in certain geographical locations around the world, the stone has a wide diversity of textures, colors, and strengths. Despite its heavy, solid materiality, one can still work with it to achieve diverse forms. The Building Stone Institute has a variety of resources including fact sheets and specification sheets for many of the most common types of stone used in construction.

6. Textiles

Textiles have been explored most commonly using tensile structures, however, there’s a whole range of opportunities using this material: load-bearing chairs, inflatable spaces, fabric casting, and wooden fabrics amongst others. Fabric Architecture Magazine has a collection of technical articles for architects, while their resource guide provides a comprehensive overview of the products on the market in this category.

7. Glass

Our most used material to achieve transparency and light is without a doubt glass, one of the most commonly used façade elements in contemporary architecture. Some are taking it a step further, attempting to extend its properties to create "intelligent" responsive glass. The PPG Glass Education Center is a great place to learn more.

8. Brick

Despite its rigid, rectangular shape made to fit in your hand, brick architecture has been shown to create beautiful structures with the right craftsmanship. Innovative thinkers are also finding new ways to incorporate active sustainability into small building elements. The Brick Development Association has a collection of resources for learning more about the brick.

9. Kevlar

A material stronger than metal body armor, with awesome tensile strength, Kevlar is certainly an asset when building large structures. With a less rigid composition than steel, however, it could reform the way we think of large load-bearing structures. As a still-relatively-new material, there are few comprehensive information sources on Kevlar's architectural applications, but this article and this snippet of the book Material Architecture by John Fernandez are good places to start.

10. Bamboo

Bamboo usage is generally dictated by the geographical location of the architectural project. In locations where bamboo makes sense, it is an incredibly flexible, strong, sustainable material that can be useful in many ways.

11. Carbon Fiber

Reflecting everything about our new material endeavors is carbon fiber: "five times stronger than steel, twice as stiff, weighing significantly less." The composition of carbon fiber makes it flexible to work with, allowing it to take shapes from surfaces to rods, depending on your requirements.

12. Photovoltaic cells

With all the high-rises soaring high above the earth, it’s a wonder photovoltaic facades haven’t become a norm. Due to the evolution of photovoltaic technology, cells may no longer have to be locked in place on the roof. The International Energy Agency's design handbook for photovoltaics in buildings is available for free online.

13. Earth

Earth is among the oldest building materials we can think of due to its almost universal accessibility and relative ease of use at small scales. It’s capable of being compressed into modules, as well as creating freeform surfaces, all of which can eventually return to the earth with ease.

14. Waste

We produce a huge amount of waste covering a huge range of materials, but getting to know your waste is an excellent idea for future architects. Whether it’s converting cigarette butts into building material or plastic bottles to earthquake-resistant walls, recycling is something to be admired.

15. Straw

Creating a passive thermal environment, shielded from rain, and blending into similar natural surroundings are just a few things that straw is good at. It’s no wonder thatched roofs were so popular in the past.

16. Organic materials

With the massive loss of habitats happening around the world, getting to know organic structures created by animals is something that’s best to do sooner rather than later. Not only can we learn from their use of materials, but it also opens up opportunities for us to coexist through incorporating their organic materials into our architecture.

As with all materials, accessibility and cost play a huge role. There are sure to be materials not on the list that would be the obvious option in certain parts of the world, so be sure to get to know the materials around you in addition to these and you’ll be sure to have a complete resource.