Post-Normal Material Practice: “Building” as Inquiry

Post-Normal Material Practice: “Building” as Inquiry

Jacob Wayne Mans (University of Minnesota, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 31
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2426-8.ch010


This chapter explores building as a form of material inquiry. The process of building generates new ideas and questions that remain latent in unbuilt designs. These ideas and questions are uniquely trans-scalar and boundary spanning as compared to material inquiries that focus on isolated material attributes. Building projects embed material inquiries within the open systems that make up our environment. Thinking about material performance in this way can co-produce political, social, economic, and ecologic relationships that extend design agency beyond the artifact.
Chapter Preview


Buildings consist of energy, concentrated into matter, organized into materials, processed into assemblies, used as construction units and/or system components to form building systems further configured into spaces that serve social and/or environmental purposes. This trans-scalar material description connects molecular formation to territorial performance (and vice versa) through feedback loops that facilitate energy flows across scales. If the concern surrounding architecture is that architects are not developing solutions that have a large enough positive impact (or a small enough negative impact) toward the current environmental crisis, then perhaps we need to re-evaluate the impact of architecture toward a system scale that does.

This essay explores building as a form of material inquiry. It is concerned with scale in general over any particular metric. It seeks a way to evaluate materials through the extended relationships they create rather than their intrinsic properties. Scale not only refers to a thing’s physical size, but to a thing’s relational influence; to its network. So, while a building is a relatively small-scaled physical thing, the process of building creates a very large-scaled relational network. A network that is socio-technical in its nature and that co-produces political, social, economic, and ecologic relationships through the production of a building. Measuring and designing for the improved performance of these extended relational networks through the co-production of systemic improvements that relate such things as economic opportunity, political representation, social equity, and/or ecological regeneration shifts the agency of the architect toward much larger scales of systems requiring a recharacterization of architectural impacts.

The motivation behind constructing a post-normal material practice is twofold. First, it is to validate and curiously consider the immense amount of pragmatic, theoretical, and performative material knowledge attached to architecture’s extended relational networks—knowledge that extends beyond research institutes, academic faculties and professionals. The expert and non-expert alike are participants in this discourse, with the non-expert playing a critical role in establishing new ideas that disciplinary researchers and professionals struggle to articulate. Second, is to consider the opportunities that an architecture optimized to improve the performance of these larger systems has on the physical formation and materials of the this we build.

This process focuses on articulating the right question rather than providing a particular solution for the pre-existing architectural question of “green building.” There is a substantial difference between getting the answer to the wrong question right and working on the right question but getting the wrong answer. The latter is particularly useful, the former—deceptively misleading. The difference often lies in whether one is seeking system efficiency or system effectiveness (Ackoff, 2003). This essay is concerned with the systems that architecture engages and claims that “a building” (noun) is actually the wrong question, due in part to its preoccupation with its own operational efficiency. It poses the question of “building” (verb), which is relational, complex, and can be concerned with the operational effectiveness of communities.

This chapter does not define an ideal scale at which architecture becomes “effective”, but rather a method for questioning our assumptions about what architecture can and should be optimized to impact. The chapter consists of three parts. The first part focuses on the conceptual framework of a post-normal material practice. It focuses on three key concepts central to the argument: post-normal science, abductive reasoning, and ignorance as a design method. The second part presents three built projects through a post-normal framework. The rationale for reporting on these projects is to examine the impact-based variables and insights that emerged through the process of building and impacts co-produced through the projects. The essay concludes with a section calling for a more critical discourse on built work as a collective research project that spans professional/academic realms as well as expert/non-expert boundaries.

Complete Chapter List

Search this Book: