‘CornCrete’ — Sustainable Architecture

“Time present and time past/
Are both perhaps present in time future”

— T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Sustainability can be defined in many ways. In constructing his interpretation, Illinois Architecture Professor Mark Taylor draws on the idea of “considering connection through time.” By adopting this perspective, he unveils clues to how our built environments can be more in tune with natural cycles and foster greater connections with the natural world.

Anyone driving through central Illinois can’t help but notice the overwhelming prevalence of agricultural land, dominated extensively by the cultivation of corn and soybeans. But when Taylor looks out over acres of Midwestern cropland, he’s primarily interested in what happens after the harvest is complete.

“There’s an abundance of agricultural fiber produced as a byproduct of crop cultivation,“ he said. “The combine harvesters come by and take out the corn, and everything else gets sent out the back as waste. In some cases, this material is gathered in windrows and taken for animal bedding, but I think there’s also an opportunity to take some of this material and put it to higher value uses.”

Illinois Professor Mark Taylor holding a brick of CornCrete.

Working out of the Fresh Press Studio, Taylor collaborates with Art + Design Professor Eric Benson to explore and experiment with “how agricultural fibers can be used in three dimensions.” These uses occupy a spectrum of scales, from microscopic fiber analyses — to develop strong and long-lasting paper — up to the architectural scale on which Taylor is currently focused: the construction of monolithic walls.

“The energy-efficient buildings we have built before for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon have walls that are somewhat reliant on petrochemical products to provide the level of insulation we require to minimize power consumption to heat or cool the buildings,” Taylor said. “Working in collaboration with Fresh Press, I saw an opportunity to see if similar energy-efficient buildings could be built with much more natural products sourced locally.”

As evidenced by the project’s name, “CornCrete,” Taylor is directing his attention to corn stover and miscanthus. Though different in terms of origin — miscanthus is an African crop — the two perennials are the subjects of extensive research programs right in the University of Illinois’ backyard. After harvesting the plants’ byproducts, the building material undergoes a production process that closely resembles hand-mixing concrete. The craft-based procedure requires some skill, which Taylor has now mastered and will transfer to his students this semester as he transitions from creating test samples to mock-ups of wall assemblies before finally installing different mixes of material in existing structures.

Because corn and miscanthus are new to the realm of architectural fiber research, Taylor uses hemp shiv (the core of industrial hemp) — which has been used in conjunction with lime since Roman times and made a resurgence in France in the 1980s — as a point of reference.

“A hempcrete or CornCrete wall will look and feel very much like a stucco-covered masonry wall, but a lot lighter and with better performance characteristics,” Taylor said of the byproduct-based materials.

The first step in bringing this new material to market is testing its thermal resistance — essentially, its ability to insulate, and to do so well enough to satisfy increasingly stringent building codes. Using 40-millimeter-thick samples, Taylor’s team conducts tests to measure the materials’ resistance to heat. So far, the research is generating positive results.

“If you can tolerate having a thick wall, you can build a decent building,” he said. “The walls will buffer temperature swings over the course of a day, keeping heat out of a building during the day and releasing it during the night.”

Visualization of the testing process.

Theoretical testing can only show so much: The next step is actually building a structure and testing how it behaves in response to various weather conditions. Following Taylor’s architectural philosophy to “think globally, but act locally,” the material’s first applications will take place at the U of I as the team restores and insulates a 400-square-foot structure on the south end of campus. Next, Taylor’s team will work on a large barn that needs protection from wind and cold during winter months. These buildings will mostly be used for demonstration purposes, but Taylor hopes that the ideas behind them will resonate with future home builders and buyers.

“Buying a house is always a big decision, so you need to have demonstration buildings so people can come experience living in either an energy efficient house like this, or one constructed with materials that have a greater connection to the surrounding landscape,” he said.

The conversation of sustainable architecture has shifted from the question of feasibility to the issue of human ethics and personal decision-making.

“We now know how to build energy efficient buildings,” Taylor said. “Building a house that is essentially standalone and powered by the sun, that is doable. It is the question for society, and individuals, to decide whether that’s what they want to do. I think the next step is for individuals to consider the life-cycle costs of what will probably be their biggest single investment. And whether they want to invest in something that has a lower impact on the environment than a typical newly constructed home.”

CornCrete might just provide an antidote to the “throwaway” mentality that pervades everything from single-use plastics, short-lived technology, fast fashion trends, and mass-produced holiday decorations that inevitably end up in the trash. Taylor’s innovation is paving the way for handcrafted, durable materials that connect inhabitants in a unique way to the world around them.

Structure on Illinois campus that will be restored and insulated with CornCrete materials.

“In many ways, it’s a quality of life decision,” he said. “Think about how some people choose — if they’re able — to eat organically or eat whole foods … because they see that there’s a quality of life factor. The building industry today has many similarities to fast-food production, while (CornCrete) is taking you back to a more holistic and connected way of building. It might have a higher price tag economically, but maybe it has greater value to society.”

Being a craftsman well-versed in wood, metal, and ceramics, Taylor has always been fond of the creation process and of uncovering the intrinsic value in anything handcrafted. Because of this background, he considers the process of making just as valuable as the outcome.

“Do we value just the end result of what we purchase, or are there some values and qualities to be gained in the making process? Not only is this building nice to live in, but was it a pleasure to build? Those things are hard to measure,” he said. “Is it more pleasurable to work with natural materials that are connected to the landscape … or working with materials that are known carcinogens that need body protection to work with?”

Taylor is excited to see the future unfold for what he deems a “historic material,” and to witness the ways in which the ancient and the innovative will merge to pave the way for sustainable, healthy housing on a global scale.

Sustainability can be defined in many ways, but considering connection through time is something Taylor feels could hold clues to how the built environment can be more in tune with natural cycles that have the potential to provide a greater connection to the environment around us.

Mark Taylor’s research team received iSEE seed funding in early 2019 as part of the Institute’s Campus as a Living Laboratory program.

— Written by Jenna Kurtzweil, iSEE Communications Intern