MATERIALS, Using What’s Local: Native Materials, Local Sources

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

1-2 days


Humans have always used what’s around them to invent, design and build solutions to problems near and far. Before the airplane, automobile or train, designers, engineers and architects used materials in their region to design homes and entire civilizations around the world. We now have the ability to gather materials from the farthest corners of the globe, a system that has brought innovation, but also environmental consequences. The global system in which we extract and manufacture raw materials is causing havoc on local and global ecosystems, pumping greenhouse gases into the air, and damaging indigenous ecosystems that communities depend on for survival.
In response, designers are now using native and local materials in many of their designs to reduce environmental and health impacts. Using local materials can save on distribution costs, is more sustainable, and reduces the contribution to climate change. In this lesson, students will learn about design strategies that harness local and native materials through the lens of past civilizations around the world. Students will consider these historical examples alongside a design challenge to develop a local materials infrastructure.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects Strand Reading for History/Social Studies Grades 6-8
Common Core English Language Arts Strand Speaking and Listening Grade 6-8
World History Level III (Grade 7-8)
Geography Level III (Grade 6-8)


Students will consider the development and emergence of different societies in terms of their local regional affordances. What did they use to build homes and buildings?


Investigate Christien Meindertsma’s Organic Wool Tiles project. What kinds of materials did she use for her project and from where did they come?
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, National Design Triennial 2010
Smithsonian Education: Climate Change
Visit the Smithsonian’s lesson on Prehistoric Climate Change for ideas on how to infuse history, geology and current issues of climate change into your classroom.


Cardboard, scissors, glue, tape, local soils, twigs, rocks and other natural items


• Local Economy: a preference to buy locally produced goods and services over those produced more distantly.
• Renewable resource: A natural resource is a renewable resource if it is replaced by natural processes at a rate comparable or faster than its rate of consumption by humans.
• Bioregions: geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watershed, climate, native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and contributive parts.


Materials and Architecture of Ancient Civilizations (10 Minutes- Review)
Start your lesson with a Social Studies connection. Discuss the architecture/design history of a region your class is currently focusing on in social studies or history. For instance:
Early Civilizations and the Emergence of Pastoral Peoples, 4000-1000 BCE
• Mesopotamia and settlements in the Nile valley
• The Yellow River valley of Northwestern China
• Urban centers in Syria and on the island of Crete
Intensified Hemispheric Interactions, 1000-1500 CE
• European City Centers
• Mongolia
• Aztecs
What kinds of indigenous structures existed within these civilizations? What materials were used and were available in the region?
Ask students to take two examples and compare and contrast architecture and materials choices through mind mapping or Ven diagrams.
Contemporary Comparisons (10 Minutes – Investigate)
Discuss recent trends in architecture and materials choices in comparison to the introductory discussion. What kinds of building materials are now common in the regions each student focused on and here in America?
• Wood
• Aluminum/Steel
• Plastics
• Glass
• Cement
• Brick
What are some of the environmental impacts do these materials have on the environment?
• Air Quality – The production of cement and metals like aluminum and steel have a huge impact on air quality, releasing particulate matter and other emissions like sulfur and nitrogen-based oxides.
• Climate Change – The distribution and manufacturing of materials uses electricity and other heating fuels. The use of these fossil fuels contributes greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
• Water Quality – Runoff from construction sites, smelting plants and manufacturing facilities impacts water quality worldwide.
• Land Use – The footprint of many new construction projects and the materials used impact animal habitat availability, biodiversity and erosion issues.
Bioregions! (10 minutes - Frame/Reframe)
Focus now on your local bioregion. Depending on where your school is located, native and local materials will range. Use the chart below to identify your bioregion in North America:

Geographic/Eco Regions

Sub Regions

Principle Plant Communities

The Great North



Tundra (no trees)/Sea Ice

Taiga/ Boreal Forest

Great Lakes

Birch/ Beech Forest


Deciduous/ Hardwood Forest


S. Pine/ Cypress Swamp

The Great Prairie

Grasslands (Native Gamma and Buffalo Grass)

The Rockies

Mountain Forest and Meadow

Deserts of the West

Juniper/Sagebrush Scrub; Creosote Scrub

The Pacific Coast

Northwest Coast


Cedar/Redwood Temperate Rainforest

Riparian Oak/Chaparral

Islands of the Pacific/Hawaii

Volcanic floor/tropics

You can visit to identify materials and natural resources that are found in your region. Create research teams to identify natural resources used in the area, maps and other information that can help identify the kinds of local and native materials that would be available.
 GreenBox and Product Nutrition Label - Ecolect, founded by designers Joe Gebbia and Matt Grigsby, is the first materials library to focus solely on eco-effective materials. In 2008, Ecolect introduced the GreenBox, a material subscription service to complement its free online library. Every three months, GreenBox subscribers receive physical samples of innovative, eco-effective materials presented on a die-cut card with an integrated hook, allowing them to be easily hung. The cards include information that synthesizes research, applications, technical attributes, pricing, and manufacturer contact information. The service enables designers to build their own library with a card system designed to be simple, user-friendly, and recyclable, conveying the sustainable attributes Ecolect promotes.
What are designers doing otherwise to reduce their impact on local and regional ecosystems? Share some recent trends and examples with your students:
• Reuse/Salvage Warehouses – Most major cities have a reuse or salvage warehouse where designers and citizens can go to claim materials like old sinks, windows, doors or scrap wood for their projects.
• Biodegradable Materials – a number of companies are using plant-based or biodegradable materials that will break down over time for use in insulation or temporary use.
• Local Stone and Minerals – designers incorporate local minerals and stones of the region in the foundation and façade of the building to increase durability and blending with local landscape.
• Local Labor – designers use local artisans, technicians and carpenters who know the region to design a better and more efficient structure.
Local Materials Design Lab: Part One (10-15 minutes - Generate Solutions)
Using your research groups, challenge each team to think about a new design for their school that reflects the local bioregion and availability of local materials found in the area. Have each team create sketches of a new structure they would design.
Discuss Loofah Recycled Plastic Composite Panel from the 2010 National Design Triennial to get students thinking critically about ideas for their designs. In Paraguay, loofah, a cucumber-like vegetable commonly used as an abrading skin sponge, is being combined with recycled plastic to form strong, lightweight building panels.
Each team must consider and identify the following parameters:
• Seasonal Flux – Think about how the seasons would affect your structure.
• Climate – What is the climate of the region like? How can this influence your building’s shape, form and function?
• Local Resources/Materials – What materials can be found locally and which ones will come from somewhere else?
• Environmental Impact – What is the environmental impact of the building? What are you doing to reduce this impact?
Local Materials Design Lab: Part Two (30 minutes - Edit and Develop)
Once each team has finalized a sketch and determined the overall design, begin to pass out materials so that each team can construct a 3D rendition or model of their new school building. Bring in local soils, twigs, rocks and other natural items to compliment the theme of the lesson.
Allow each team some time to finish their models. Once complete, share and reflect on the designs. How does the local bioregion influence the kind of building designed? Does the use of local and native materials make the environmental impact better or worse? (Share and Evaluate)
Finally, the models should be presented to other members of your school community.  Use the models as a means of starting a conversation about how your school can become more eco-friendly.


Reflection Questions
  • "Can you think of any world regions or cultures you have studied this school year that used interesting materials or surprising architecture?"
  • "What are some raw materials used for architecture that can be found in your region?  Is there a granite quarry, lumber yard or mine?"
  • "What are the materials that you use most in your everyday life?"
  • "What kinds of products use the materials you identified?"

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Take a walk around the school yard with your class. Ask your students to point out examples of building materials they can see in the local architecture as well as natural resources that could potentially be used as building materials.
  • Have students collect natural materials in the school yard or their backyards to be used in building their models.
Differentiation for High School:
  • Assign a different bioregion to each design group to research. Have them compare the available local materials of their bioregion to the architecture of indigenous communities in that region.
  • Groups can design a school building in the bioregion they researched. Students can try to obtain samples of the materials native to their region to be used in their design model.

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