Swamp thing – Fraunhofer IBP presents sustainable building material at Expo Milano 2015

Press release / 23.6.2015

Meet cattail or, to give it its Latin name, typha. This resilient wetland plant’s structural properties allow it to be converted into building materials that offer a unique blend of insulating and load-bearing capacity. In collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics IBP, architect Werner Theuerkorn used the plant’s natural properties as the inspiration to develop a magnesite-bonded material that unites all of typha’s best qualities. It is capable of supporting high static loads, is resistant to mold, provides superb insulation and requires little energy to produce. And since it consists of nothing more than plant material and mineral adhesive, it is also sustainable. Visitors to the German Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 or to the Typhahouse on the outskirts of Milan can explore the potential of this innovative building material for themselves.

“Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” – that’s the theme of Expo Milano 2015, which aims to provide some answers to the considerable future challenges ahead for the world food supply. As part of a conceptual master plan, this universal exposition marks a distinct paradigm shift in that it deliberately avoids the customary monumental buildings. As part of Expo Milano 2015, the Typhahouse will be unveiled at 5:30 p.m. on June 29. It’s a perfect illustration of this year’s theme and not just because it’s made using a sustainable material. In also helping to regenerate farmland and purify groundwater, typha indirectly helps guarantee food supply.

This heat-insulating walk-in construction features largely self-supporting wall, roof and floor elements, and demonstrates how the innovative natural material can be used. The vapor-permeable inner shell features a decorative clay mortar and the outer shell is treated with lime mortar to protect the structure from the weather. Inside the Typhahouse, visitors can watch a video documentary covering its entire life cycle – from the planting, harvesting and natural properties of typha, to how it is fashioned into a building material, examples of its use and how it re-enters the ecosystem. Typha plants can be seen growing in a pond in front of the house.

The Typhahouse has been erected in the garden of the agricultural settlement Cascina Cuccagna on the outskirts of Milan – a location chosen deliberately in order to be close to the water-rich and intensely farmed area between Milan, Pavia and Novara. An irrigation infrastructure has been built up in the region over many years, making this area the center of Italian rice production. This also means that the area has the potential to become a major producer of typha and the ecological building materials that can be made from it. The cultivation of typha plants helps rejuvenate nutrient-deficient surface waters and they can be harvested in winter without causing disruption to wildlife populations. This makes typha an environmentally friendly crop that does not get in the way of local food production.

Typha at the materials exhibit in the German Pavilion

Going by the motto of “sustainability,” visitors to the German Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015 will have the opportunity to witness examples of typha as a regenerative and pioneering building material. They can learn about where the plants grow, their properties and how their use as a pioneering building material can help simultaneously protect the soil, water and climate. Visitors to www.typhaboard.com will find more detailed explanations and information covering the Typhahouse’s Expo location and the accompanying research project. There is also a Typhahouse event planned for the Bavarian Week at Expo Milano 2015 that will take place from October 5 to 11. The precise date and program for the event will appear well in advance on the typhaboard website.

Background information:

Cascina Cuccagna is the most central of all the farmhouses in the greater Milan area and has become the subject of an exemplary urban renewal project. By renovating and restoring the building’s structure to how it was in the 17th century, a new space opened up in central Milan for cultural and social activities. Today Cascina Cuccagna is a much-loved public meeting place that has given room to a wide range of activities concerning the various ways in which the development of alternative lifestyles, nutritional issues, ethnic production methods and lifecycles affect how products are manufactured, consumed and recycled. Cascina Cuccagna also guarantees that greater Milan contains an example of the land that surrounds it, reminding visitors how both daily lives and lifestyles in the city and the countryside remain closely intertwined.

The overall project is a scientific collaboration bringing together materials developer and architect Werner Theuerkorn, the company typha technik and Fraunhofer IBP. Munich-based architect Bruno Franchi was responsible for coming up with the design and organizing the exhibition. The construction and funding of the exhibition building was overseen by the Fluck Holzbau company of Blumberg, Germany.