What dematerialisation means

Dematerialisation is a critical aspect in sustainable development – some would say the most critical. This is not only because of the resource savings provided by reduction of any individual element in a project, but because of the multiplying factor – the ripple effect – created by these reductions. Here Neville Cowland of NOWarchitecture explores the potential before steps are taken to build anything.

What dematerialisation means

At the basic level dematerialisation refers to the reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve economic functions in society. In building terms, dematerialisation means doing more with less, or better yet, no material consumption to deliver the same level of functionality to the user. Choices are available in the way buildings are constructed to significantly reduce materialisation to a point where carbon neutral development is achievable


Dematerialisation strategies for environmentally sustainable design that guide architecture include:

  • Efficient logical structures & rational building forms
  • Reduction of secondary finishes
  • Economic use of materials
  • Consideration of life cycle costs & embodied energy

In any approach to dematerialisation, planning decisions and material selections are augmented by consideration of passive energy systems which respond to climatic conditions:

  • Solar orientation for warmth in winter and natural daylighting
  • Even cross ventilation and induced passive ventilation
  • Night purging systems for summer cooling
  • High levels of exposed thermal mass to reduce
  • temperature fluctuations

  • Intelligent interplay of natural light

These initiatives are further supported by strategies for building services which provide reduced energy requirements:

  • Low energy heating and cooling systems
  • Efficient artificial lighting
  • Integration of renewable energy sources
  • Integration of rainwater harvesting systems
  • Integration of passive cooling systems



The first strategy in dematerialisation is the planning of the project. Carefully define the size of the project, because at the basic level dematerialisation refers to the reduction in the quantity of materials required to serve a function.

  • How many spaces are needed? Be conscious of the difference between required functions and desired functions and frequent and infrequent functions
  • What space is required for each function?
  • What size does each space need to be?
  • Can the same space provide for multiple functions?

Ensure that room sizes are appropriate to their function, character and comfort levels based on:

  • Floor space
  • Room volume
  • Proportion: enclosure area to floor area ratio
  • Functional relationships: proportion of circulation space (wasted space)
  • Spatial psychology: make spaces look larger than they are; consider window size and positions to allow external views to increase the sense of space and use mirrors to multiply views to enlarge the visual space

The number of spaces can be minimised by designing them to provide for more than a single function. For example, an appropriately designed and fitted garage can function as a rumpus room or home gym; a study can function as bedroom for infrequent guests. For easy transition provide storage options which allow the space to provide for different uses without limiting other functions.