Clay is the key raw material used to make terracotta. Terracotta literally means baked earth. It is essentially fired clay or baked clay that is used to build any object or materials. The clay can take the form of a vessel, figure, object or even a structural form when made from a coarse and porous clay. When the clay is fired or baked, it usually forms a colour that ranges from a dull red or orange due to its rich iron content.
A key reason for the rise in terracotta designs lies in its sheer property of being naturally sustainable and its ability to lessen a structure’s and/or an object’s environmental impact. Terra cotta designs are of superior durability, and it comes with a natural cooling effect offering itself as an energy efficient material that also offers more flexibility to designers to play around with.
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Key elements of terra cotta that have made it a preferred choice for designers are:
i. Long Lasting: Being a natural product made from a mix of raw materials from the earth itself, terracotta is durable when fired and lasts for hundreds of years. This lasting durability helps objects and structures from terracotta to withstand freezing conditions and perform well in a variety of climate conditions. Products and buildings with long lifespan help to keep the waste at a bare minimum and unnecessary material waste out of landfills.
ii. Less manufacturing waste: Terracotta uses natural materials in its production and even the discarded terra cotta can be used to form new clay bodies. This property of the material itself makes it a more viable option in production and one that produces the least amount of manufacturing waste.
iii. Easy maintenance and cleaning: Most terracotta products are designed as simple products that are resilient and durable. In architecture, with basic management and care- the architectural terracotta will last for centuries. It requires minimal cleaning effort of light washing and a ceramic glaze offers additional benefits for product designs to avoid mold growth.
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Here are some great examples of how terracotta is being used to produce innovative product designs globally:
A. Terracotta air humidifier:
Haibo Hou led a team of students to design and build ‘The Coarse Pottery Air-Humidifier’ that uses terracotta as its raw material to offer a sustainable alternative to the electric air humidifiers to moisten the dry interior spaces. While there are many appliances that have been designed with terracotta to offer natural cooling, this collaboration between a group of students from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and designers from Shenzhen Changsen Trading Company produced a one-of-its-kind air humidifier from clay that requires no electricity to function. The team expanded on their product by mentioning that the product’s rhythmic wave-like structural build helps it to increase the evaporation area of water to increase the moisture in the room.
This project is also recognized by Red Dot and was chosen as a winner in 2021.
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B. Terracotta storage container:
DUNSTA is a product designed by Alexandra Fransson that helps to store fresh produce in a natural manner that also works with our modern lifestyle. Not only is it a natural alternative, it’s also an energy-efficient way to store your fresh produce. The product uses no electricity to keep your fruits and vegetables fresh. It makes use of the evaporative cooling which is like that of the root cellar. Since the product is made from natural raw materials – it becomes a perfect choice to store your food in. DUNSTA also offers you a little channel on top where you can add sand and water to help you keep the produce inside the box fresh without need for any plastic wraps or containers.
Keeping in mind the long-lasting durability of the material, this product itself can be used by your generations and is indeed a great example of having a sustainable time capsule.
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C. Terracotta all-in-one – Lamp, air humidifier, planter, and filter
Inspired by Brazilian traditions, designer Lucas Couto designed a modern home appliance that is natural and offers multiple benefits. The designer approached the product design with the idea to build a modern filter that also offered other functional features. His ideology to build this product was to also build a multi-sensory experience around terracotta. He considered the natural property of terracotta as a cooling agent and humidifier and then built upon addition of a lamp and planter to showcase the material can be used with ease outside the kitchen. The design comes with a two-compartment aspect wherein the inner part has the pendant lamp covered with a white glaze to help in increasing the light reflection and the terracotta material helps to not let it overheat.
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From an architectural viewpoint, designers have been working on building structures that offer natural energy free air conditioning only by using the cooling properties of terracotta that helps to regulate temperatures in hot and humid climates. Designers today are building permanent cooling structures with terracotta to designing terracotta bricks in different shapes that are flexible, modular, and customizable to build different forms of structure. There sure is some wisdom to our ancient ways of working with sustainable materials without harming the environment. Especially in times when global communities and designers especially are trying to find solutions towards climate change and global warming, terracotta material offers one possible solution towards sustainable production.