London-based architects explore the application of human hair in building materials

London-based architects explore the application of human hair in building materials

Just when we thought we knew all there was to know about the uses of hair, we came across architects Deborah Lopez and Hadin Charbel. What on earth could hair have to do with architecture? You might be as surprised as we were when we learned how human hair could be used to generate unique maps of urban environments.

We just had to meet these architect-researchers to find out more about their unique project, Foll(i)cle, and so we did exactly that. This article is based on an exclusive interview which ended in a discussion of the possibilities to collaborate with Green Salon Collective on new projects and events as well as possibly helping to find a new solution for salon hair waste.

Lopez and Charbel are lead architects at Pareid, an architecture and research firm based in London, and also lecturers at The Bartlett School of Architecture of UCL. A competition in NYC several years ago kickstarted their interest in different types of wastes that humans produce and how those could be used in building materials. They were drawn to hair and started working with it to make felt.

The two exhibited an architectural installation using their own created hair-felt at Bangkok Design Week in 2019. Their tool-lined, hair-felt “pavilion” was an incredible focal point, luring visitors into the centre of the space. They hilariously nicknamed it, The Hairy Beacon.

But more than showcasing their unique felt material, they treated visitors to an experience and opportunity to participate in a truly unique study. Visitors were invited to cut off locks of their own hair and fill out a very short survey about where in the city they live and work as well as whether they smoke or dye their hair. 

Now what could these architects want with these samples and information? Lopez and Charbel previously came across a study that showed how hair contains heavy metals and thus could be used to detect a person’s exposure to toxic substances. If hair samples could be used to map one person’s exposure to heavy metals then surely many samples from a population could draw a very interesting map, indeed!

The architects sent a selection of their over 200 samples to toxicologist, Alberto Salomone, one of the authors of that study. The hair was analysed for traces of arsenic, chromium, lead and other metals and that data was matched with information from the surveys. Samples coming from participants who either smoke or dye their hair were not used since these variables affect the data.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, data analysis was slow and still continues to this day. One correlation that the researchers have found is that people who live close to highways exhibit higher levels of arsenic than normal. They have also built a 3-dimensional pollution map of Bangkok based on the presence or absence of their targeted toxins. See the map HERE.

It was clear during the interview that Lopez and Charbel were keen to broaden their data set in order to more fully appreciate how hair might be applied to gain fresh insights into general human health as well as environmental pollution. Broaden their data set? Test city number two? Could this be, say, London? Yes, we asked the question.

We are now in conversation with the pair about the potential of replicating their project in London. We are also discussing the possibility of supporting them in exploring the application of hair in building materials. Looks like 2022 just got a lot more interesting!

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