“I’m most excited by the problems I can’t crack,” says researcher and Warren and Mahoney Intermediate Architectural Graduate, Maria Walker.
“I like to be challenged and not know what the answer is going to be, which happens often in the computational design space. If you’re creating a script, it’s because that script doesn’t already exist. Then, suddenly, you can push a button and have 200 hours of work done in an instant. By lessening the time and resources spent on manual tasks, our designers and engineers are able to spend more time on other elements which, in turn, can lead to richer outcomes.”
Through a varied portfolio of passions and focus areas, Maria’s work explores optimisation, sustainability and problem solving through a future-focused lens. “I worked with Aurecon doing computational design while completing my Master’s thesis; while I loved the work, I found myself drawn to a more people-centric approach. That’s how I ended up at Warren and Mahoney. The work they can offer me as an Architectural Graduate is well-tailored to what I want to do, which doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional architecture trajectory. I’m definitely someone whose brain likes to jump between paths. The different ideas that I’m exposed to at Warren and Mahoney help keep me stimulated.”
Maria’s diverse day-to-day responsibilities include working on Green Star-accredited projects, sketching residential landscaping and city masterplanning, and coding through visual scripts. “I have my hand in a few pots. One day I’ll be working with contractors on how they can implement sustainable products in their builds. The next, I’ll be using Grasshopper to design geometries or work with data on scales ranging from bespoke furniture right through to master plans.”
Throughout her Master’s degree and ongoing research, Maria has focused heavily on the adoption and implementation of biomaterials. “In particular, I’ve studied mycelium bio-composites which are made using mycelium (developed from fungi) as a resin or glue combined with a composite, often a waste product such as cardboard or hemp. In its final form, the biomaterial takes on all the performance qualities that the source material had. So, for instance, if your mycelium biocomposite is made from hemp, it will share hemp’s original insulation and acoustic properties. These products are also home-compostable, so are well-suited to projects such as lease fit-outs where clients want something very personalised, but may want to retire that fit-out after a few years.
“Biomaterials are not as standardised or predictable as synthetics; that’s because these materials have more agency. There’s a school of thought called ‘Growing Design’ which acknowledges the fact that working and creating with biological organisms is, in effect, co-design. In an industry that is used to working with static materials, this is a paradigm shift towards natural materials being sources, not just resources. I think that’s really exciting and beautiful.”
In 2023, Maria claimed her place as NZ Green Building Council’s Future Thinker of the Year. “Honestly, for me, the big win happened when I applied. I had thought about applying the year before but talked myself out of it. A past student of mine applied that year and won. She’s so talented and she was prepared to back herself in a way that I wasn’t; I really kicked myself afterwards for not taking the chance. Just applying was a big step for me, then to make the semi-finals, the finals and eventually win – I was so stoked. The lesson was not to say no to myself. Let someone else say no if they’re going to. If you do it first, you don’t even give them the opportunity to say yes.”
The seeds for Maria’s curiosity and innovation were planted at an early age, she says. “I had a wonderful childhood, which was hugely influenced by my Mum. She couldn’t get rid of me; I was always asking questions. I wouldn’t sleep because I was too scared to miss anything. Her way of dealing with that was to always have pens, paper, crafts, dress-up clothes and creative supplies on hand. We didn’t have much technology in the house, so my younger brother and I spent a lot of time creating and making inventions. My Mum also supported me in being a nerd at school, and the confidence she instilled in me to be myself ensured that any bullying stopped before it even started, because I had someone telling me it was cool to ask questions and want to learn new things.
“I remember having a careers teacher who gave me personality tests when I was in school. One said I should be a rock star, but I had my doubts about that. The other came back and said I should be an architect. It was that usual trope of me having a joint passion for art and maths; it was only natural, I guess, that I would end up on this path. I also grew up in Christchurch and was applying to architecture school in 2013 in this city that still looked like a blank canvas after the Earthquakes. It gave me a sense that I could go and study and actually contribute to a place that’s continuing to be built as I practice.”
Maria says she is determined to better connect the industry when it comes to innovation and sustainability. “There need to be more conversations happening between different disciplines and across project timelines. I always feel hope when I see an article about a new biomaterial that someone’s making, but material designers are not contractors or installers who are putting this into a building. They might not even be making that material into the product that someone else is producing and someone else is then specifying.
“We need to be having better conversations and a better exchange of data between people because the solutions we need to make the biggest environmental impact already exist. We just don’t know how to get them past the barriers and into our buildings efficiently. I’m currently spending a lot of time reaching out internationally and having these conversations with global industry professionals who I see popping up in publications like ArchDaily and The Dezeen. As a researcher, I’m committed to learning what their insights and challenges are, finding patterns and collating them. Biomaterials are constantly being developed. Some are still in the lab, while others are ready to order online now. Looking across those stages of development, I believe I can be a mediator and a connector between these people, and the storyteller who collects their reflections and gives them back to the industry. I hope to one day be in the space that they’re in, making the materials; I’m probably still one more degree away from that.”
To learn more and connect with Maria, visit https://warrenandmahoney.com/ follow her on LinkedIn and register for A future of biomaterials in construction webinar on the 5th of September.