“It’s Alive!” – The Living Future of Buildings

With the voice of Alexa and Siri commonplace in many homes already, you would be forgiven for thinking that our homes are alive? However, what if they went one step further.  What if our homes in the future were actually alive – breathing, growing, living and even reproducing? This idea may seem like science-fiction, however in the face of the Climate Crisis, we need to think radically about the way build and live in our environment. Biology is capable of incredible feats of engineering, and the next steps in building technology may be to make buildings a part of nature. Below are five ways in which buildings may become living things.

Buildings that BREATHE.

Many buildings across the world are on permanent life support. Mechanical air conditions systems circulate the air to keep rooms are their required temperatures. There is always the option to open a window and allow natural ventilation to happen, but what if the walls themselves could breathe?

A group at MIT, led by Hironshi Ishii, have developed materials that can change their shape in response to water. These materials consist of layers of bacteria spores and latex – similar to those used in self-healing concrete. Then, when the material dries, it changes shape and contracts. 

Investigations have begun to look extending this method to create whole buildings featuring these membranes. Using latex membranes coated with these bacteria spores, the material would flex and open pores, allowing air to flow through the walls, for example, when steam builds from a kettle or a shower.

Buildings with STOMACHS.

New research suggests that typical waste, both domestic-scale and industrial-scale, could become a new source of energy for a building. A team of researchers working on an EU project called Living Architecture  are working to developed a new type of fuel cell. This new type of fuel cell will harness the power of microbes, taking domestic waste and generating small amounts of power as part of a wider project exploring the processing power of microbes in buildings.

The new fuel cells would be integrated into bricks, becoming part of the intrinsic structure of the building. The bricks would take in waste water and allow bacteria to convert chemical energy, as the waste is broken down, into electrical energy. Theoretically, you could charge your mobile phone using your toilet.

Buildings that HEAL.

When you notice cracks in a building’s concrete, it normally spells the beginning of the end. Eventually, water will seep in and rust the metal reinforcements that hold the structure stable. However, researchers have begun to experiment with a concrete that can heal itself. One method,  currently being developed by a group at Delft University of Technology led by Henk Jonkers, is to embed bacterial spores in the concrete mix.

Similar to the future buildings that may ‘breathe’, when water gets in through the microscopic cracks, the bacteria will reanimate. The material will become alive and trigger a chemical process, causing new calcite crystals to grow and heal the concrete. This technique might add decades or more to the life of a concrete building.

Buildings that GROW.

From the timber of dead trees to the crushed shells of limestone, we are already using nature’s materials for building. Yet this group of materials could be radically increased. Scientific American recently featured mycelium, the root network of fungus, as a material of the future. Mycelium can grow on little more than coffee grounds and wood chips in extremely short period of time, creating materials with significant structural performance. However the greatest challenge may be to design a structure where the mycelium is kept partly alive and able to grow and adapt accordingly.

Buildings with IMMUNE SYSTEMS.

We spend millions of pounds per year on antimicrobial cleaners to kill the trillions of microorganisms on every surface of our homes our bodies and in the air around us. However, it has been known for some time that those whole live near farms may suffer less from allergies, compared with their urban-living counterparts. It seems that being exposed to so-called “good” bacteria can help to build the immune system in children.

In an interesting pilot project, researchers at University College London have begun to investigate how surfaces in, for example, kitchens can be made bio-receptive. This will promote the growth of bacterial which are known to offer resistance against disease causing bugs.

Exciting as the prospect of a living building sound, there are some downsides. They will inevitably die. But buildings already have a natural lifecycle. Aside from the occasional tourist attraction, most of our buildings are in a constant state of change. When they do reach the end of their useful life, taking buildings down is costly and polluting. Imagine a city of buildings that gently die and return to the Earth forming the food for the next ones to grow to change and adapt. We hope that these radical proposals can be used in the future to help protect the environment, as well as offer unparalleled support for natural biodiversity.

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