Fourth Industrial Revolution

How science is helping to bring buildings to life

Pedestrians walk along the High Line park in New York, June 12, 2013. New York City has a wild side and it has nothing to do with its honking yellow taxis, towering skyscrapers and celebrity-studded nightclub crowds. Picture taken June 12, 2013.

Vast quantities of data could be stored on tiny snippets of DNA. Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Jim McClelland
Director of Sustainability, McClelland Media Ltd
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Most of us think of modern buildings as inert structures – the shell for all the activity that goes on inside. Advances in science and technology, however, are creating new types of biological and metabolic materials which are essentially turning a growing number of buildings into living, breathing organisms.

In general, the state-of-play in active solutions is evolving rapidly, with both product innovation and market acceptance on the rise. As Rachel Armstrong , Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, explains: “Functional materials – such as smog-eating surfaces, carbon-fixing paint and self-healing concrete – are the cutting edge, right now. The leading edge is the Hamburg BIQ Building, where through incorporation of algae you have gone beyond reflexive into a kind of synthesis.”

According to Franz Jenowein, Director, Sustainability Research at JLL, such principles alone can prove catalysts for fresh approaches, even if project applications are rare.

“Applying biological concepts such as ‘living’ and ‘breathing’ to buildings, means talking about analogies; and whenever we take analogies from one system to another, it drives innovation and thinking.

“The technology involved might be marginal at present, in its infancy, but, trials and inventions are absolutely necessary in this new world of resource constraint and climate risk.”

The science transforming buildings

The process underlying pollution-fighting coatings and cladding for facades revolves around use of titanium dioxide, which as a photocatalyst reacts chemically to sunlight. Its powers have already been harnessed in manufacture of self-cleaning window glass.

The advances in self-healing concrete, being explored in research at both Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and the University of Bath in the UK, involve micro-capsules of bacteria activated by water ingress when concrete cracks. These organisms then germinate to create limestone (calcite) which helps repair fissures and spoiling. There are also alternative solutions that utilize adhesive-based agents.

The SolarLeaf facade employed by Arup on the BIQ Building is radical. It is the first system in the world to cultivate microalgae to generate heat and biomass as renewable energy sources. Featuring structural glass photobioreactors used as external cladding elements and dynamic shading devices, the technology is fully integrated into the building services of the property.

For Professor Armstrong, this stimulates a rethinking of real-estate function: “It’s a way of using a building as a site to make things. Your building inhabitants are no longer just consumers of our environment, they are producers of sustainable solutions.”

Pushing the boundaries

The exceptional properties of micro-algae are also being explored in the Urban Algae Folly, designed by ecoLogicStudio. Originally presented at Expo Milano 2015, the Folly is the world’s first living edible architecture integrating microalgal cultures and real-time digital cultivation protocols within a soft ETFE (fluorine based plastic) skin.

Pushing boundaries in building-integrated farming and urban agriculture, this architectural prototype will produce 35g of Chlorella (algae) every day, equivalent to 750g of meat. Over six months, the Folly will ‘farm’ the protein equivalent of a small cow, whilst every day adsorbing 1.5kg of CO2 and producing enough oxygen (750g) for one human.

Another example of this explosion in generative technology is the €3.2M EU-funded Living Architecture (LIAR) project, coordinated by the University of Newcastle. LIAR will essentially research and design the ‘boiler of the future’, capable of cleaning your greywater like a robotic cow’s stomach. Inside, rather than machines, are biofilms and living creatures.

LIAR harnesses the metabolic power of communities of micro-organisms to provide clean water, harvest phosphate, make something like a new soap and produce electricity. Combining microbial fuel cells and programmable biofilms, it offers an insight into the real-estate world of tomorrow where biology and buildings meet, explains Professor Armstrong:

“What we are looking at in the next 10 years are complex ecosystems of living technologies that integrate our buildings and us into communities of interaction. Property and people will both become active, engaged participants. Such science might sound like a fiction, set years into the future, but it is happening now and heading towards commercialization.”

From the lab to the real world

There is already mainstream interest in property and real estate markets for buildings that are not just efficient and ‘do less harm’, but are actually restorative, maybe carbon negative, so ‘give back’ to the environment. Such positive thinking is less compliance-driven, more opportunity-minded and evidenced in exemplar projects like the Bullitt Center in Seattle, conceived to the standards and principles of the Living Building Challenge.

Given this broader, deeper sustainability remit, resource-smart real estate can do more than just cut consumption and emissions, it can generate energy, clean water, digest waste and purify air. For Jenowein, taking this more productive and dynamic view of living and breathing structures shifts the focus away from standalone building autonomy:

“When you breathe, you breathe both in and out. You have an exchange with the surroundings. Metabolism means exchanging, transforming matter. So, a living building doesn’t necessarily mean autonomous, or entirely independent, but almost the contrary – you have to see how the exterior and the interior work together and the value of your exchange.

“It’s about being connected. And you’ve seen evolution of certification methods such as LEED and BREEAM to include neighbourhood- or district-level greenness.”

Tech meets bio

Taking this ecosystemic view of the living building also supports an inclusive and complementary attitude to both tech and bio, concludes Jenowein:

“The sensors are like the learning, the living-being intelligence. They represent the control system for the ‘brain’ of a building, supporting its self-monitoring and self-managing of metabolic exchanges. In the ‘living’ analogy, I wouldn’t make a distinction between a high-tech sensor-equipped property and a bio building – they go nicely together.”

As buildings evolve, one thing that needs to change is the terms we use to describe their constituent parts, Professor Armstrong believes.

“It is time for a new vocabulary. Words that invoke physiologies will come into play, as we talk of buildings with circulation rather than drains, with breathing systems rather than vents. The language of design must change.”

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