Metabolic Materials and Self-Repairing Architecture

Traditional building materials are generally harvested or mined from the earth, using massive amounts of energy in acquisition, transport, and assembly. The materials that encompass the structure of a building, whether it is wood, steel, or stone, are dead and susceptible to forces of nature like decay and erosion. Materials are becoming more difficult to obtain and build, making construction unsustainable. But by studying nature, we may be able to change all of this.
Nature has been building structures using sustainable energy through natural processes for millions of years. One technology that strives to mimic nature are metabolic materials. Metabolic materials utilize a set of naturally occurring chemical reactions to absorb or produce energy. They do this when exposed to different elements or chemicals such as water or carbon. By using their metabolisms through a non-biological process, they are then able to reorganize themselves. A specific type of a metabolic material that is able to sense its environment and make changes based on chemical input is called a protocell. These protocells can be chemically programmed to do certain things and generate certain outcomes. Protocells can be engineered to produce carbonate, much like that of a clamshell, and if damaged, can be chemically altered to repair the damage.
An architectural example of this could be used in the city of Venice, Italy. The city of Venice was built on wood piles and, as the piles rot, the city is sinking. One of the proposed metabolic materials could help to repair this by generating a type of sustainable reef using protocells that react to water. These protocells would “grow” and harden, spreading out the load of the city. By studying these technologies we can change our build environment from being inert and dead to being alive and active. Rather than fighting nature and separating our buildings from it, we can use nature as a tool and as a way to connect architecture to the earth.


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