It is common practice for architects and builders to think and treat building materials as if they are static and dead: In a literal sense, this is accurate – though, engineers may consider a system of static components to as having a liveliness or shiftiness. Very rarely though, do we consider our building materials as a product of living things. From recently dead biological material (trees), to materials made of long dead organisms (bacteria), we tend to heat, beat, and treat those raw goods into the components that we deal with when we design and build. Recently, researchers and architects have been considering the notion that building materials can be made in part by living microbes, both on a time scale and in forms that are relevant to modern building practices. Not only do these biological materials offer the chance for us to greatly reduce the energy needed to produce our built world, they began to offer a method to living that is more like the natural world in its approach to cyclically using all materials embodied in a system.
Several recent research efforts using microbes are experimenting with using the microbes to replace heating, beating, or treating in the process of creating building materials. These include, Damian Palin’s “A Radical Means” sandstone project, Henk Jonkers’ BioConcrete,1 and Ginger Dosier’s “Better Brick” project.2 These projects are making immense strides in rethinking our definition of building materials but they do have their own set of concerns as they move towards actual implementation. Some things, like the longer time (1-2 weeks) to grow the bricks can be worked into the supply demand chain but others, like the harmful AMMONIA off-gassing as a bi-product of the current microbe brick process, need more experimentation. These challenges should not deter exploration but rather, should be a call for more designers and more design iteration.
A project by Rachel Armstrong takes the idea one step further and proposes that the building materials and structures created using microbes are one and the same.3 Using Synthetic Biology, the rational engineering of living systems, Armstrong proposes using microbes in an intentional manner to repair failing columns below the city of Venice. Eventually, these columns would become reefs of limestone and provide a dual service to the city and its surrounding natural ecology.
Proving that our exploration into using microbes in architecture has only scratched the surface, a final project by Phillips Design called, “Microbial Home”, explores how we might use microbes not only in our building materials, but also in our building systems. The Microbial Home Probe project consists of a domestic ecosystem that challenges conventional design solutions to energy, cleaning, food preservation, lighting and human waste.4 Proposed systems for the home include: bio-digester island, larder, urban beehive, bio-light, apothecary, filtering squatting toilet, and paternoster plastic waste up-cycler.
Our bodies are made of and utilize microbes in a controlled way as part of our living systems. As a design community, we are taking the first steps in using microbes in and as our built environment. Much testing and precaution must be taken as designers explore this new territory, but to not approach the opportunities would be the greater mistake.