Scitech | Grow your own building

Developing living architecture to connect and heal the environment

What does it mean, exactly, to be “alive?” This isn’t necessarily a biological or even philosophical question. Instead, it is central to a new, aptly-named technology: living architecture. Based on models of organismal metabolism and nature, living architecture is concerned with materials that could grow, self-organize, self-repair, and react to changes in the external environment, meaning a drastic shift in our conception of what a building really is.

Far from the static, meticulously-drafted structures humans have been constructing for millenia, living architecture is described by Rachel Armstrong, a prominent researcher in the field, as structural design possessing some of the properties of living systems – for example, the ability to grow. The idea is a bottom-up process, where the building growth is organic and self-propagating rather than confined by a strict blueprint.

Aaron Sprecher, a professor at the McGill School of Architecture, also works with the fundamental concepts of living architecture and describes it as a shift from buildings with set, preconceived forms to dynamic structures with multiple potential morphologies.

“[Such a] building would no longer be called an object, but an organism,” he said.

In order to develop the buildings that Armstrong and Sprecher describe, architects within the field of living architecture need to work closely with specialists from other fields: biologists, chemists, computer scientists – just to name a few.

“The development of living materials absolutely has to be collaborative and interdisciplinary,” said Armstrong. “This is an opportunity for architects to work with cutting edge technologies and make demands of these systems rather than waiting for them to emerge and finding their design lacking.”

Fascinated by the origin of life from inert matter, Armstrong works on something called “protocells.” These microscopic chemical machines use “olive oil, water, and a little soap to create a self-assembling crystal structure.” Lacking genetic information, protocells can’t technically be considered “alive,” but they react to their environment and catalyze certain chemical reactions, some of which are architecturally relevant.

One particular “species” of protocell captures atmospheric carbon dioxide and converts it to limestone. Armstrong suggests that this metabolic ability lends itself well to solving a real architectural problem: saving the city of Venice from its slow collapse into the sea. She proposes that the protocells could be placed around the wooden foundations of Venice, where they would secrete limestone, forming a reef-like support structure around the wooden struts of buildings in the city and effectively petrifying them.

Additionally, the protocells’ use of atmospheric carbon dioxide could potentially aid not only Venice, but the entire planet by reducing greenhouse gases through metabolic reaction.

Avi Friedman, a McGill architecture professor and expert in the design of sustainable communities and dwellings, does not work with living architecture specifically, but is similarly concerned with the future of structural design.

“My definition of sustainability is places that relate to the environment in which they are constructed, to social issues, to economic aspects, and they also consider cultural issues,” he explained.

Armstrong hopes her technology can be used to address community-based concerns like Friedman’s. She conceives of living materials that will use local, readily-available building resources, employ a bottom-up approach for assembly, and even recycle energy back into the environment, in the form of biological materials like starch or oil.

This is a far cry from the conception of sustainable architecture prevalent today, which, despite using zero-carbon and green roof technology, is still constructed on old, industrial building paradigms.

The innate connection of living structures to their environment and the relatively basic components needed to produce them also mean that with some training and resources, living architecture could be relevant for developing nations.

“[These] countries would definitely benefit from these new materials,” said Armstrong. “Most communities have local oils and could use these to make their own living technology if we are able to provide them with the recipe. It would be as simple as cooking.”

As for when structures built on the new paradigm of living architecture will be realized, Armstrong hopes that her new protocell design will be commercially available within five years.

Sprecher, however, points out that the science is already here. “As soon as a product is being developed in a laboratory context, it is already part of reality,” he said. “It exists.”