Biotechnology is the future for architecture, and it starts now, says Martyn Dade-Robertson
“Biotech is the new digital”, suggested the influential academic Nicholas Negroponte in his presentation at the 2017 Being Material conference. His words are especially pertinent because his group, ‘Architecture and Machines’ (founded in 1967, and later becoming MIT Media Lab) was pioneering in areas such as computer-aided design and ubiquitous computing. In part thanks to this work, digital architecture is now a feature of many architecture schools’ research work. In the near future, biotechnology will be taught and researched in much the same way.
Over the past decade we have pioneered some of this research at both Newcastle University and Northumbria University, but now we have an opportunity go much further. In August we launched a research centre called The Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE).
Our built environment, as it is currently conceived, is not compatible with sustainable life”
Buildings are damaging to the environment: almost half of carbon dioxide emissions come from the construction, operation and maintenance of the built environment. And with 66 per cent of the world’s population set to live in urban areas by 2050, according to the UN, rapidly expanding cities are having seriously detrimental effects on natural ecosystems. There is also growing evidence of the connection between the environmental microbiome (the invisible ecosystem of bacteria which surrounds us) of our built environment and human health with, for example, lack of exposure to certain microbes increasing the risks of childhood allergies, along with increases in antimicrobial resistance.
Put simply, our built environment, as it is currently conceived, is not compatible with sustainable life. We see huge untapped potential in biotechnology to help solve some of these problems and change the way we construct, operate and maintain the built environment. Biological systems are capable of highly efficient processes – making and transforming materials by digesting waste and interacting intelligently with their environment. The work of the HBBE will begin by investigating the use of microorganisms across three main areas. The first is ‘Building Metabolisms’ – developing new microbial technologies which will operate rather like the building’s stomach: processing the occupants’ waste, including plastics, and generating energy and other useful products.
In ‘Living Construction’ we will explore growing living materials, using microbes and even mushrooms to provide alternatives to plastics and cements. We also want to harness the capacity of living cells to create smart materials which change their shape or other properties to make environmentally responsive buildings.
And in ‘Microbial Environment’ we will investigate ways in which we might live in harmony with the microbes and viruses present in our environment and cultivate a healthy microbiome through the development of new types of biological sensing systems, probiotic materials and surfaces and ventilation systems which monitor for viruses and other bugs.
We are not just launching a new research centre, we are beginning to establish a new field of research”
The HBBE will also include ‘The OME’, an experimental ‘biological house’, which will be built on Newcastle University’s campus. As a living lab, the OME will be used as an experimental facility to test and showcase the hub’s research integrating the study of buildings at different scales, from the genome of cells to human interactions in the home.
In setting up the HBBE we are not just launching a new research centre, we are beginning to establish a new field of research. While some of our technologies are unashamedly blue sky, our aim is to have real and substantial impact over the next five to ten years. We will be working with a range of industrial and professional partners including the RIBA and architect Faulkner Browns to begin finding ways we can shape architectural practice. We are open to collaboration with anyone interested in this exciting future.
Visualisation of an interior at the OME, featuring bioluminescent lighting, walls and furniture grown from living cells, plumbing systems that use microbes to digest waste, and ventilation systems that sample, analyse and modify the building microbiome for human health. The newly launched HBBE is a joint £8m initiative between Northumbria University and Newcastle University. Further information is at bbe.ac.uk