The Future is Bio: How to grow Buildings.
Buildings are responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, Over 500 million tons of construction and demolition waste enter landfills each year in this country, and our aging homes are poisoning our children with chemicals and heavy metals put there by the building industry.
Fortunately for us biological evolution may have solved many of these problems already, we just need where to look and how to harness nature’s potential. Biomimicry and bioutilization does just that, it asks how can we learn from nature and apply solutions that have been optimized over billions of years? AskNature.org is a useful tool to get answers and NASA’s Virtual Interchange for Nature-Inspired Exploration (VINE) is developing a PEriodic TAble of Life (PETAL) as a database for searching solutions.
Why do I suggest bioterials - or materials that use microorganisms growth in their manufacture - might hold some answers to the building industry’s problems? Bio is fast - think microorganisms exponential doubling times; bio consumes CO2 - algae is the main producer of oxygen on our planet; bio is small - think nanotechnology; bio can heal - you do it all the time; bio competes - think probiotics keeping you safe from bad microorganisms and viruses; and finally bio brings life from death. This last one refers mostly to kingdom Fungi.
My studio, redhouse, is engaged in several projects that use fungal mycelium - the vegetative form of fungus consisting of branching rootlike hyphae, to bind various substrates to make bioterials. From closest to farthest away they are our Biocycler here in Cleveland that recycles and remediates demolition waste to make new building materials, our BioFAB with MIT and Standard Bank in Windhoek Namibia that uses waste from mushroom farming to make materials for building, and our BioHAB with NASA that proposes buildings that can grow themselves off planet with the aid on rovers.
While shooting for the Moon is exciting, the Biocycler, here in Cleveland, is the one we believe may have the most important impact. This is due to the performative abilities of the bio-agents. The same microorganisms that are used to reconstitute the demolition materials can actually remediate as they metabolize. Fungi breakdown petrochemicals and other complex molecule chains found in building materials into safe smaller chains, and other bio agents can be used to do the opposite - turn dangerous elements into larger molecule chains such that they are not biologically dangerous. Preliminary tests with the University of Akron and Yale University show that Biocycling can significantly reduce the pollutants in demolition waste when they are landfilled. We believe with more time and research Biocycling can remove all of the lead from even the worst demolition sites.
Cleveland children have incidences of lead poisoning four times the national average, it’s even worse than Flint, Michigan that captured the national attention in 2016. It is in predominantly underserved redlined communities that suffer the most. Lead poisoning, usually from hand to mouth contact of paint dust within very young children, leads to developmental problems, lowered IQs, and increased aggression that can have compounding effects like major health issues or violence and other crimes. It's an environmental justice issue for us. Just as it was the genesis for the Clean Air and Water Act, we believe Cleveland can once again serve as ground zero for a hard look where we are, and for hard work towards the type of remediation we’ve seen in the Cuyahoga in the past 50 years.
It may seem like SciFi, but researchers all over the planet are looking at microorganisms to do things like replace leather like Mycoworks ® , or replace Styrofoam ® packaging like Ecovative Design ® , or make bricks with bacteria like BioMason ®. We believe this decade will see the first fully recycled house, refugee camps that are provided food, jobs, and shelter from the same process, and shelters on the Moon that have grown themselves.