Living architecture: altering the environmental impacts of human development 

| 5th April 2018
Architectural drawing of a living building

Living architecture may seem like the stuff of science fiction - but the prototypes are already our reality. 

The first Living Architecture prototype – the 'living brick' – was launched during the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016. Professor RACHEL ARMSTRONG argues that this technology could revolutionise our relationship with the built environment

The long-term vision is to provide a means of performing biological and mechanical work within buildings by replacing the ‘dead’ metabolisms of fossil fuels.

Le Corbusier - the Swiss-French architect, designer, painter and urban planner - imagined houses as ‘machines for living’ which provide support for the daily activities of modern lifestyles.

Yet today the negative legacy of industrialisation’s global-scale consumption of fossil fuels and natural resources requires alternative technologies incorporated into our living spaces that are capable of meeting our needs, but that also have qualitatively different environmental impacts.

The Living Architecture project is an example of a convergent technological platform that combines traditional building approaches, with ‘living’ systems and digital technology.

Organic catalysts

The first Living Architecture prototype – the 'living brick' – was launched during the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016.

For the first time, it brought together the structural integrity of a traditional building block and material and conferred it with the metabolic capacity of a microbial fuel cell, which can turn waste organic material into electricity, water and oxygen.

This prototype prompts the next steps for an integrated bioreactor design and raises broader questions about units of design for the 21st century that are capable of exceeding the impacts of traditional design and construction methods.

Subsequent iterations were presented at the Venice Art Biennale (2017), the Tallinn Architecture Biennale (2017) and as part of a “Living Brick” exhibition at the Great North Museum, Newcastle, March – June 2018.

The long-term vision is to provide a means of performing biological and mechanical work within buildings by replacing the ‘dead’ metabolisms of fossil fuels - which lack natural organic catalysts like enzymes and therefore have high activation thresholds to release energy.

Biological control

They will be replaced with the ‘living’ metabolisms of active microorganisms - which are rich in assistive biomolecules.

Currently, this takes the form of a freestanding, next-generation, selectively programmable series of bioreactors that are installed in an interior space of a building - such as an office - as a ‘living wall’.

This wall is composed of three different kinds of ‘living’ building blocks - microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor and genetically modified processors. These are separated by semi permeable membranes.

The whole structure is ‘fed’ with grey water which carries as a supply of nutrients, and also provides a growth medium for the respective microbial consortia that produce a range of substrates such as biomass.

The outputs of these consortia are orchestrated by digital and biological control systems.

Living spaces

The integrated metabolic components under development are ‘workhorse’ bacteria that are assembled in new-to-nature microbial communities and are genetically programmed for performing distributed and programmable biocatalytic processes.

The flexibility of the overall system is achieved by integrating customisable metabolic ‘labour’ modules into flexible, modular structures that can be differently combined to produce specific ranges of outputs - e.g. reclaiming inorganic phosphate.

The ‘programmable’ units of Living Architecture are ‘metabolic applications’, which can be altered using variables within the building infrastructure.

Through the integration of these feedback systems, the ‘living wall’ becomes a metabolic ‘programming’ interface that can sense changes within the system and external environment and respond through their respective material transformations.

This can be further modulated by digital and biological actuators that are able configure the outputs of living spaces according to the needs of users.

Microbial communities

The Living Architecture approach requires building infrastructures that are capable of supporting life – rather than machines.

For example, circulations rather than drains are needed within buildings where the presence of circulating water opens up new possibilities of designing and programming microbial biofilms within our homes and cities.

Working beyond the performance of a single microbe also helps address the challenges of scaling these platforms to architectural dimensions.

The Living Architecture project remains at prototype stage, and it may be decades before the technology is more widely available to architectural practices.

However, precedents of buildings with facades that harbour microbial communities already exist - like the BIQ House in Hamburg - which is a residential apartment block built by Arup that opened to the public in November 2014.

Incorporating active metabolic processes within the performance of buildings is a step change in the concept of sustainability where the inhabitation of our homes and cities does not just save energy and natural resources, but may recycle substrates and minimise pollution.

Ultimately, we may reach a point where the impacts of ‘living’ buildings actually remediate, or augment the environment as the main side effect of human development.

This Author

Rachel Armstrong is Professor of Experimental Architecture, Rising Waters II Fellow for the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (April-May 2016), TWOTY futurist 2015, Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society and a 2010 Senior TED Fellow. She is also the author of Vibrant Architecture, Star Ark, Origamy and the forthcoming titles Soft Living Architecture: An Alternative View of Bio-informed Design Practice and Liquid Life: On non-linear materiality.  

She will be speaking at this year’s Edinburgh International Science Festival as part of the show, Can Science Fiction Save Us? The show is on Thursday 12 April at the Summer Hall in Edinburgh. More information and tickets can be found online.