Consider a typical New York City apartment building: Each unit’s walls squared off at awkward intervals in order to tessellate with its neighbors, dripping air conditioners perched precariously on every sill, and windows that let in plenty of sunshine and warmth – provided that it’s 7:42AM, in June, during a leap year. Or think of your workplace: functional enough, maybe, but a bit depressing with its blinking fluorescent bulbs and that faint moldy smell after it rains.
But we – students of science in particular – love us some man-made controlled environments. We spend virtually all of our time in the lab, at home, or on public transit between the two. And for the most part, this infrastructure serves us well.
Unless it’s a sticky summer afternoon, and the air conditioning on the subway fails. Or there’s a building renovation project going on at work, and you can hardly think at your desk for weeks, what with all the hammering. On the largest scale of infrastructure vulnerability, we encounter much more troubling problems in the face of global climate change: blackouts that blanket strained power grids in developing equatorial regions, and unprecedented structural damage in coastal American cities after recent hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
For centuries, in response to ordinary challenges to the resilience of buildings, roads, bridges, and so on, these structures’ imperfect designs have manifested largely as inconveniences. The trappings of ongoing and impending climate change, however – increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent extreme weather events – render our current infrastructure paradigm both structurally and energetically unsustainable.
Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s a fun one: to more smartly incorporate biology into architectural design. Humans have always drawn from nature to build civilizations, albeit as from a scrap yard, rarely as a muse. Going forward, humans must instead employ biology as the inspiration for architectural materials and principles. Historically, wood, stone, metal, and brick have kept us warm and dry, and natural gas and metal wiring have heated our homes and brightened our living spaces. Until fairly recently, given available scientific knowledge and technology, these were the best materials to use. But they’re also often non-renewable resources, lopped into blocks and sheets and imposed in static lines and right angles upon irregular, dynamic landscapes. Recent advances in synthetic biology and materials science, however, promise the ability to co-opt renewable, resilient building materials that may even adapt to their environments, like this footbridge made from living strangler fig trees in development at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.
To parameterize the concept before our imaginations run wild, this budding field consists of designing infrastructure with biological materials and biological principles. Materials include biomimetics, which are either biologically inspired – think a space-maximizing honeycomb structure – or biologically derived – mycelium or collagen, for instance – and entire organisms, like plants and bacteria. Principles exist on scales from the biochemical to those of emergent properties such as group behavior: self-assembly, self-regeneration, hierarchical organization, signal propagation, network formation, flocking behavior, and so on.
The possibilities rendered by these tools create an applied scientist’s sandbox : plumbing systems that function via root pressure and peristalsis. Wall-embedded bioluminescent lighting. Traffic signals inspired by jam-free ant colony transport. Dynamically porous walls that regulate temperature and humidity. Live, growing barricades that safeguard coastlines from hurricanes and tsunamis. The value of these applications ranges from convenient to desperately needed, in terms of sustainability and protection from climate change.
Some of the current efforts in this vein, like the above bridge project, are products of a German consortium called Baubotanik, whose focus is using plants – usually entire trees – to build functional spaces. Completed projects include a bridge supported almost entirely by willow trees and a small multi-level “tower” made only of intertwined plants and a temporary steel scaffold. In New York City, Terreform ONE is a non-profit group whose broad foci include constructing furniture from novel cellulose-chitin polymers and integrating small-scale agriculture into urban buildings.
Although increasing numbers of professionals have investigated such research, this as-yet-nameless field has not crystallized. There are few institutes dedicated to this study, and the relevant organizations and web sites available tend to lack clear mission statements and organization -- which means that now is an exciting time to contribute to a young, potentially transformative field! Marrying biology to architecture will require collaboration among biologists, engineers, materials scientists, and architects – a tall order – but the effort represents a direly needed advancement in infrastructure.