We've been hearing more and more about the need to look to nature - to biology - in our search for a path to a more sustainable future, both in the natural environment and in the buildings and infrastructure we construct.
Using material science as a starting point, then applying lessons learned from natural science, we’ve seen the rise of biomaterials for use in construction.
Some of them are turning out to be a boon to those who choose to work with them.
In the last year or two I’ve written about several start-ups that are finding niches in the biomaterials market.
One, BioMason, grows bricks from sand bathed in a wash of liquid cement that includes bacteria to provide an environment for crystals to form, plus a nitrogen source, food for the bacteria, a calcium source, and water.
Put the sand in a mould, then spray the solution over it daily for five days until a solid material has formed.
When the food and water source run out, the bacteria die and you have a brick without emitting any carbon dioxide. The idea came from studying how corals form along ocean reefs.
A group of recent college graduates in upstate New York has formed a company called Ecovative Design.
They have found uses for mycelium, the wispy thread-like roots of mushrooms.
The mycelium is grown in moulds in a dark place for three to five days.
Then it is heated to stop the growth.
The result is a structural board called Myco Boards, which can replace engineered wood products like chip board, which use petroleum-based binders.
Biomaterials, including those grown by Ecovative, are important, says company founder Eben Bayer, because people have for years been using petrochemicals to make plastics, which leads to toxic waste that is a problem in our oceans and landfills.
Biomaterials are sustainable and non-polluting, he notes, and often use little energy to make.
And when they reach the end of their useful life, they can simply be composted back into the earth.
Now, Ecovative is front and centre in an award-winning structure that will be grown in the courtyard of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)-PS1, in New York City.
PS1 is affiliated with the city’s MoMA, and is an exhibition space, which, this summer, will feature a structure called Hy-Fi in its courtyard.
Hy-Fi is winner of the museum’s Young Architects competition this year. It was submitted by New York architect David Benjamin, who will build it of mycelium-based bricks designed and grown by Ecovative.
It will have a roughly circular footprint. As it rises, its upper parts separate into three tubular towers, or chimneys, about four storeys tall.
With open portals at street level, Hy-Fi will draw in cool air at the base, and push hot air out the top, in a cycle that has been compared with the way a heart muscle pumps blood. The result is a cooler micro-climate where pedestrians will be able to sit and cool off in the city’s muggy August heat.
Most of the structure will be of Ecovative’s bricks, biologically engineered to grow themselves from plant waste such as ground corn stalks and plant fungal cells.
The upper courses of brick, provided by 3M, will be custom-formed of a new daylighting mirror film the company has invented. They will, at first, be used as growing trays for the organic bricks, and then incorporated into the final construction.
When the exhibit closes and the structure is taken down in the fall, the reflective bricks will go back to 3M, which wants them for further research. The organic bricks will simply be composted.
Besides being an example of architecture as art, the project will also be a signpost leading to something of profound importance that’s happening in our society.
Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.