A natural world

Nano, bio and info technologies can change everything

Imagine a future where your building is making and storing valuable energy from the waste around it, a building that can heal itself. This is a future where the building blocks of matter are harnessed to create living structures that use our waste and natural processes to make our world a better place. 

US and EU governments already fund ­research into how nano, biological and information technologies and cognitive science (NBIC) can work together. My work as part of the AVATAR group at the University of Greenwich embodies principles of convergence to produce ‘living technologies’ in the built environment. These experiments have produced drawings, models and prototypes to provoke new forms of ecological design through collaborative partnerships with cutting edge scientists. 

For example, I have been developing programmable droplets whose metabolisms can transform one substance into another. This set was programmed to respond to carbon ­dioxide by changing colour and acting as artificial ‘smell and taste’ organs in the Hylozoic Ground installation, designed by Philip Beesley for the Venice 2010 Architecture Biennale. 

I am also working with Sustainable Now Technologies on an algaeponics unit, which will be installed as a permanent research platform next year, on the green roof at the University of Greenwich’s new School of Arch­itecture, Design and Construction. 

Non-digestible fibre in human faeces can be transformed into a material that resembles an adobe brick wall

Data on the performance of the local London algae species that inhabit its liquid infrastructure will give us information about how much biomass a unit can produce and help us to design, say, a biofuel station on the Thames estuary for local river traffic.

NBIC technologies may enable buildings to have organs, made from bioprocesses that can transform say, waste products into compost as suggested in Philips Microbial Home project. The outcomes of these systems may provide biofuels from algae, biogas from bacteria, recycle water, provide food, adsorb toxins, grow building materials or even provide entertainment if their lively bodies are synchronised say, by speakers transmitting music from an i-Pod through the water system nurturing an algae colony.

NBIC technologies enable harvesting and reuse to take place at the molecular level and in much more distributed contexts (rather than requiring centralised processing) to ­established recycling systems. 

Before we became so reliant on industrial machines, livestock shared our spaces to provide heating, food, compost and companionship. NBIC technologies may be thought of as tiny synthetic ecologies whose chemical threads are optimised for the megacity. These miniature forms of nature may offer a whole palette of physiologies by coupling metabolic species housed in synthetic ‘organs’ or living spaces. These may be situated in under-­designed areas in our homes and workspaces – such as cavity walls, ceilings and under floors.

In extra-terrestrial environments, like the International Space Station, more than 90 percent of wastewater can be recovered using membrane-filtering, and non-digestible fibre in human faeces can be transformed into a material that resembles an adobe brick wall. Greenhouse gases can also be harv­ested. In long-term missions, where systems are effect­ively closed, these increasingly valuable approaches ultimately speak to our current conditions of resource constraints in mega­cities. Perhaps, to achieve genuinely ecological design, we must think of our megacities as starship prototypes. 

For architecture, this requires us to consider the built environment differently as an engagement with the technology of nature, which is robust, unpredictable and resilient. Indeed, our homes could become our life support systems when central power systems are hit by floods, winds or even terrorist attacks. The very fabric of our homes may then supply us with a limited amount of food, water and heat, and process our waste, to buy us time before traditional infrastructures are repaired and rebooted. 


Rachel Armstrong is co-director of AVATAR (Advanced Virtual and Technological Architectural Research) in architecture and synthetic biology at The School of Architecture & Construction, University of Greenwich.


 

Designing and building
Designing and building