Tuesday, April 4, 2023
As is the case with many innovations in sustainability, when people talk about it, it sounds like the plot of a science fiction novel. Dream-like, even. In the future, houses could grow like plants themselves, adapting to the needs of their inhabitants and doing so organically, and ornamental shrubs could cause streetlights to disappear. They would provide enough light for us to walk safely through the streets at night. These are some of the potential things genetic architecture could achieve.
"Genetic architecture refers to building with living or minimally processed materials, so-called biomaterials," explained Jade Serra, partner at Slow Studio and expert in sustainable architecture. "It's not science fiction, it's empirical science. Plant elements are highly evolved living mechanisms that are capable of absorbing calories and energy from the environment to carry out photosynthesis," she assured.
Alberto T. Estévez, Professor of Architecture at the International University of Catalonia and Director of the Institute for BioDigital Architecture & Genetics at the university, has been interested in the crossover between architecture and DNA since 2000. This, he notes, was something that was already being done in other research fields, so "I thought why not start applying it to architecture and design."
He did so with a multidisciplinary team from the university, and with a clear reason in mind. "Things you make with living elements are more sustainable than things you make with concrete," he pointed out. "They're renewable, sustainable, and recyclable, and their development consumes minimal energy," he added.
For years, Estévez has been researching how genetics can be used to create materials and solutions to solve some of the building challenges of the 21st century, while reducing their environmental footprint. His team successfully used bacterial genes, for example, to make lemon trees luminescent: the trees glowed in the dark and managed to provide light without resorting to your typical light bulb. They didn't make it to the streets, but they were a success in their laboratory. "They lived for 13 years and maintained their luminescence," said the expert.
The limits of genetic manipulation
His research was put on hold due to a lack of funds after the economic crisis a few years ago, but Estévez is convinced of the enormous potential of genetic architecture for the future of construction and, above all, for making construction more respectful of nature.
Even so, one wonders whether altering nature itself to create new solutions might not open a new debate on the very future of these plants. The architect pointed out that in Europe there are very clear regulations on genetic manipulation. In any case, he added that "we must ensure that there is no cross-contamination.” This is a possibility, he pointed out, and he reminded us that a scientist must always "identify potential consequences and resolve them."
However, there's no question that one must look to nature itself when thinking about how to make architecture more sustainable. "Biomaterials are the future of construction if we want to have a long-term sustainable environment with options for survival on our planet," said Jade Serra from Slow Studio, recalling how work is already underway, for example, in "a multitude of universities and research centers" to create materials such as highly stable bricks out of fungi.
The future of biomaterials
Even so, the climate emergency adds a new perspective to how these developing projects are undertaken. "We can't wait for the materials of the future to build sustainably when we already have so many biomaterials ready to use," said Serra. In other words, there's no need to wait for groundbreaking innovations to be discovered when our great-grandparents, so to speak, were already using these materials without testing them in a laboratory.
Cork, wood, lime and vegetable fibers have a long history of use in construction. "Biomaterials were Humanity’s conventional materials, and there are examples of them still standing that are more than 500 to 1,000 years old," he stated. "The only obstacles to their mass use today are a lack of information and the loss of knowledge and experience in using them, as materials such as steel and concrete became the dominant choice," he lamented.
In short, if DNA architecture is still a field that needs to be put to the test, sustainable architecture generally is not.
"Eco-friendly buildings are so-called zero-impact buildings ," explained Serra, "that is, they’re constructions whose life cycle has minimal or no impact on the environment, people's health, and the responsible use of resources." To this end, this type of space is based on a "holistic vision," since it takes into account all the moments of use and all the phases of the building's construction.
Beyond materials themselves, it's also possible to work with nature to develop solutions that improve people's quality of life. "Bioclimatism involves designing spaces that respect the climate and the building tradition of the place they are constructed in," Sierra stated.
To do this, architectural projects take the surrounding conditions into account. "In winter, we capture sunlight through openings to the south, accumulating that heat in inertia walls without letting it escape, thanks to high insulation and tight seals," explained the expert, indicating that, on the contrary, in summer they seek to protect inhabitants from the sun and take advantage of lower temperatures at night.
Observing nature's own work helps to understand how things can be done better. "Nature has been developing architecture for millions of years," pointed out Alberto T. Estévez. He always reminds his students of this. And if Gaudí developed such new and striking forms, which solved construction challenges so well, he adds, it was because he stopped to look at how trees did it. "Gaudí discovered geometry in nature," he concluded.
No less interesting is the incorporation of elements such as gardens—as was recently done on the roof of the Lisbon Library—to create climate shelters or improve efficiency.
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