Rachel Armstrong imagines a house of the future made of inconspicuous clinker bricks that have a special quality – they are alive. “At least a little”, she says. The hollow spaces of the bricks are filled with microbes and algae that generate useful byproducts from sunlight, carbon dioxide and gray water – electricity, clean water, oxygen and even cleaning agents. “So far, our buildings have always been mostly passive”, says Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University. “But ‘living bricks’ can start to change this by actively recycling waste products.”
And she has already managed to get one small step closer to her goal. With funding of 3.2 million euros from the European Union, she has been working on developing the first prototypes of “living bricks” since April 2016, in collaboration with scientists from the University of the West of England, the Italian University of Trento, the State Agency for Scientific Research, Madrid and with the SMEs Explora Biotech in Venice, and Liquifer.com in Vienna. In the autumn of that same year, the team was able to present the first prototypes of this living building material during the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
This kind of futuristic project is Armstrong’s trademark. She has been working on a completely new approach to architecture for almost ten years. Initially qualifying as a medical doctor, this visionary has, among other things, plans to use “protocells” to save Venice from sinking. Whereas nature inspires other architects to design organic-looking buildings, Armstrong endeavors to build sustainable buildings that are in an organic exchange with their environment and thereby become independent players, embedded in natural processes. This was demonstrated by the “living” brick prototypes at the Venice Biennale. These were hand made by producing cavities within bricks typically used in the city of Venice, which were then filled with wastewater whose organic content was broken down by microbes. Through this process, negatively charged particles (electrons) were released and transmitted to a positively charged electrode – which resulted in an electric current. These biofuel cells were no power plant – they could no t light more than one LED bulb. But they proved that in principle, the idea is viable. And in addition, the test construction cleaned the wastewater. The working group is planning on installing a “bioreactor wall” in a school or hospital to complete the project in 2019.
The road leading up to this project has been long. More than anything, it was her time as a medical student in a leprosy hospital and rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Puna in East India in the early nineties that shaped Rachel Armstrong’s ideas about the intimate relationship between our bodies, technology and the spaces we inhabit. There she observed how patients adapted their environment, their tools and even their own bodies to their needs. There were prostheses made of wax that stabilized their noses, kitchen utensils with long handles that protected them from hot fat or boiling water, and simple houses in which everything necessary was at ground level. “Back then”, says Armstrong, “I learned that humans can recreate their world by integrating themselves, their tools and environments more closely.”
After practicing as a medical doctor for several years and also developing multimedia presentations for medical practitioners, she decided to dedicate herself entirely to architecture in 2007. The motivating factor for this was that she had found a way to entirely rethink buildings. “I met the Danish chemist Martin Hanczyc, an expert on so-called protocells”, says Armstrong. “This opened up radically new perspectives for me.” Built from fatty acids and without any genetic material, these droplets can react with their environment in varied ways – for example, by converting carbon dioxide dissolved in water into limestone.
This allowed Armstrong, Hanczyc and the London architect Neil Spiller to get the “Future Venice” project off the ground – the goal being to “save” the sinking city. The protocells are designed to move from light to dark regions in Venice’s lagoon and canals. There, on the wooden piles of the foundations of the city, the protocells can form a kind of reef with the aid of carbon dioxide and minerals. “This technology could help stabilize the city”, says Armstrong, while conceding that “In order to fully realize this project, more development is necessary – and money.” The plan was by no means pulled from thin air, however; other researchers are for instance also working on microbes that can patch cracks in concrete and rock.
“Living bricks” and protocells are still in their infancy – or, more precisely, in the laboratory. But Armstrong has long since thought beyond this. As part of the “Icarus Interstellar” portfolio of projects, an international group of aerospace experts, she is collaboratively developing the technical requirements for the interior of a spaceship that could be prototyped so that its inhabitants can reach a nearby star system in about one hundred years. Within this context, Armstrong is thinking about “intelligent” soils that would keep an ecosystem alive in the spaceship and can be used in both agriculture and construction. “This may sound like SciFi”, says Armstrong, “But these questions are relevant today, too. It’s about whether we can live in our environment in a sustainable way. ’Living bricks’ are one step in this direction.”
Text: Hubertus Breuer
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Photo: The Living Architecture "Living Brick" prototypes launched during the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. ©Brick prototype by University of West England as part of the Living Architecture consortium, The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no 686585.
Drawing: Strategically released protocells in the Venetian waterways produce a “living” bio-concrete around the city’s foundations – an organic form of kettle scale.©Christian Kerrigan
Movie still: “The Hanging Gardens of Medusa”, courtesy of Nebula Sciences