Materials of the future: the architecture of biocomposites
Architecture is born from materials. Between structure, light, movement and comfort, materials profoundly shape our experiences. But materials also change over time, new ones are created and a wide range of assemblies and construction techniques are introduced. Increasingly, architecture and design professionals are exploring the possibilities of composite materials made from natural elements.
While composite materials have been around for a long time, so have biocomposites. By definition, a biocomposite is a material composed of two or more different constituent materials (one of which is of natural origin) that are combined to make a new one. This new material can have improved performance compared to individual composite materials and is classified as structural and non-structural. Biocomposites can also be made into high performance engineered products made from natural resources. The following articles and projects explore the future of these materials both functionally and aesthetically.
Mushrooms are everywhere. In the air, in the water, in our bodies, in the trees, on our bathroom ceilings, underground. They can take the typical form of mushrooms (edible, medicinal, hallucinogenic, or highly poisonous) or take on simpler ones, such as molds. They can cause disease, but they can also produce antibiotic drugs or help ferment cheese and bread, but could they also be the future of building materials?
In architecture, we are so absorbed in creating something new that we often forget what happens at the end of a building’s life cycle: the unfortunate and inevitable demolition. With intelligent design and a better knowledge of the biodegradable materials available in construction, it is up to us as professionals to make the right decisions throughout the life of a building.
For industrial biotechnology, fungi such as yeast are commonly used as catalysts for bioprocesses such as cooking or baking. However, there is much more to what mushrooms are capable of. In nature, the kingdom of fungi represents the most widespread group of organisms that perform several important functions, such as the breakdown of dead organic matter, the supply of nutrients to plants, the detoxification of the soil and the purification of water from heavy metals.
Neri Oxman and MIT have developed programmable water-based biocomposites for digital design and fabrication. Called Aguahoja, the project displays both a pavilion and a series of artifacts constructed from molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons and our own bones. It uses natural ecosystems as inspiration for a material production process that generates no waste.
Arup and GXN Innovation received the JEC Innovation Award in the construction category for the development of the world’s first self-supporting biocomposite facade panel. Developed as part of the EU-funded €7.7 million BioBuild programme, the design reduces the embodied energy of facade systems by 50% compared to traditional systems with no additional construction costs.
Hy-Fi offers a compelling physical environment and a new paradigm for sustainable architecture. In 2014, the design team tested and perfected a new low-energy biological building material, made 10,000 compostable bricks, built a 13-meter tower, held public cultural events for three months, dismantled the structure, transformed the bricks into compost, and returned the resulting soil to the gardens of the local community.
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