“Creativity is the unique and defining trait of our species,” writes biologist E.O. Wilson in The Origins of Creativity (Liveright, 2017). It is also, he argues, fundamentally biological. While architecture inspired by naturally occurring phenomena is nothing new, biomimetic materials and production methods are still making substantial inroads in the architecture and engineering industries. The following biobased products and technologies inspired by living organisms paint a compelling and creative future for the built environment in 2018.
No list of current material trends should be devoid of wood. As examples of tall timber construction make frequent news headlines, architects and designers are looking to other wood-based products for environmental and aesthetic reasons. Repurposed wood fulfills both objectives, providing the visual and tactile warmth of wood with a lower ecological footprint than other materials—including virgin wood. Netherlands-based Houtmerk makes Replex, solid wood panels made from pieces of recycled wood. The laminated boards provide visual evidence of their former lives as discarded furniture, including the profiles of decorative moldings.
British designer Tristan Titeux makes wood furniture in a similar way, by combining strips of waste materials. His Milo series consists not only of reclaimed solid wood, but also of reused particle board, plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and other forms of engineered lumber. Though not all repurposed wood products are visually pleasing or well-crafted, both Houtmerk and Titeux have devised successful means of aggregating similar cuts of old wood in aesthetically striking wholes.
Bioplastic from Algae
Interest in biomass continues to grow in the plastics arena. Biopolymers have long promised to improve upon the energy-intensive and wasteful qualities of petroleum-based plastic, up to 12.7 million metric tons of which finds its way into the ocean each year. Yet common forms of bioplastic, such as PLA derived from corn, are less than ideal in at least two ways: They utilize an edible feedstock that might otherwise serve as food, and they require large amounts of petroleum-based fuel and fertilizers for their cultivation.
Meridian, Miss.–based Algix manufactures bioplastics from algae as part of an operation that simultaneously produces fresh fish. Solaplast is a series of polymers comprising between 10 and 50 percent of algae and traditional polymer feedstocks. To make the material, algae harvesters skim floating algae biomass from freshwater bodies into an algae pump truck that delivers the slurry to an industrial drying facility. The desiccated product is then combined with polymers, such as polyethylene and polypropylene ,to create a pelletized feedstock ready for injection-molding, extrusion, or other typical plastic fabrication processes. Algix claims that every pound of algae it harvests consumes two pounds of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the company is developing a faux lumber technology for building construction made from a combination of its existing resin series.
Spain- and U.S.-based Onyx Solar manufactures glazing for a variety of building and infrastructure applications, including curtain walls, skylights, spandrels, canopies, walkways, and street furniture, in two primary types of photovoltaic (PV) glass: amorphous and crystalline silicon. Amorphous silicon glass appears to have a homogeneous tint or film applied with intermittent integral wiring. This glass exhibits similar mechanical performance to typical architectural glass and is offered in a variety of sizes, colors, and thicknesses. It offers visible light transmittance levels up to 30 percent and is superior to crystalline PV in diffuse light conditions. Conversely, crystalline silicon glass generates more power than amorphous PV in direct light (more than twice the energy); thus it is optimal for sun-facing facades. This glass exhibits the tell-tale grid of integral, dark-colored PV squares and is thus ideal for shade canopies, spandrels, or solid walls that do not require much visible light transmission. With solar power growing by 50 percent in 2016 alone, PV glass is likely to become a more common building material.
Many building insulation products suffer from one or more drawbacks related to high embodied energy and negative human health effects. Expanded polystyrene and extruded polystyrene are made from petroleum and contain toxic brominated flame retardants. Fiberglass insulation is energy intensive to manufacture and releases skin and eye irritants.
The search for a better insulation led Netherlands-based designer Lindey Cafsia to investigate polar bear skin as a natural model. The resulting Plyskin is a biomimetic, non-toxic insulation that resembles its inspiration in three distinct layers: the inner layer (skin) is a black PLA designed to absorb heat; the middle layer (underfur) is a dense honeycomb of white PET that traps the heat; and the outer layer (guard hair) is a synthetic fur made from translucent recyclable polyamide, which captures stationary air. Although Plyskin is not yet commercially available, Cafsia suggests that the material could serve as both building skin and insulation—resulting in furry buildings.
German company Sto is similarly developing an external wall insulation system inspired by polar bear fur. StoSolar is designed as an exterior surface treatment for new and existing buildings and operates best when exposed to the low-angle sunlight during winter months.
Zoological biomimicry has also inspired the rapid advancement of aerial drone technologies for construction. Like their landlocked counterparts, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can carry out automated, pre-scripted tasks. However, their capacity for flight enables them to complete additional tasks, such as traversing difficult terrain or connecting materials in mid-air.
Presently, drones at job sites are mostly or exclusively used for visual documentation. But ForConstructionPros.com predicts “the first fully automated job site as early as 2025,” based on the speed of current technological development—and UAVs will likely be part of such an endeavor. In a recent example, a drone played a pivotal role in building the 2016-17 ICD/ITKE Research Pavilion at the University of Stuttgart. Inspired by the way in which leaf miner moths spin silk hammocks between two points on a curved leaf, the ICD/ITKE researchers proposed a UAV-based weaving process. In this case, a drone flew back and forth between two stationary robotic arms, spooling glass and carbon fiber between them.
The result was a lightweight, fibrous structure composed of 114 miles of resin-impregnated fiber that achieves an impressive 39-foot cantilever. According to the researchers, “Combining the untethered freedom and adaptability of the UAV with the robots opened up the possibilities for laying fibers on, around or through a structure, creating the potential for material arrangements and structural performance not feasible with the robot or UAV alone.”