The Active Modular Phytoremediation System uses plants to remove toxins from mechanically supplied air.
Center for Architecture Science The Active Modular Phytoremediation System uses plants to remove toxins from mechanically supplied air.

ARCHITECT’s annual R+D Awards program celebrates innovation in architecture and design. The 2015 winners will be announced next week. This piece is part of a series of articles that examines the progress made by past award winners.

Since 2000, the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE)—a collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—has been trying to bring the fresh outdoor air inside. In 2009, CASE won an R+D Award from ARCHITECT for its Active Modular Phytoremediation System (AMPS), which uses plants to remove toxins—VOC, particulates, and pathogens—from mechanically supplied air before it is disseminated into occupied space.

Read more about the system.

Since the project’s win, the team has been evaluating different combinations of wall modules, plants, and growing media, as well as deepening its understanding of indoor air quality and the aerobiome—the ecosystem of airborne organisms—in preparation for AMPS’ debut installation this year at the Public Safety Answering Center II (PSAC II), a 200-foot concrete cube structure in the Bronx, N.Y., designed by SOM.

The first site installation of AMPS will be on the ground floor of the Public Safety Answering Center II in the  Bronx, N.Y.
dbox/Courtesy SOM The first site installation of AMPS will be on the ground floor of the Public Safety Answering Center II in the Bronx, N.Y.

Working with the team are more than 50 researchers, doctors, and immunologists from several organizations, including Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, N.Y., Entertaining Health, a research and consulting company in New York, and the Argonne National Laboratory, in Illinois. “We’re studying the relationship between pathogens in the indoor environment and biodiversity,” says Anna Dyson, CASE’s founding director and AMPS’ principal investigator.

Air in conventional building mechanical systems is low in biodiversity, containing primarily microbes that live inside and are associated with the human microbiome. As a result, pathogens can proliferate more easily in indoor conditions than in outdoor airstreams, Dyson says. AMPS aims to neutralize the pollutants and recreate the biodiverse airstream of a natural environment, such as a forest, in what she calls “a probiotic approach to cleaning the air.”

The key to AMPS is the microbes that live in the plant-root rhizospheres in the growing media and do the primary digestion of airborne toxins, Dyson says. “We’re working on controls within the microbial activity inside the root rhizosphere and inoculating it with probiotics—the idea being like yogurt for buildings.”

Mechanisms of phytoremediation
Center for Architecture Science Mechanisms of phytoremediation

The team’s biggest challenge has been bioengineering a probiotic growing environment for the aero-hydroponic plants—potential species arinclude English ivy, golden pothos, and Boston ferns—to reconstitute what is found in biodiverse environments. Furthermore, the team has to ensure that the growing environment does not introduce any problematic microbes, such as mold spores. This “decades-long process” will ultimately lead to more biocompatible built environments, Dyson says.

Because AMPS is a redundant HVAC system—conventional mechanical ventilation will also be installed in the building—it did not raise too many eyebrows when it came to meeting building code. However, as is common during the prototyping process, the task of turning an innovation into a commercial product has its challenges. PSAC II, a public project, had to follow the standard city-procurement process in which the lowest bidder among three equal options wins the job. Because intellectual property is a concern for the groundbreaking technology, PSAC II’s construction manager, Tishman Construction, an AECOM company, worked closely with New York’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) to find a specialty fabricator while meeting the rules of procurement. Nicholas Holt, AIA, the technical director for SOM’s New York office, credits David Resnick, DDC’s former deputy commissioner, and Dale Peterson, a project executive at DDC, for helping the team “navigate the rugged path toward innovation.”

As a result of the procurement process, CASE and SOM have turned over the specifications and shop drawings for AMPS to Fresh Air Building Systems (FABS), a consortium of fabricators based in New York for which CASE’s former associate director and AMPS principal investigator Jason Vollen, AIA, is the chief operating officer. With FABS on board as AMPS’ sole fabricator, Holt says that the team is ready for any organization interested in hosting another test bed installation. “It’s not something that you can pick up from Home Depot,” he says, “but you can call FABS.”

Exploded AMPS cassette system and assembly instructions
Center for Architecture Science Exploded AMPS cassette system and assembly instructions

PSAC II will receive its final certificate of occupancy by the end of 2015. AMPS will be installed on the ground floor as a both a building feature and in-situ experiment. FABS is contracted to maintain the system, while CASE will lead its technical testing. Part of the testing may include analyzing air streams to determine the degree to which AMPS can produce fresh air from within a building with the least amount of outdoor-air supply and therefore energy usage, Dyson says. With genome sequencing technology now readily available, CASE may also attempt to analyze the relationship between human health and microbes in the environment.