Did you know that buildings are responsible for 39 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions? Architect Chris Maurer of redhouse studio told Inhabitat he loves being an architect, but finds it difficult to reconcile that figure. To help lighten the construction industry’s footprint, Maurer is teaming up with NASA, MIT, and the University of Akron to create the Biocycler: a mobile machine that literally recycles old buildings. The machine will use living organisms, not glue, to bind construction waste into durable bricks that can be used to build brand new structures. Read on for a closer look at this groundbreaking project.
Maurer was inspired to create the Biocycler in part through his experience at demolition sites throughout Cleveland. “We do many projects that are adaptive reuse to preserve old buildings, but even then the demolition waste can be quite extensive,” he said. During a design/re-build project at Kent State University, the team was dismayed at how much waste their preservation project produced. “We dropped the material ourselves at the landfill,” Maurer said. “It was hard to do (it was hard to see it all go to waste) but there was no economically feasible way to use the materials.”
The Biocycler could change all that. redhouse plans to experiment with fungal mycelium and calcite-producing microbes as building and binding materials in the Biocycler. Maurer explains that “A symbiosis of the microbes and fungi can be made to feed each other and [they] are working towards using the microbes as bio-signals to tell us things about the structure and air-quality within it.” The incorporation of fruiting fungus (i.e. mushrooms) could serve the additional purpose of food production. “Where food security is an issue, we are looking to make mushroom production the main activity and the bio-materials the secondary output,” he said.
redhouse studio is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the construction of a proof of concept. “Truth be told, we’re already recycling buildings, or at least materials,” said Maurer. “The kickstarter will lead to a mobile unit to put these processes on display and get closer to building entire structures out of the waste.” redhouse has already constructed and tested bricks and panels from recycled materials, as well as some model prototypes, and hopes to complete a full-size structure in 2018.
Prior to starting the Cleveland-based studio in 2014, Maurer served as director for studioMDA in Malawi and MASS Design Group in Rwanda, where he came to more fully understand the value and potential of sustainable design. “[In Africa], we needed to innovate with limited resources,” said Maurer.
redhouse has worked for commercial clients, such as the Hulett Hotel in Cleveland, while also developing humanitarian design projects, such as the Bioshelter, a prefabricated home that mitigates waste while providing food security and economic opportunity through crops grown on-site. As with much of the studio’s work, the Bioshelter was conceived to be as self-sustaining as possible. “We are constantly looking for new resource loops, finding benefits to waste streams,” he said.
Change can sometimes be uncomfortable for the mainstream consumer, particularly if it includes the words “fungus” and “microbe.” Nonetheless, Maurer believes the time has come for fresh, green solutions to global problems. “Think about the pro-biotic craze right now,” he said. “People are waking up to the fact that antibiotic medicines and sanitizers can be dangerous, and that you want the right kinds of microbes around.” Similarly, biological building materials can also be pro-biotic. “There are many organisms that can be used in bio-materials that naturally battle pathogens,” he said. “We want them on our team.”
To complete a project as ambitious as the Biocycler, collaboration is key. “Architecture is by nature collaborative,” said Maurer. “Through our network in biomimicry, we’ve learned the advantages of working with biologists in addition to engineers.” redhouse is collaborating with scientists at NASA and MIT to create the Biocycler, which may only be the beginning of a revolution in smart, living building materials. “When you consider all the possibilities of the materials – bio-luminescence, radiation protection, self cleaning, pathogen protection, etc, it sounds sci-fi, but we’re not that far out from some of these features,” he said. With a Biocycler proof of concept in action, redhouse will have taken us another step further into this sustainable, bio-future.
Images via Keith Hayes/redhouse studio