Our roads, skies and seas can all benefit from clean, renewable technology, but the buildings we erect and inhabit are also ripe for radical makeovers. Rachel Armstrong, professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, is interested in ‘living’ architecture: that is, biologically powered, eco-responsible solutions to powering and regulating our homes and cities.
Rachel cites innovations such as bio-concretes – traditional concrete mixes that are modified and impregnated with infrastructure-prolonging microbial spores – and clever building cladding materials such as ecoLogic Studio’s ’little green cows’: units of algae that, with the right application, can produce fuel, provide shading and sink carbon. Then there are cutting edge building blocks such as Suzanne Lambert’s bio-bricks; while traditional brick production causes huge CO2 emissions, bio-bricks are made from human urine, loose sand and living bacteria – a low-cost, low-emissions alternative.
“Speaking of effective use of waste, perhaps my favourite is the University of the West of England’s ‘Pee Power’ project,” says Rachel, “which uses an ’organic’ battery system that turns urine into electricity, as well as cleaning water in the process. It has been powering urinals at Glastonbury for the last three years. It’s supported by Oxfam and Dunster House through a collective effort to improve lives in refugee camps and areas of the world with no sanitation or electricity.”
“No one renewable technology genre, even solar, can meet humanity’s combined energy footprint” – Melissa Sterry
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
Rachel’s Living Architecture project*, which began in 2016, draws inspiration from Philips’s “Microbial Home” (2011), which imagined a kitchen powered by its own waste. Living Architecture’s version of this vision is centered on an organic processor: a kind of next-level super combi boiler.
In place of the usual fossil fuels, the organic processor runs on household waste, recycling and converting our bathroom waste (urine, faeces) and grey water (run-off from washing machines, baths and sinks etc) to produce clean water, electricity and oxygen and even soap.
The processor does this using a microbial fuel cell (an organic battery like the one mentioned above, in the Pee Power project), an algae bioreactor (an algae powered carbon farm) and a genetically modified processor. “This is the ‘metabolic app’,” explains Rachel. “In other words, this is programmable biology that will allow you to specify what your home organic processor will make. Want biodegradable soap? Want to remove oestrogen from the waste water so it doesn’t go into our rivers? This unit of programmable microbes will do that for you.”
SOLAR, SO GOOD
The Living Architecture processor relies on a number of processes, including solar – a renewables field with plenty of promise. Until recently, solar panels were dark, cumbersome and often expensive things, relegated to out-of-sight places such as rooftops. But recent breakthroughs have given rise to clear, white and even coloured panes that fit on both flat and curved surfaces, meaning these photosynthesis-mimicking panels can now be used almost anywhere – customised, integrated and hidden in plain sight while powering everything from laptops and buses to homes and businesses.
Melissa Sterry, a design scientist and systems theorist, is a staunch advocate of solar power. “For me, it’s the most exciting, because it has the widest possible reach. In terms of potential, the major players in the energy sector all recognise that solar is the most scalable option. Hence, hefty research and development investment, which is enabling leaps in productivity of solar technologies, together with the distribution and storage networks that bring energy to our homes and businesses.”
“When helped rather than hindered, nature is its own self-regulating renewable tech, with built-in protections and sustainable solutions that benefit all living things”
AN INTEGRATED SYSTEM
Solar alone isn’t the answer, says Sterry. “No one renewable technology genre, even solar, can meet humanity’s combined energy footprint. To simultaneously migrate away from fossil fuels while maintaining the living standards many are accustomed to and others aspire to, we have to create a highly complex energy production and distribution infrastructure that integrates not one, but many types of renewables, ranging from the micro to industrial in scale.”
With dire warnings about the countdown to irreversible climate destruction now ringing loud, it’s clear that switching from dirty fossil fuels to clean, green renewables is our best hope of survival. But investment into this historically stymied field must pick up speed. Experts on the front line all agree that while the renewable rollout is accelerating, it’s not happening fast enough to avert the disaster we’re on course for.
NATURE: THE ORIGINAL RENEWABLE TECHNOLOGY
While technological interventions are clearly essential, nature itself also holds the key to our survival. When helped rather than hindered, nature is its own self-regulating renewable tech, with built-in protections and sustainable solutions that benefit all living things. Trees, for example, not only produce life-giving oxygen and provide food and habitat for the pollinators and biodiversity our food chain relies on, but also soak up deadly CO2 emissions, provide shade for an increasingly overheating world and act as natural flood defences, storing masses of water in their root systems. Trees are essential to our survival, and yet we continue to self-sabotage via acts of mass deforestation around the globe.
As a group of scientists and activists have recently pointed out in an open letter to The Guardian, the climate and ecological crises facing us now can be tackled by restoring the forests, oceans and other valuable ecosystems we’ve spent decades polluting and neglecting: “We are writing to champion a thrilling but neglected approach to averting climate chaos while defending the living world: natural climate solutions. By defending, restoring and re-establishing (crucial ecosystems), large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. At the same time, the protection and restoration of these ecosystems can help minimise a sixth great extinction, while enhancing local people’s resilience against climate disaster. This potential has so far been largely overlooked.”
It’s in our interest to work with nature rather than against it. Renewables, which harness our natural resources instead of depleting them, are proof that this is possible. A sustainable, eco-responsible future is ours for the taking – but only if we act now.
Funded by the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under EU Grant Agreement no. 686585, the Living Architecture project brings together experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK; the West of England (UWE Bristol); Trento, Italy; the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid; LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria; and Explora, Venice, Italy.