Rachel Armstrong, Living Architecture, LIAR, Whitechapel,

Brave New Decade

This is our decade.

By “our”, I mean everyone: all consumers, all professions, all industries, all nations, all beliefs. As Roddy Clarke articulated so passionately in his recent Forbes article The Twenties – The Most Important Design Decade Yet, “We have one common denominator: the power to create change. And, through courage, collaboration and co-operation, we can achieve this.”

Clarke describes, among other things, the Duke of Cambridge’s recently announced The Earthshot Prize, the multi-million pound prize that will be awarded to five winners per year over the next ten years. By 2030, the Earthshot Prize intends to provide at least 50 solutions to the world’s greatest problems.

According to its website, the Earthshot Prize wants:

to motivate and inspire a new generation of thinkers, leaders and dreamers. Our prizes will reward progress across all sectors of industry and society, not just technology. The prizes could be awarded to a wide range of individuals, teams or collaborations – scientists, activists, economists, leaders, governments, banks, businesses, cities, and countries – anyone who is making a substantial development or outstanding contribution to solving our environmental challenges.

The Earthshot Prize is inspired by the concept of moonshots, in reference to U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 moonshot speech about “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” before the end of that anxious decade. This historic speech unleashed a decade of unprecedented innovation and collaboration that inspired a whole generation. Despite technological challenges, political obstacles and naysayers, Kennedy’s audacious dream was achieved within nine short years, even though he did not live to witness its moment of glory.

Kennedy’s generation achieved the impossible, in less than a decade. We can do the same. We must do the same. This is our decade.

Which is why, for my inaugural post of this brave new decade, I am inspired to write about a woman whose audacious vision has the potential to radically transform our lives and our homes before the end of this anxious decade.

Meet Dr. Rachel Armstrong, the pioneering architectural designer, synthetic biologist, and sustainability innovator who is blurring the lines between art, architecture and science in her quest for alternative technological platforms to solve third millennium challenges.

“The fundamental units of design must be reconsidered,” Armstrong argued during her 2019 talk at Design og arkitektur Norge in Oslo. “The fusion of biology, technology and art speaks of different kinds of beginnings, where we can imagine, build and explore futures that may one day entirely wean us off our umbilical attachment to fossil fuels while diversifying the metabolic richness and flourishing on earth.”

Originally trained as a medical doctor at Cambridge, Armstrong earned a PhD in Architecture at University College London. She is currently Professor of Experimental Architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, where she founded and directs the Experimental Architecture Group. She is also Coordinator of the multi-country Living Architecture Project, funded in part by the European Union. Her collaborative work has been exhibited widely, including major installations at the Venice Art and Architecture Biennales, the Tallinn Architecture Biennale, the Trondheim Art Biennale, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, among others.

Known by her popular Twitter handle @LivingArchitect, Armstrong believes that “we are in the midst of a transition from an industrial to an ecological paradigm of architectural practice.” This transition involves, among other things, embracing permeability to allow chemical exchanges between buildings and the natural world, as well as within our living spaces.

The concept of permeability is anathema to the dominant Victorian top-down architectural philosophy, which favors the use of “hard” inert construction materials – masonry, aluminum, glass – to hermetically seal our buildings. Architects choose these energy-intensive inert materials to prevent the outside environment (heat, cold, precipitation, dust, pollution, disease) from getting inside.

“Impermeability was, and is, the driving goal,” Armstrong wrote for FastCompany. But impermeable design has a major flaw: it requires a one-way transfer of energy from the outside environment into our homes and cities, followed by a one-way transfer of unprocessed waste products back out into the environment.

New research suggests, however, that these waste products can become a source of renewable energy for buildings. Armstrong and her Living Architecture colleagues propose an alternative technological platform that can holistically recycle, re-use and reintegrate household waste products in a variety of new contexts. This technology has been around for 3.6 billion years: life itself.

“We are blind to the incredible work that nature does!” Armstrong exclaimed during her Oslo talk. She is convinced that the only way “to construct genuinely sustainable homes and cities is by connecting them to nature, not insulating them from it.”

In its earliest stages of experimental evolution, the Living Architecture project successfully demonstrated the potential of using semi-permeable “living bricks” (see image below) to catalyze radically different approaches towards how we think about the nature of our homes, our relationship with microbes, sustainability and resource management.

In an email, Armstrong describes these living bricks as different “species” of bioreactors, e.g., microbial fuel cell, algae bioreactor, genetically modified bioprocessor. When “fed” by human liquid wastes (notably urine and grey water), the resident microbes living within the different bioreactors are programmed to perform different “household chores” such as removing organic matter from wastewater, generating oxygen, making usable biomass (fertilizer) and producing clean electricity.

Moreover, since each bioreactor performs a different task, their end products can feed each other. For example, the production of electricity within the microbial fuel cell can be boosted by oxygen from green algae in the photobioreactor system. These products can either be fed back into the household system, or released as nutrient-rich streams back into the natural environment to increase soil fertility in our cities.

Future iterations of “living brick” technologies could transform our homes and commercial spaces into environmentally sensitive, renewable production sites. For example, interior wall partitions in our bathrooms and kitchens could be replaced with bioreactor walls (see video below) that can “recycle detergents from domestic wastewater, produce fertilizers for the garden, and synthesize new, biodegradable detergents – just from grey water, carbon dioxide and sunlight,” Armstrong wrote. In these scenarios, cleaned water will be recycled back into our bathrooms and kitchens to reduce overall water consumption, while zero-carbon electricity will charge our portable devices.

According to Armstrong,

Future bioreactors could generate bioluminescent lighting, produce nutrient-rich food supplements, and remove problematic estrogen-mimic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from drinking water. In commercial spaces, these living walls could recycle water, fertilize green roofs, and purify air to make building interiors healthier and more like natural environments.

“The home of the future isn’t smart, it’s living and green,” claims the headline of a recent article in the SingularityHub. Another article describes five ways that buildings of the future will use biotech that may ultimately wean us off fossil fuels: 1) buildings that grow; 2) buildings that heal; 3) buildings that breathe; 4) buildings with immune systems; 5) buildings with stomachs.

For example, Living Architecture researchers intend to install integrated bioreactor walls – designed to function like a cow’s stomach – in real homes by 2030.

It may all sound like science fiction, but these are the kinds of bold, cross-disciplinary, solutions-oriented initiatives that will surely be recognized by the Earthshot Prize in the coming decade.

In my next post on this same subject, I will explore the role of artists collaborating with Living Architecture scientists to re-introduce microbes back into our homes, our buildings and our cities.

(Top image: Rachel Armstrong and Cécile B. Evan’s installation “999 years 13sqm (the future belongs to ghosts)” at Whitechapel Gallery’s Is This Tomorrow 2019 exhibit. All images from the Living Architecture project reprinted with permission by Rachel Armstrong.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.

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Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer focused on the energy transition. Her renewable energy photographs have been exhibited in group and solo shows in Canada, the UK and Italy. She is currently working on a documentary film and photo book about Canada’s energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan shines a light on global artists, designers and architects experimenting with renewable energy as an emerging art form. You can find Joan on TwitterVisura and Ello.

3 thoughts on “Brave New Decade

  1. Rachel Armstrong was one of the key inspirational scientists for my book The Burning Years on Climate Change. My spaceship Persephone was designed according to all of her principles. She is magnificent!

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