Living Building Materials

There’s been a huge push towards sustainable building materials in the last few years. And with the environmental issues that we're experiencing, there's lots of research going into the use of living building materials. But how exactly do you build a house or a high rise out of something that is living?

What are live building materials?

These materials are also known as biological building materials and essentially it is where microorganisms play a role in the manufacturing of the material. Bacteria or other microbes work to develop building materials that can live, multiply, heal cracks and absorb harmful toxins from the air.

It is important to note that while timber is a biological material, it isn’t alive, so this is more than just using traditional timber products.Let’s take a look at the three ways the construction industry may be able to use living bacteria and microbes in the future.

#1 Growing Buildings

It’s an interesting concept to think of our buildings growing around us, but that’s exactly what could be happening in the future. We already use natural materials in the form of timber from dead trees and crushed limestone in buildings, but we could soon be using mycelium, which is the root network of various fungus. Mycelium needs very little to grow – think wood chips and coffee grounds – and can create structural materials in a relatively short space of time.

The challenge is to be able to design a building or structure where the mycelium can be kept partly alive, allowing it to continue growing and adapting.

Mycelium bricks were used to construct the 13-metre tall Hy-Fi installation in New York back in 2014.

#2 Healing Buildings

Buildings with the ability to heal themselves will be a game changer. Cracks in concrete, particularly in high rises, often are the beginning of continuing issues with cracks allowing water to seep in, which in turn rusts metal reinforcements in the building.

A research team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is just one group exploring mixing in bacterial spores into the concrete mix. As the concrete cracks and water seeps in, the theory is that the bacteria will become reanimated, and it will set in motion a chemical process where calcite crystals will grow, and essential heal the concrete. This technology has the ability to add decades of life to a concrete building.

#3 Breathing Buildings

Circulation is so important to those working and living in a building and good natural ventilation is an important factor to consider when building a new home or commercial building. But what would happen if the walls of your building could breathe?

A group led by Hironshi Ishii at MIT have developed building materials that can essentially change shape in response to water and moisture. The materials are home to layers of bacteria spore and made with latex. When the material dries out, it contracts and changes shape. Similarly, to how clothing can respond to perspiration, this construction material will flex and open as it responds to moisture, allowing air to flow through the walls.​

Biotech is certainly the way of the future, and it will be interesting to watch how the use of living building materials is incorporated into the construction industry in the future.