How slime molds and mussels could be the future of architecture

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Architects have long drawn from the world of biology, but most of that inspiration has been metaphorical. David Benjamin’s architecture studio, The Living, uses actual living organisms as part of the design process.

Benjamin, a professor of architecture at Columbia University, is the author of Now We See Now (out now from Monacelli Press), a new book chronicling his work at the intersection of science and design. Integrating biology, he says, could lead to more sustainable buildings and a new way to think about the life cycle of the built environment.

The Verge spoke to Benjamin about why we should look to biology for architectural inspiration, how to use living organisms as sensors and materials, and designing to disappear.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Image: Monacelli Press

Before we get to biology, I wanted to talk a little bit about your interest in architecture and computation. What does “computation” mean in this context?

Like many fields, architecture has been affected by computation pretty dramatically in the past 20 years. The first wave involved automating some processes of, say, creating architecture drawings. There was a phase of being able to create things with a computer that would have been difficult to create otherwise in terms of complex geometries. One thing we’ve been focused on in my studio is using computation and creativity to generate possibilities that might not have occurred to a human alone.

One example is the project that we did, which was the design of a new office space for a tech company in Toronto for about 300 people, called the MaRS office space. We began experimenting with generative design. We started by collecting data from all the employees who would be working in that space. We asked questions like how close they wanted to be to other people, how teams worked, did they want an active and social workplace or a quiet and hands-down workplace. Then we created six different measurable goals for a good office space, which included information from this data we collected. It was things like measuring adjacency preference, interconnectivity, daylight, and views to the outside.

Then we set up a geometric algorithm, which subdivided the space and all the meeting rooms and desks and assigned each person to a specific location. We then generated and evaluated literally thousands of design options with a system that learned over time and got better at producing the higher-scoring designs. In the end, we produced a set of designs that represented some of the best trade-offs.

How new is this computational approach? What about this biological approach?

Computation is well-established in the field of architecture, but I think there are a lot of new chapters that are starting to emerge. Generative design is one of them, and a version of artificial intelligence called machine learning is another.

Biology and the use of biology for design is more new. Of course, architects and designers have been inspired by biology for hundreds of years. But there’s something new about what is possible today, and it has to do, in part, with new biotechnologies that are advancing at an incredible pace. And I think that kind of opportunity and that kind of thinking is starting to take hold in architecture as well. In a way, the biology part has more profound consequences for changing the way we think about cities.

What kind of consequences are these? What do we gain by thinking biologically?

There are a number of possible environmental benefits or sustainability benefits by working directly with biological organisms. This could be detecting environmental quality, but it could also be in terms of making the building blocks of our buildings and cities with less energy and with less carbon footprint and with less waste.

Working with these biological systems and thinking about biology as part of a design palette might allow us to think of building less as single, static, solitary objects and more as dynamic systems that connect different locations that have a lifespan that extends well before we normally think about a building starting and extends well after we think about them.

The three approaches you’ve helped develop are bio-computing, bio-sensing, and bio-fabrication. Let’s talk about the first one. What is bio-computing?

It’s using actual living organisms to process information and help some human design problem, such as reducing carbon emissions. One example of our use of biocomputing recently has been our work in the design of new airplane components for airplane manufacturer Aerobus. We’re designing components that are lighter weight and reduce the carbon footprint of flying, and we’re doing that by learning from slime mold.

Slime molds have a very interesting and complex way of growing that uses only a small amount of material. We used that as a design tool to create a new airplane. It’s not so much that we were “inspired” by the slime mold, as that our designs were mathematically defined by how it works.

What about bio-sensing?

That’s using living organisms to detect some condition of their environment and respond accordingly, like to make visible the invisible conditions of water quality or air quality.

We did this for the Pier 35 Eco Park in New York City. Mussels open and close their shells a small amount as part of their normal metabolism. And the rate that they do this is an incredibly sensitive detector of the oxygen levels and water quality. So we’re taking mussels, putting an inexpensive magnet on one side of the mussel shell and a $2 sensor on the other and for just a few dollars, we can have a better water-quality detector than a $10,000 sensor. The architectural project is a floating network of lights that change color according to water quality, so it’s a public space project that gives citizens an indication of what’s happening underwater in this place.

Do the mussels need to be replaced?

It’s important for me to note that this does not harm or hurt the mussels. No mussels were damaged or hurt during the project. Mussels have about a two-year lifespan in the East River in NYC, so they will be eventually replaced.

On to bio-fabrication. Is that integrating organic materials into the design?

It’s using living organisms as tiny factories to produce building materials for architecture and cities. For instance, we did a Hy-Fi project at MoMA PS1, and we used mycelium, which is the rootlike structure of mushrooms, to grow a new type of architectural brick.

Mycelium has this amazing property to be able to bind together all kinds of organic material, including agricultural byproducts. So we took the waste product of architecture — in this case, chopped corn husks and stalks — and put some microscopic bits of mycelium, and in about five days, with no energy required, this will grow into a solid object.

We worked with a number of collaborators to create a new type of load-bearing structure, an architectural brick, out of this process, and then constructed a 40-foot tower out of 10,000 bricks in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 for the summer. It had basically no waste, no carbon emissions in contrast to most typical buildings. At the end of the summer, we disassembled the structure, crumbled the bricks into smaller pieces, combined them with bacteria and worms, and in about 60 days, the physical matter of the building was returned to the soil for composing. In fact, the soil was high enough quality that we could use it for local community gardens to, in turn, grow new food, proving that it’s very non-toxic material that is compostable, as opposed to a lot of our building material.

This act of destroying and composing the building reminds me of what you said earlier about how we need to think about the full lifespan of buildings and think of them as part of a system. What does that mean? What are some concepts that you keep in mind?

It means thinking about extending the lifespan of the building, not to just when it’s up, but to everything from the extraction of raw materials to make the building and what happens after a building is deconstructed and sitting in a landfill. It allows us to think about design with some amount of uncertainty and some aspects beyond our control.

One of the framing concepts for this is some recent thinking about the circular economy. It’s thinking that we might be able to create systems for economies and architecture without negative impacts on the environment, without requiring that extraction mentality. A related concept is called “embodied energy,” and that’s basically the calculation of all the energy that goes into extracting raw materials, converting those raw materials into building blocks in a factory, transporting those materials, and building that structure. The sum of all that energy is embodied energy, and it allows us to start thinking about design much earlier in the life cycle of a project.

Likewise, we’ve been thinking about designing to disappear. We think of design as designing to appear, but it’s also relevant to think about what’s going to happen to that object after the useful life. These are ways we think about our own projects, a kind of broader scope of what it means to make architecture and make buildings and arguing that all of this is relevant for much of our built environment.