How Living Materials Could Shape the Future of Architecture

Yasemin Kologlu and her team at SOM’s New York office. © SOM
Wil Srubar with his students in the lab. Photo © University of Colorado Boulder, College of Engineering and Applied Science
SOM’s concept for Urban Sequoia envisions “forests” of carbon-absorbing buildings in cities around the world. © SOM
Biomaterials are a key component in SOM’s Urban Sequoia concept, together with a range of carbon-capture strategies that can transform the built environment. © SOM
Photo © University of Colorado Boulder, College of Engineering and Applied Science
© University of Colorado Boulder, College of Engineering and Applied Science

“We’re seeing such an interest in clean materials, and people are very eager to do good with that momentum.”

Yasemin: This is very exciting for us as designers. It pushes us to think differently. We know how to design with concrete. We know how to design with timber. But now we’re working with a type of new material which has its own strengths and unique qualities. For example, perhaps we can design a structure that has less volume and more surface, to enable it to breathe more. This could lead to a whole new generation of buildings that adopt entirely new design strategies.

© University of Colorado Boulder, College of Engineering and Applied Science

“This is a huge wave and we’re just at the beginning. We’re going to see so much more in terms of new materials, new technologies, new policies, new ways of designing, building, and thinking.”

Along with this come the challenges. Construction is definitely a commodity industry. Economics typically reign supreme. We always have to be cognizant of cost. We have to be aware of perception as well, so talking about living materials, a global pandemic was probably not the best time to launch a new biological material and suggest that we put it in our buildings, even though our algae-based concrete is completely non-toxic and harmless — it’s basically akin to having a plant inside of your building blocks. Despite minor perception challenges, we are seeing a lot of champions for clean material technologies — and for the solutions that we’ve been developing, we’re seeing much lower barriers in terms of perception because we’re demonstrating performance and economic viability. This isn’t just some ivory-tower idea. We are transitioning this into the commercial space, and we have incredible partners to help us do that.

By using mass timber instead of concrete and steel, SOM’s design for the Billie Jean King Main Library in Long Beach, California reduced embodied carbon by more than 60 percent. Photo © Benny Chan | Fotoworks

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