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Are Living Building Materials The Next Big Thing In Renovations?

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Sure, you may have a smart home, but is your home smart enough to build itself? What about repair itself? Thanks to new living building materials, the home of the future may just be way  more intelligent than you think.

What Are Living Building Materials?

Living building materials are any sort of materials used in construction that replicate the function and capabilities of a living organism.

These living building materials may have the ability to self-replicate or reproduce, the same way a bacteria might, or they may be able to self-heal, similar to how your body’s cells heal after minor damage, like a cut or a bruise. In some instances, living building materials actually include living matter, such as bacteria, but that’s not always the case.

Often, the living matter included in a living building material is relatively common. Some researchers in materials science have used cyanobacteria, or photosynthetic cyanobacteria to create bricks, and cyanobacteria could be growing on your fish tank right now. Sometimes, E coli is used (which you likely know more for its food poisoning risks than any useful function) or synechococcus, a widespread marine bacteria.

What’s the Goal of Living Building Materials?

But why do we need these new construction materials? What’s the point?

Current building materials and processes are quite destructive to the environment (as you’ll see below). Those developing living building materials aim to cut down on carbon emissions and possibly even remove existing carbon and pollution from the environment, while providing building materials of the same or greater quality to those in the industry.

Related: Installing Solar Panels On Your House [The Ultimate Guide] 

Types of Living Building Materials

Red Step ladder in a an empty room next to some cardboard boxes

There are a lot of different living building materials out there. Here are just a few.

1. Bacteria Bricks

One of the most recent and most publicized examples of living building materials comes from research provided by the University of Colorado Boulder. A research team led by Wil V. Srubar at the university has been experimenting with a way to develop building materials that include bacteria, for materials that not only multiply on their own, but that also are more environmentally-friendly than other available materials out there.

While the materials are still being examined, the hope is that, one day, they could lead to structures that absorb air pollution, heal minor damages and even produce light. As a comparison, the researchers noted that the cement and concrete alone needed for today’s construction produce about 6% of the world’s annual total carbon dioxide emissions.

As such, the researchers chose bacteria for their project that could absorb carbon dioxide while also producing calcium carbonate, which in turn can be used to produce limestone or cement. The produced building materials — which were essentially bricks — were shown to be just as durable as today’s conventional mortar materials.

But this isn’t the only living materials project that the CU Boulder College of Engineering is working on. The university and Wil Srubar boast an entire living materials laboratory, where teams work on materials that can help to relieve environmental issues related to both water and carbon.

2. Bio Cement

Biomason isn’t a research lab at a university, but it is revolutionizing the construction industry with biotechnology. The company is the only one in the world to be producing cement commercially, using natural microorganisms to grow bio cement that’s both structurally sound and sustainable.

In fact, Biomason hopes to remove 25% of carbon emissions from the global concrete industry by 2030). As such, Biomason has worked with a range of organizations on building projects, from the U.S. Navy to H&M.

The actual product that Biomason produces is called Biolith, a type of tile or brick that’s commercially available and that boasts the lowest carbon footprint on the market. The tile can be used inside or outside as well as vertically or horizontally.

It can also be used in a range of construction projects, from commercial to residential to institutional. In addition to being vastly more sustainable and eco-friendly than traditional building materials, Biolith is easy to use and even lighter than traditional stone.

3. Self-Healing Concrete

While not a direct replacement for traditional building materials, some living building materials are designed to enhance existing materials. Such is the case with a new type of self-healing concrete developed at New York’s Binghamton University and Rutgers University. 

The concrete is mixed with fungus spores and, once the concrete hardens, the spores remain dormant until cracks appear. As the concrete cracks, water and oxygen make their way inside, prompting the fungus spores to grow. 

As the spores grow, they seal the cracks and go dormant again, until more water and/or oxygen seep inside, prompting a new growth cycle, for an endless cycle of self-repair.

4. Self-Healing Silica

A similar project is underway at the University of Minnesota. There, researchers have combined bacteria with silica, a common building material used in plaster, as well as other places, to allow the silica to self-heal as needed. 

The type of bacteria used remains dormant unless it’s exposed to just the perfect growing conditions. If the silica were to be damaged, the bacteria could be easily activated, to “heal” and regrow the gelatin-like material as needed.

5. Green Roofs

While green roofs (or sometimes called living roofs) aren’t necessarily a building material, in the same way that a bacteria brick or bio-engineered cement might be, green roofs are still in the same category. They’re an element of construction design that’s growing in popularity and that features a living component that’s vastly more eco-friendly than traditional alternatives. 

But green roofs aren’t just your average rooftops outfitted with a garden that residents or workers can enjoy in their downtime. Instead, green roofs are often designed with eco-friendliness alone in mind, not necessarily aesthetic. 

For example, San Francisco, in 2017, became the first U.S. city to mandate that new-build construction be outfitted with solar and living roofs. The Better Roof Ordinance requires new buildings to feature solar paneling on at least 15% of the roof and living roofing on at least 30% of the roof space. The living roofing must feature a growing medium at least four inches deep and vegetation that’s low-water, low-maintenance and high-diversity, including native species.

Related: Should You Rent Or Buy Your Next Place? [Full Housing Guide]  

Where Else Can We Use Living Materials?

But living materials, microbial or not, have a lot of potential beyond the construction industry. For example, Ecovative is using mycelium (aka fungus) to grow into fully-formed structures that can be used to replace everyday materials such as styrofoam, plastic and leather. 

While the company has yet to branch out into anything construction-related, it has been serving industries with new solutions for both packaging and fashion, among others. Living materials can also be used in regenerative medicine, combining synthetic and living materials to assist patients with tissue repair and cell therapy, among other uses.

Could Living Building Materials Help Solve Sick Building Syndrome?

Some purport that using living building materials to create a more environmentally-friendly living or work space could help to relieve illnesses like sick building syndrome, which stem from our built environment.

Sick building syndrome is a condition that’s a little fuzzy and difficult to define, but typically refers to a condition in which symptoms are directly tied to being in a building. If someone suffers from sick building syndrome, they generally only experience symptoms when in the building and shortly after. 

The symptoms go away once the individual has been separated from the building for a short amount of time. Symptoms are typically cold or flu-like and can include throat irritation, runny nose, skin rash, nausea, body aches and even cognitive symptoms, like forgetfulness or difficulty concentrating.

Sick building syndrome can be linked to a variety of building and construction issues, such as poor ventilation and formaldehyde used in building materials.

Typically, sick building syndrome is treated through environmental changes, such as changing out air filters or increasing or decreasing the humidity. Medications to treat allergies or asthma symptoms are other options. 

Related: 5 Simple Ways To Reduce Your Monthly Housing Costs  

The Living Building Challenge

Living room that is partially remodeled. Half of the room has wood floors and is decorated. The other half showcases a brick wall with some black mold?

To prompt architects and designers to also think about living building materials and how to incorporate them into their architectural engineering designs, the International Living Future Institute now offers a Living Building Challenge certification that’s based on seven key facets of design, also known as petals.

The seven petals represent the petals of a flower, as the challenge aims to encourage designers to think of each project as more of a living plant than a dead space. The challenge requires buildings to meet standards related to place, water, energy, equity, materials, beauty and health, as well as meet the requirements to obtain a core green building certification, zero energy certification and zero carbon certification.

In terms of materials, the living building challenge requires designers to use building materials that are non-toxic, ecologically restorative, transparent and equitable in all ways, biomaterial or traditional. The building must not use any Red List materials, must offset its carbon footprint, must salvage all timber and source at least 30% of materials locally, among other requirements.

Red List Materials

What are Red List materials? Red List building materials contain harmful chemicals as established by the International Future Living Institute, based on chemical hazard lists that are in wide use, such as those produced by the European Commissioner for the Environment and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Red listed materials include things like asbestos and lead, formaldehyde and arsenic.

Living Building Challenge Projects

Given the very strict and lengthy requirements that a construction project must meet in order to gain Living Building Challenge certification, there aren’t that many certified projects around the world. According to Green America, there are 15 fully-certified living buildings in existence, with about 400 other buildings actively pursuing certification. One of those buildings is the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Environmental Center, which is located in Maryland.

What About Your Home?

But chances are likely that you don’t have the millions of dollars and years needed to build a Living Building Challenge certified home, and you likely don’t have access to a university lab that can hook you up with some cool bacteria-engineered bricks or other synthetic biology to use in your manufacturing process. So how can you choose more environmentally-friendly materials for your next renovation or building project?

Look into options that are more eco-friendly than the average materials:

  • Recycled steel
  • Reclaimed, recycled or sustainable wood
  • Cork
  • Bamboo
  • Recycled plastic
  • Recycled rubber
  • Clay

You’ll also have a range of traditional concrete alternatives to choose from. Timbercrete, for example, is a type of concrete that’s mixed with sawdust, with the sawdust replacing the most energy-intensive concrete ingredients. 

Hempcrete is similar to sand, hemp and lime, whereas Ashcrete is made from ash and borate. You can also choose to dedicate a portion of your roof space to a living green area, as well as to solar panels.

If sustainability matters to you when building your home, you can find ways to meet your goal. Plus, there are no microbes or biocement required! 

A Greener Future for the Construction Industry?

Living materials are relatively new and still establishing proof of viability, but they’re based in something very, very old: nature itself. Just like a coral reef builds and repairs itself over time, our future homes could do the same. This is definitely one design and building trend to keep your eye on.

You might also be interested in: The 20 Best Ceiling Fans For Your Bedroom [2022 Guide]  

5 Types of Living Building Materials:

  1. Bacteria Bricks 
  2. Bio Cement 
  3. Self-Healing Concrete 
  4. Self-Healing Silica 
  5. Green Roofs 

Holly Riddle

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