Biodesign is transforming our world to meet environmental challenges of the 21st century
December 02, 2020
December 02, 2020
A field at the forefront of science and design is emerging to play a key role in solving environmental degradation and the climate crisis
Biodesign is a hybrid field where designers and artists, scientists, and engineers seek solutions to problems using research into the natural world combined with design thinking. Though most people have never heard of it, biodesign will be one of the primary technologies that define the 21st century as we rise to meet environmental and climate challenges.
In recent years, biology and design have found some popularity in the architectural world through biophilia and biomimicry.
Biophilia—the theory that biological geometries and environmental conditions lead to increased health and well-being—has become a major trend in the interior design industry. Starting in the mid-2010s, following Terrapin Bright Green’s release of the 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, companies have designed products and materials to mimic our experience of the natural world and increase well-being and productivity.
Biomimetics is the application of biological technologies, forms, and systems to design problems. In architecture, an excellent example is the Japanese Metabolists of the 1990s. Inspired by algae swaying in an aquarium, Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque is designed to sway during an earthquake. It survived the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake in March 2011.
The key difference between these practices and biodesign is that biophilia and biomimetics are the incorporation of biological forms, materials, and processes into the practice of design. Biodesign, however, is the application of design practice to biological systems, materials, and processes. One example is the synthesis of an alternative bio-plastic material—called chitin—from refuse in the seafood industry.
In building design there are two coexisting yet opposed areas of sustainable technology: energy efficiency and material conservation.
On the outside of buildings, we use various barriers and insulations—elaborate multi-layered skins, spray foams, and epoxy laminates—that act together to keep thermal bridging to a minimum. They control moisture and air movement so mechanical systems use less energy to control the interior environment. Yet these systems are often composed of toxic chemicals and make it almost impossible to separate and recover materials at the end of their life.
At the same time, on the inside of buildings we try to source post-consumer recycled, low VOC, and natural materials to lower the overall carbon footprint, reduce the use of raw materials, and minimize the pollution of indoor air.
For architects and designers, biodesign is an area of practice that is well within reach.
One practice focuses on the importance of materiality to energy efficiency and environmental health, the other focuses on the importance of material choices to resource depletion and human health. We recognize the value of avoiding complex synthetic materials on the interior of our buildings. However, there are currently no viable biological material options to replace laminated high-performance exterior envelope systems. This disconnect in approach to building materials is a perfect example of a sustainability problem biodesign is starting to address. A UK startup is developing insulation made of the root structure of fungi called mycelium. In the future, we may see building envelope systems that are grown in place during construction and composted upon demolition.
Another rapidly developing and promising area of research is happening in the realm of structures: mass timber. In the October 15, 2020, Freakonomics podcast “Why are cities (still) so expensive?” the lack of innovation in the construction industry is cited as a factor that contributes to the ongoing urban housing and affordability crises. Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, said mass timber is one of the most promising technologies to impact the cost and speed of construction and the affordability of housing.
Until recently, mass timber use has been mostly focused in the Pacific Northwest, where abundant softwood forests and seismic activity make resilient multistory buildings attractive. However, specialists in forest biomaterials and tree biomechanics at Michigan Technological University are focusing on hardwood laminate timber engineering. They are experimenting with bio-based lignin adhesives that will make it possible to replace concrete and steel multistory structures with cross-laminated fully biodegradable hardwood structural systems.
Left unadorned, mass timber is an excellent solution. It’s a blend of the desire for natural, sustainable materials while serving as an alternative to other more energy intensive and environmentally disruptive structural systems.
For architects and designers, biodesign is an area of practice that is well within reach. This year, the Material Lab studio I teach at College for Creative Studies won the 2020 Biodesign Challenge, an international competition with more than 40 research universities. Our project, Zebra Glass, designed and synthesized a new material: a glass made from invasive zebra and quagga mussels from the Great Lakes. In designing zebra glass, the team examined our historic relationship to introduced species and we used science to make a beautiful material. In the process we kicked off a conversation about why invasive species material sourcing isn’t as mainstream as other sustainable material categories.
Before the competition, as color and material designers, we would never have thought to see the life sciences as a fitting arena for our practice. By working with scientists at NOAA and policy makers at the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, we discovered that this kind of alliance is the future of design.
Biodesign as a practice of hybridized design, technology, and science is expected to transform the 21st century. It is already allowing us to redesign DNA to cure disease or to engineer spider silk out of brewer’s yeast creating textiles that are breathable, stronger than steel, and biodegradable. Companies are making compostable car upholstery from fungi and students from Kent State University and the University of California Davis are using bacteria to disrupt polluting and inhumane industries.
As we look to the future, we need more compostable products. We need more of our waste serving as food for other production systems, and we need more efficient buildings built using cyclical material streams. Amid the ongoing climate crisis, we must transform our environment into one that is more systemically focused, biologically fluent, and more humane.
Biodesign will increasingly be part of that transformation. Keep an eye out.