News Rachel Armstrong Talks 'Living Buildings'

Rachel Armstrong Talks 'Living Buildings'

“Living buildings could inhale city carbon emissions”, says Rachel Armstrong, senior TED fellow and co-director of Avatar, a research group exploring the potential of advanced technologies in architecture, tells

Dr Rachel Armstrong works on the cutting edge of "synthetic biology," a relatively new science exploring the manufacture of life-like matter from synthesized chemicals. The chemicals are engineered to behave like organic microorganisms - with the added gain that they can be wielded to do things nature can't.

As iron rusts when it impacts water and oxygen, protocells produce simple chemical reactions when they come into contact with carbon dioxide molecules, turning the CO2 into calcium carbonate, or limestone, which stops the greenhouse gas from rising up into the ozone layer.

As a by-product of this process, Rachel says that limestone produced by protocells could naturally "heal" micro-fractures in walls, channeling through tiny breaks, helping to extend the life of any structure it was painted on to.

“What if buildings had lungs that could absorb carbon emissions from the city and convert them into something useful? What if they had skin that could control their temperature without the need for radiators or air-conditioning? What if buildings could come "alive?".

"Over the next 40 years, 'living' buildings - biologically programmed to extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere - could fill our cities."

"For instance, a protocell could be mixed with wall paint and programmed to produce limestone when exposed to carbon (dioxide) on the surface of a building," she said. "Then you've got a paint that can actually eat carbon and change it into a shell-like substance."

"The thickness of the limestone will grow over time, creating insulation and allowing your building to retain more heat or indeed sheltering it from heating up underneath the sun."

While Rachel says the science has been proven in the lab, she acknowledges that commercial applications are still many years away.

"This is bulk chemical manufacturing we're talking about, so the process is slow," she said. "If it were pharmaceuticals it would be much quicker."

Rachel doesn't think the paint will be ready for market for at least a couple of years and she cannot comment on how much it will cost to produce commercially. Despite this, she says a major Australian property developer has already placed a future order for it.

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