One solution to reducing the environmental footprint of buildings is to create 'living' materials using synthetic biology and cover them with it.  Those materials could eventually produce water in desert environments or harvest sunlight to produce biofuels.

Researchers from the University of Greenwich, the University of Southern Denmark, University of Glasgow and University College London are working with an architectural firm and a building materials manufacturer to use protocells - bubbles of oil in an aqueous fluid sensitive to light or different chemicals – to fix carbon from the atmosphere or to create a coral-like skin, which could protect buildings.

Professor Neil Spiller, architect and head of the University of Greenwich’s School of Architecture&Construction, said the research team was looking at methods of using responsive protocells to clad cities in an ethical, green and sustainable way.   ‘’We want to use ethical synthetic biology to create large-scale, real world applications for buildings.’’

Hylozoic Venice Protocell Protocell drivers in flask at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010
Protocell drivers in flask at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2010.  Credit:  University of Greenwich

Protocells made from oil droplets in water allow soluble chemicals to be exchanged between the drops and their surrounding solution.  The Center for Fundamental Living Technology at the University of Southern Denmark has managed to get cells to capture carbon dioxide from solution and convert it into carbon-containing materials. Such cells could be used to fix carbon to create ways of building carbon-negative architecture.

An installation displayed in the Canadian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale 2010, Hylozoic Ground, created by Canadian architect Philip Beesley, provides an example of how protocells may be used to create carbon-negative architectures. Protocells situated within the installation designed by Dr Rachel Armstrong, Teaching Fellow at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, recycle carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors into carbon-containing solids. Similar deposits could be used to stabilise the city’s foundations by growing an artificial limestone reef beneath it.

‘’We want to use protocell bubbles to fix carbon or precipitate skin that we can then develop into a coral-like architecture, which could petrify the piles that support Venice to spread the structural weight-load of the city,’’ Spiller said.