more posts about buildings and food

No, today's post is not about the Talking Heads, nor gingerbread houses, although both are tempting subjects. There is a perverse delight in upending Maslow and consuming shelter and that wasn't far from my mind when I wrote a guest post this week on the Biotech Industry Organization's site What Can Biotech Do for You? Well, what can it do for me...in architecture, that is? I had at first wondered what I could contribute to the discussion as it seemed a little outside my area of expertise. But I gave it a shot, so here it is:

The Department of Energy’s semi-annual Solar Decathlon always offers a smorgasbord of amazing architecture, but the University of Colorado’s entry in 2005 was exceptional. It was just delicious. The structure, the finishes, the furnishings, and even the fuel to transport the house to the National Mall in Washington were all edible. Not that one would actually munch on the house, but the point was that the materials were all close to nature and made a healthier, more sustainable house. Using soy, corn, and canola oil among other ingredients, the young students who designed and built the house put a high tech twist on an old idea.

Vernacular architecture throughout the world has long made use of agricultural by-products, animal skins and bones, and other materials that today we would call “bio-based.” As the timeline in the National Building Museum’s current exhibition Green Community illustrates, there was a time when everything was on the table, so to speak, to build and power the industrial revolution. Inventors were tinkering with electric cars, solar hot water pumps and parabolic solar arrays. But by the First World War—and perhaps because of it—we had cast our lot with the familiar set of fossil fuels: gas, oil, coal and their derivative products. Oil seeps into everything now, from the obvious roads and transportation to the less obvious, such as cosmetics and building materials. As we start to make our exit from the Carbon Age, it’s time to put everything back on the table.

The options in the world of energy are familiar: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, bio-fuels. But the world of materials needs rethinking too. Bamboo has proven a quick-growing worthy substitute for hard wood, but the material possibilities don’t stop there. Concrete manufacturers are looking at myriad additives, including rice hulls. As a judge this past winter for the Future City competition during National Engineers’ Week I saw middle school students embrace spider silk –though probably not the spiders themselves--for super-strong, yet light-weight building materials. This past March Popular Science gave one of their annual Invention Awards to the developers of insulation made from mushrooms. Thatched roofs are even making a bit of a comeback in the UK. And, the marriage of agriculture and architecture in vertical farming is challenging the conventional ways of building and farming, bringing food, shelter, and energy back into consonance. That may be one of the most problematic legacies of our carbon-based industrialization, splitting those 3 into separate domains and handing each to a different discipline. They are all much stronger when they are conceived as a set; triangulation, as any engineer will tell you, makes a strong structure.

The University of Colorado won 1st prize in 2005, as they had in 2002, not because the house was edible but because it performed the best under the sun. The bio-based theme was, well, dessert. But the thinking was the same. If we’re going to be clever and imaginative about how to power our buildings we can be just as clever and imaginative about their materials. Building greener means paying more attention to where our materials come from, how they get to us, and how they contribute to, rather than diminish, our health and the planet’s health over time. I wonder what this fall’s Solar Decathlon will bring...

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