Beyond the economic, and possibly socio-historical, costs associated with the old buildings littering our towns and cities, there is a direct and equally significant environmental impact: carbon emissions.
Christopher Maurer, Principal Architect with Cleveland-based redhouse studio, has come up with a potentially groundbreaking method for alleviating the environmental consequences brought on by the actions of the construction industry: according to some estimates, buildings alone contribute to 40% of the total carbon emissions in the United States. He is working on creating the mother of eco-friendly inventions: the Biocycler.
In a method that rivals science fiction, the machine would create bricks that can be used for new structures using living organisms—referred to as cultured bio-binders—that bind pre-existing construction waste.
Support behind the Biocycler idea had begun gaining so much momentum by the middle of 2017 that Maurer and his team began collaborating, first with NASA on possible applications for the bio-machine in space—Maurer delivered a talk, titled “Stronger, Faster, Better: New Materials for a New Age” at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in August 2017, and a few months later with the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative. The process specifically entails “embedding mycelium (the vegetative part of fungi, with masses of branching, thread-like hyphae) in agricultural waste to make robust building material.”
The best part of the story is that Maurer’s actions in developing a machine like the Biocycler were simply motivated by the desire to find a way to make a substantial dent in the environmental waste he witnessed at demolition sites throughout Cleveland: in the US, an excess of more than 500 million tons of demolition waste is shipped to landfills every year.
Maurer explained how the project was also a way of expanding on work he was already doing: “We do many projects that are adaptive reuse to preserve old buildings, but even then the demolition waste can be quite extensive,” he said. Also, as part of the design/re-build project—an initiative designed at transforming old structures into renovated gems—he teamed up with Kent State University and saw the effects up close after the end of a house restoration project: “We dropped the material ourselves at the landfill,” Maurer recalls. “[Disposing of the waste in this way] was hard to do but there was no economically feasible way to use the materials.”
redhouse has launched an ambitious Kickstarter campaign to generate funding for the ambitious, and much-needed, project. "Truth be told, we're already recycling buildings, or at least materials," said Maurer. “The Kickstarter will lead to a mobile unit to put these processes on display and get closer to building entire structures out of the waste.”
Maurer even argues that there is a compelling link to the larger global movement towards probiotics, making a link to human health: “Think about the pro-biotic craze right now,” he said. “People are waking up to the fact that antibiotic medicines and sanitizers can be dangerous, and that you want the right kinds of microbes around. There are many organisms that can be used in bio-materials that naturally battle pathogens,” adding, “We want them on our team.”