The Quest To Grow Cities From Scratch

Biologists have been experimenting with building materials made with living organisms for years. When will they be used to build our cities?

Imagine that the year is 2050. The global average temperature has risen by two degrees Celsius since 2017, the effects of which have displaced hundreds of millions of people, as scientists had warned. Our environments are profoundly impacted but we’ve avoided human extinction, so now we focus on relocating and rebuilding. Advancements in algorithmic building technologies and toxic-free, natural biomaterials have paved the way for a handy invention: automated “City Kits” that build replicas of decimated cities in alternate locations.


In this futuristic scenario, the kits drop from the sky, unfold into a temporary habitat, and deploy a fleet of insect-like robots to turn traditionally inhospitable environments—like the desert or the arctic—into sparkling new metropolises. After witnessing the devastating effects of climate change, we are finally serious about building sustainably, using organic materials that won’t negatively impact our ecosystems. In fact, these new cities will not only be kind to living things, but will be living things themselves; built from organisms like bacteria and fungus, the buildings of the future will grow on their own.

This new world sounds like it sprung from the mind of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne, but in fact it’s the basis for part of an exhibit called Reimagining Climate Change. It was an installation of the annual Museum of the Future event that takes place during the World Government Summit in Dubai in February—a lead-up to a physical museum of the same name that is scheduled to be completed in 2018. Elements of the exhibition are clearly very speculative, as is typical of the work of Tellart, the interactive design firm that designs and conceptualizes the exhibit each year (Co.Design covered the 2015 installation on the future of health care). For the exhibit, Tellart takes topics that will profoundly impact society in the future—the effects of AI and robotics on human life, for example—and visualizes futuristic scenarios that they hope will anticipate the behavioral, legislative, and logistical challenges that lie ahead.

As sci-fi as this year’s exhibition seems, all of Tellart’s projects are grounded in real research—and aspects of the above scenario are not as farfetched as you may think. According to a 2015 report from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, the commercial and residential building sector accounts for 39% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States per year, more than both the industry and transportation sectors. The prospect of building cities from living organisms is the focus of a nascent but growing industry of biologists, architects, and engineers who believe biomaterials are the key to building sustainably.


The technology for producing such materials–which are made from living organisms like bacteria or fungi or borrow production methods from nature—already exists. They have been tested for years in laboratories and are considered safe for use in construction. Several are now poised to be manufactured in factories across the country. But the next step–achieving scale–may be the most challenging one yet.


Building Biomaterials, Block By Block

Sustainable building materials are a $54 billion industry, according to the market research company IBISWorld. That includes materials made out of living organisms in addition to those produced using green processes and those with a reduced need for resources during their life-span.

The prospect of building cities out of materials that can grow, self-heal, and adapt to changing circumstances on their own is near the point of becoming a reality, according to some working in the field. Eben Bayer, founder of the biomaterials startup Ecovative, predicts it will happen before 2050. “In 30 years I can’t imagine us not being there,” he says. “This field is moving fast.”


Ecovative produces biomaterials made by introducing mycelium—the mushroom root—to agricultural waste. When the mycelium reaches out to the waste to digest it, it forms a matrix of white fibers that grows to become a solid material. This material can be grown at different densities to be used for various building materials, such as Ecovative’s Mycoboard—a substitute for particle board—and Mycofoam, a Styrofoam-esque insulation material. Both products have been tested at third-party labs to comply with industry standards, and are proven to be structurally safe, free of toxic materials, and certifiably sustainable, according to Ecovative. The material has a similar longevity to wood, and, after its life-span, can be ground up before decomposing completely. Eventually, it becomes nourishment for the forest environments from which it came.

In its 10 years of existence, Ecovative has moved from producing mainly mushroom-based packaging—thanks to capital from companies like 3M—to furniture and architectural projects. In 2013, it produced 10,000 mushroom bricks to build a 40-foot-tall temporary tower for performing arts at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York, which was ground up and biodegraded after it was taken down. Today, the team is working to grow insulation for the new headquarters for Postcode Lottery, the largest charity lottery in the Netherlands, and has a manufacturing partner in Gunlocke, the maker of high-end furniture (clients include the White House). Outside of its 40,000-square-foot facility in upstate New York, a tiny house the scientists built sits on a metal trailer. It was built with mycelium insulation, furniture, and acoustic tiles.

According to Bayer, this mycelium-based material is as structurally sound as–and priced similarly to–the materials they replace. He says the production can easily scale, as verified by the several partnerships they have with manufacturers, and he is confident that we will start seeing biomaterials replacing traditional building materials. But the process of actually getting these materials produced into the hands of construction companies—and convincing them to use them over the materials we’ve been using for centuries—remains challenging.


For Bayer, the largest and most prescient problem biomaterial makers face is getting the material out of the lab and into the factories of manufacturers who will incorporate it into existing product lines. “If we create bio products that are safe and healthy and get them out there so people can see what it is, that will create market pull,” he says. “We have to take it out from the lab and demonstrate [the science] to consumers with consumer-facing applications.”

There are also regulatory hurdles: Biomaterials have to comply with buildings codes, many of which were put into place with traditional industrial material in mind. The green building industry has long grappled with finding a balance between regulations that ensure public safety and also allow for new low-energy building techniques and materials. “Building code always lags behind innovation in industry,” says Bayer. The important thing is for companies that produce biomaterials to be transparent about their process and make products that will get people comfortable with the new material. As long as consumers are on board, and companies can find methods to scale affordably and efficiently, Bayer believes that a change in the construction industry’s regulations and attitude toward innovative materials will follow.


Starting To Scale

Another example of an emerging biomaterials company is Durham, North Carolina-based BioMason, which produces biocement that can be used to create a sustainable alternative to bricks. Replacing the traditional brickmaking process would be a boon to green construction. Bricks are used in over 80% of global construction. In a year, we produce an average of 1.23 trillion bricks, the production of which emits over 800 million tons of carbon emissions.


To combat that, the five-year-old startup “grows” bricks without the use of clay or heat. Instead, BioMason harnesses the natural process for producing coral—one that involves microorganisms making calcium carbonate crystals around sand—and speeds it up in a 17,000-square-foot factory. After injecting bacteria into molds of sand, the carbonate crystals grow larger and the substance becomes more solidified. BioMason makes the cement-like material into bricks that they say are just as structurally sound as conventional bricks, without the tremendous fossil fuel emissions.

“Essentially what we’re making is stone,” says BioMason founder Ginger Krieg Dosier, when I ask her how the biobricks stack up to clay bricks in terms of longevity. “With biological cement we’re trying to out-perform even concrete as far as being affected by environmental conditions.”

While Dosier and her team continue to test the degradation of the material in their lab in an effort to make it ever stronger, the bricks in their current iteration are ready to hit the market next year. Like Ecovative, Dosier and her team also have partnerships with several manufacturers in place. BioMason produces the bricks in different-sized batches depending on the number of molds at hand—but Dosier says that they can produce as many as 10,000 bricks every few days. She estimates that in the next five years they will be able to handle a comparable volume of what you would see at a conventional brickmaking plant.


The company is currently in the process of training its manufacturing partners on the process for creating the cement, so that it can be done in various brickmaking factories worldwide. The secret, for BioMason, is using the equipment and parts of the manufacturing systems that are already there so that the adoption of the new material doesn’t rely on completely upending how the industry already operates.

“I do think that for us we grounded ourselves in systems that were already in place so that you don’t have to retrain every aspect of the formula for manufacturing already in use,” she says. “There’s definitely a new frontier for bio-based economies.”

The Promise of Living Cities

From both Bayer and Dosier’s perspective, building cities solely from biomaterials could happen by 2050, but it relies on more scientists bringing their expertise to industry. The more companies like theirs that make eco-products that can replace unsustainable materials, the better. “You can make a whole other class of materials,” Bayer says. “I can see growing things like ivory, even which would replace ceramics.”


The materials are here, and the systems are being put in place for them to scale—but what about cities that grow on their own as in Tellart’s City Kit scenario? Behind the scenes, that’s something Ecovative is working on, too.

Right now, to be used for housing, the company’s mycelium material needs to be completely dried out to comply with building codes that prohibit materials that are susceptible to growing mold. But in the lab, Ecovative is also experimenting with not killing the material before using it to build products. With more vegetable waste and water, the material continues to grow, meaning that it can “heal itself” if parts of it are destroyed. In that way, the materials—and the buildings made out of them—remain living organisms that will continue to evolve over time.

Bayer admits that, even if building code changes, the field is not quite to the point where living cities would be possible. Essentially, the problem is this: He and his scientists know that they can create living building materials, but they don’t yet know how to control the organisms at their will.


This is changing, he says, as the field of synthetic biology makes its way into the building industry. Synthetic biologists have the ability to “program” the genetic makeup of living organisms by manipulating and injecting strands of DNA. For fungi like mycelium or for the bacteria in BioMason’s bricks, that might mean altering the DNA so that they take on the properties of other materials, change color, or grow in a particular pattern.

Ultimately, bringing together biomaterial labs, synthetic biologists, and industry partners is what will lead to a future similar to the one Tellart envisions. Even if the situation isn’t as dire as depicted in the exhibition, “self-healing” biomaterials could help in cases of natural disaster, such as Hurricane Sandy, where parts of the city are destroyed. And as Bayer points out, we don’t even need to wait for that future to start rebuilding with safer, cleaner materials. “For something like Hurricane Sandy, we used Styrofoam to build houses and all of that ended up in the ocean,” he says. “Let’s use natural materials so when [buildings] get knocked down, they don’t pollute our atmospheres.” Even without natural disasters, most modern buildings only have a life-span of about 60 years. Biomaterials offer a way to design sustainably not just for the life of a building, but also for its inevitable death.

Let’s also use natural materials so that the industry continues to be able to tinker, experiment, and invent. The more consumers and construction companies support the work of these companies by using their products, the more players will enter the field, and the bigger the market for living materials will grow.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.