ECO METABOLISTIC ARC is a response to the significant carbon footprint of the global construction industry at a time of climate change, rapid population growth and increasing urbanization. How can architecture adapt by using sustainable materials from renewable sources such as plants, fungi and bacteria, and how should architectural modeling evolve to be able to understand the properties of these bio-based materials and derive the best part?
“Bio-based materials have different properties than finished materials, such as metals and fossil fuels,” says Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen. “The latter are recognized as permanent and stable over time, whereas biobased materials are generally heterogeneous, have an evolving behavior and a shorter lifespan. These properties can be a challenge for the architecture.
Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen and her team are studying the full spectrum of biogenic materials to build a holistic ‘eco-metabolic’ framework for sustainable architecture – from wood and bioplastics such as polylactic acid, which is typically made from corn or sugar cane starch, to living materials such as bacteria as a potential source of light.
Use trees effectively
“When a tree grows in the forest, it is impacted by its environment, for example by the soil, the fungi, the direction of the wind, the slope of the hill,” explains Ramsgaard Thomsen. “All these elements form the tree, and determine its density and branching. Trees are therefore different from each other and have unique properties. Conversely, the wood industry classifies the wood it cuts for construction into homogeneous categories.
In addition, wood production generates a lot of waste and carbon because the whole tree will not be used, or it will be downgraded to wood pulp for paper production. Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen through photosynthesis. When the wood from these trees is used in wood products, its sequestered carbon continues to be stored as long as the products are used. The lifespan of wood is significantly longer than that of paper, for example. This is why it is essential to use all parts of trees effectively.
Using advanced computer modeling, Ramsgaard Thomsen and his team incorporate heterogeneity into the design process. 3D scans are used to assess the volume of a tree and big data models allow the analysis of all volumetric data to be able to understand how each piece of wood can be used in the best possible way. A next step is to simulate the performance of finished materials to help architects better understand the properties of each material.
Understanding Life Cycles
In addition to heterogeneity, Ramsgaard Thomsen and his team study both the dynamic behavior and the environmental reactivity of materials. “In traditional architecture, buildings are considered permanent,” she explains. Time is not taken into account. Biobased materials have shorter loops than materials made from fossil fuels. Their life cycle varies and their behavior may be more erratic. A question that Ramsgaard Thomsen seeks to answer in his research is how to predict and model the behaviors of bio-based materials in order to understand how they will change over time.
“Wood has been used for centuries and is known to have quite a long lifespan,” she says. “Bioplastics, on the other hand, have only recently been used in construction and have a shorter lifespan. We try to understand what bioplastic can mean for architecture and how we can work with it in a sustainable and efficient way.
The team is also experimenting with bioluminescent bacteria, which are light-producing bacteria that are primarily found in seawater, marine sediments, and in the gut of marine animals. Bacteria that could be a potential light source are grown in a medium that has been produced by 3D printing. “For now, it’s still an abstract idea because this type of bacteria produces little light,” says Ramsgaard Thomsen. and the impact of oxidation. It is part of a process of designing a living architecture.
With his research, Ramsgaard Thomsen offers a new perspective on architectural design. “The industrialization of construction and modernism brought the idea that architecture was somehow permanent,” she says. “However, we already live in buildings that need to be maintained. Biosourced materials open up a more participatory look at buildings. As living materials, they require continuous care. In the same way that people water their plants, the inhabitants of buildings made of bio-based materials will take care of their home and thus participate fully in its life. So it changes ideas about ownership and participation. These are fundamental changes.
Thus, Ramsgaard Thomsen’s project resonates with the New European Bauhaus initiative, which calls on us all to imagine and build together a sustainable and inclusive future, beautiful for our eyes, our minds and our souls. “It’s an extremely interesting idea in that we can prototype ideas very quickly and see if we can take them into the industry. Not only for architecture, but also for design and product design. We we need a radical change in the way we think about innovation. It is important to find new ways to innovate in order to be able to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 to transform our world .
Mette Ramsgaard Thomsen is Professor and Director of the Center for Computing and Architecture (CITA) at the Royal Danish Academy. For the past 15 years, she has focused on the profound changes that digital technologies are inducing in the way architecture is designed and built. In 2005, she founded the CITA research group where she led a particular research axis on the new digital-material relationships induced by digital technologies. She is currently general rapporteur and responsible for the scientific component of the UIA2023CPH world congress “Sustainable Futures – Leave no one behind” which asks how architecture can contribute to the UN SDGs.