Organic Architecture: Past, Present, and Future

From shelters to cities

Since our ancestors first left the tropical forests of Africa, and probably long before that, we have sought shelter wherever we could find it and when we no longer had the canopy of the forest, we looked to bring the forest to us.

The oldest surviving structures on earth are megalithic temples such as those found in Cairo, Malta, and Gobekli Tepe however we can be certain that there were thousands of others built whose organic materials simply couldn’t stand the test of time.

Bamboo, cob, clay, thatch, and wood are just a few of the organic building materials our species has used and continues to use to build its living spaces.

Today our modern, technology-driven society thrives on the use of concrete, steel, and glass however these substances are alarmingly energy-intensive and the process of creating them takes a toll on the natural world.

Subsequently, modern architects and civic planners are increasingly seeking to marry our historical understanding with modern science to create building solutions that integrate human needs with the wider ecosystem.

Marrying nature and artifice

Although there are trailblazers seeking to create new architecture with nature at the forefront, more on them shortly, society is also looking for ways to improve the sustainability profile of the buildings already in place.

The integration of existing systems into a new, green paradigm will be essential to its success, here are a couple of examples of how we are doing this:

Living walls
Living walls are structural pieces that either has planting spaces built into them as you might see with depressions used for shelving or are mounted with planting racks.

Either way, you are looking at a way to create miniature ecosystems that make use of the verticality of modern cities and structures. While traditional horticulture and agriculture have spread horizontally across the natural surfaces of the planet, living walls spread vertically using the artificial surfaces of walls, towers, and building faces that humans have created.

These walls not only help to offset carbon by housing plants in places that are usually too built-up to do so, but they also reduce the heat of our cities by creating shade and preventing hard building materials from absorbing so much of the sun’s energy.

Finally, when placed outside, they also offer much-needed green corridors for pollinators and other wildlife crossing urban areas.

Bee bricks
Speaking of pollinators, the city of Brighton and Hove has made news recently by introducing a new building regulation that states that all new buildings above 5 meters must include Bee Bricks.

Elegantly simple, Bee Bricks are intended to act as nesting spaces for solitary species of bees and contain dozens of cylindrical cavities that are sealed at one end for this purpose. Bees are then able to lay their eggs in these cavities and plug the other end with chewed-up vegetation until the eggs are ready to hatch.

Bee conservation is a pressing concern at the moment in terms of maintaining our current food supplies, as well as global biodiversity globally, and these bricks go some way to supporting their survival.

Moss bath mats
Although our first two sustainability stars could be applied to practically any new or existing structure, this last one is definitely one for the domestic nature-lover.

Moss bath mats were developed as an extension of the philosophy behind houseplants. We know that plants can thrive indoors and usually contribute to our physical and mental health while doing so.

We also know that due to its naturally-humid environment, the bathroom often makes the ideal room for indoor planting, moss mats take this thinking a step further. The moss consumes the water that would usually drip onto your bathroom floor when you exit the shower and then be lost to evaporation.

In this way, these plants essentially take care of themselves while brightening up our bathrooms and removing the need to wash bathmats at all.

Looking to the future

We’ve spoken briefly about the innovators that are putting sustainability ahead of the bottom line in their quest for the next generation of architecture. Let’s look at some of the biggest ideas currently at play in this field.

Earthships: Reduce, reuse, reclaim, recycle

Mike Reynolds was a pioneering architect in the late seventies and early eighties who first developed the idea of building dwellings almost entirely from waste materials.

Popularizing concepts like rammed tire walls (used tires packed with earth), integrated food production, and glass bottle lighting, Reynolds developed a whole new approach to domestic architecture that he dubbed Earthships.

The idea was to create completely self-sustaining structures for human habitation, buildings that could either create or harvest all the food, water, and energy that people would need to survive and thrive.

These ‘ships’ would use either recycled or locally-sourced materials wherever possible and would strive to have a negative carbon footprint on their surrounding environment.

Today, the Earthship movement is still going strong and several subcultures have sprung up using sustainable materials like cob and hempcrete instead of concrete in order to build more earth-friendly housing.

Bio-architecture: Growing the future
Our best technology is that which imitates nature and this is only logical since nature has designs that are billions of years into their trial stages.

So what if our final stage in technological progress is to create technology directly from nature or, better still, recruit nature to create it for us?

We are now entering the realms of science fiction, please leave your cynicism at the door.

Currently, scientists working out of the University of Colorado Boulder are engineering the DNA of bacteria to generate structures according to their designs.

These bacteria will secrete polymers that can be used to bind existing materials and create the building blocks for a new generation of architecture. As living structures, these buildings would automatically regulate their own temperature and airflow as well as potentially be able to ‘heal’ any structural damages that may be experienced during the building’s lifetime.

Also, due to the exponential growth rate of bacteria, it means that these buildings could be constructed at breath-taking speed.

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the past, present, and future of sustainable architecture and that you’re able to pick up a moss bath mat for your own bathroom soon. As always, thanks for reading.

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