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    An ode to bio-receptive concrete

    Kirsty Sier

    Although green walls are increasingly starting to appear amidst the bare material façades of our urban environments, our air continues to get worse. This is because, due to population increase and the ongoing process of urbanisation, the greenery-to-inhabitant ratio is steadily decreasing.

    Green walls as we now know them were a direct response to the pollution crises that so many of the world’s major urban centres are experiencing; they were developed as a way to ensure that greenery didn’t altogether disappear from our cities as space becomes both scarcer and more financially valuable. Once the technology was mastered, utilising the surface areas of buildings as hosts of plant life seemed like a common-sense response to the green drought.

    And it continues to be a common-sense response. However, as with any burgeoning area of research and development, improvements to existing technology are bound eventually to come along and render obsolete the flaws of established processes.

    This is exactly what biologically-receptive concrete aims to do. Research into the ground-breaking construction material is an interdisciplinary practice that brings together architecture, biology and engineering. The aim – which has already been achieved by a small handful of people – is to develop a wall-panel system capable of growing micro-organisms directly on its surface.

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    BiotA Lab at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture contains one such handful of people. The lab has successfully developed a magnesium phosphate-based concrete that is capable of hosting microorganisms and nurturing bio-colonisation directly from the pores on its surface, without the need for soil and associated irrigation systems.

    The team from Bartlett’s School recently exhibited their innovation as part of the SuperMaterial exhibition at The Building Centre in London. As an exhibition aimed at showcasing how radical new materials will transform our relationship to both the natural and built environments, bio-concrete fit right in.

    BiotA Lab’s ultimate aim in developing bio-concrete was to transcend existing green walls and their various limitations. For instance, the mechanical irrigation systems and other expensive maintenance that are required to keep existing green walls functional – not to mention the high level of expense associated with their initial implementation. Additionally, existing green wall systems demonstrate a low integration between structures and the living organisms that grow on them – a hurdle that is, obviously, overcome with bio-concrete.

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    The magnesium phosphate-based concrete developed at BiotA Lab will also allow the growth of micro-organisms that have been overlooked in current green wall systems. For instance, bio-concrete will allow the growth of cryptogamic cover surfaces – plants that reproduce via spores as opposed to flowers or seeds – such as lichens, mosses and fungi.

    Building ‘envelopes’ (e.g. roofs and façades) are being particularly targeted as recipients for greening via bio-receptive concrete.

    Ultimately, bio-concrete will allow plant life to thrive on buildings in a way that is both more sustainable and more efficient than existing green walls. Importantly, thanks to the interdisciplinary and holistic research process by which the material has been developed, it will do so without compromising the structural integrity of our built environment.

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