‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’

By december 7, 2015 Algemeen

Over 50 years have passed since the Nobel Prize physicist Richard P. Feynman, with the lecture at the California Institute of Technology entitled ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom’ has opened the way for innovations related to nanotechnology, prefiguring the possibilities associated with the transformation of matter at the molecular level.

Traditional building materials are generally harvested or mined from the earth, using massive amounts of energy in acquisition, transport, and assembly. The materials that encompass the structure of a building, whether it is wood, steel, or stone, are dead and susceptible to forces of nature like decay and erosion. Materials are becoming more difficult to obtain and build, making construction unsustainable. But by studying nature, we may be able to change all of this. Nature has been building structures using sustainable energy through natural processes for millions of years. One technology that strives to mimic nature are metabolic materials. Metabolic materials utilize a set of naturally occurring chemical reactions to absorb or produce energy. They do this when exposed to different elements or chemicals such as water or carbon. By using their metabolisms through a non-biological process, they are then able to reorganize themselves. Living systems are in constant dialogue with nature through sets of chemical reactions called metabolism, where one group of substances is transformed into another by using or producing energy. This is how living systems can sustainably make the most of local resources.

Using a common language based on the chemical exchange of metabolism, it may be possible to develop interfaces that are able to respond directly to variations in the environment. Materials that are native to urban environments would be able to participate in flows of chemical information, which would constitute native synthetic ecologies that uniquely function within the context of the city landscape. Chemical systems that could thrive in these conditions could potentially be designed to maintain the health of the environment and process urban metabolites to improve the health and wellbeing of its human inhabitants in a comparable way to rural systems.

The first step forward living architecture is the further development and application of nanotechnology in the production processes of various materials that have produced significant innovations in almost all sectors. The widespread opinion is that the impact of these technologies will have effects comparable to the diffusion of antibiotics and plastics, involving large market sectors, including construction. Through the use of nanotechnology it is possible to develop new materials that can respond to specific functions, creating products and systems with unique properties arising from the particular molecular structure or implementing quality and performances of existing products.

The potential of living architecture, bio-inspired nanotechnology in architecture is derived from multiple factors that affect both functional and aesthetic aspects of buildings, also involving wider issues related to the possible contribution to the eco-efficiency of industrial processes and products. The potential associated with a complete transformation of the construction logics of the technical elements and the resulting architecture outcomes, including morphology aspects, is now emerging. The possibilities linked with the development of industrial products based on nanotechnology begin to stimulate design researches aimed at exploiting the unique properties of new materials, which allow-for example – the creation of extremely thin, ultra-insulating and self-regulating transparent shells, thin and light structures with a resistance up to a hundred times greater than steel, buildings able to self-repair technical elements or to send ‘reports’ on the functioning of various parts and components.

Living architecture based on nano bioinspired new materials will allow the realization of buildings able to create a dynamic relationship with environmental factors and with electrical and electronic impulses activated by man, modifying their performance, their appearance and even their shape in relation to external stimuli, in order to ensure comfort and energy savings, but also to use the architecture itself as a communication interface, enhancing the possibilities of information exchange and mutual interaction. One of the main aspects concerning the contribution of nanotechnology to the architectural design is in fact linked to the possibility of creating a new generation of green buildings characterized by the use of innovative materials able to connect the needs of low environmental impact together with aesthetic and communicative aspects of architecture as for example a nanostructured high-energy performance shell, with photo and thermo-chromic properties that allow to modify the color, level of transparency and of heat transmission.

Within the fundamental relationship between technology and design, nano bio inspired technologies determines interactions between design and manufacturing process, with possible implications on common design practice, introducing not only new materials but also new architectural concepts. New living technologies help us imagine how it may be possible to construct buildings differently; more importantly, protocells have the potential to change the relationship that exists at the heart of the building industry, namely the negative impact of making a building on the environment. With living technologies it may be possible for us to create architectures with a positive impact on natural systems, which in turn look out for us in a very architectural way, such as removing carbon dioxide or other pollutants from the environment. Living Technology will be symbiotic with existing architecture, will regulate and maintain the health of our living space and provide our first line of defense against an unpredictable world.