A living, breathing building

November 2, 2018

In the 19th century, Lord William Armstrong became a pioneer when he installed the first hydroelectric machine at his Northumberland estate. More than 175 years later and another Armstrong – Professor Rachel Armstrong, head of experimental architecture at Newcastle University – is making waves around the world with her ‘living architecture’, a concept that looks to replicate the metabolic processes of the body in building materials. She talks to Alison Cowie about her remarkable work to date

As a child, Rachel Armstrong, professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University, was fascinated by the natural world.

“My earliest memories are of being in the garden, covered in mud and armed with a jam jar and a spoon,” she recalls. “I would build worlds in the jars and try and figure out how to make the creatures live together happily.

“They were almost always failed experiments and my mother would be pouring the contents of the jars out at the end of the day.

“The takeaway message was that the complex relationships which nature manages are extremely difficult to recreate.”

Despite an ambition to become a research biologist, Professor Armstrong was encouraged by her school careers adviser to study medicine.

She completed her undergraduate degree at Cambridge University in two years – which allowed her to spend her third year researching the genetics of fruit flies – work she gained multiple awards for.

The precocious student then went on to study medicine at Oxford University, where she became disillusioned with the social inequality of science and medicine.

This was compounded when she spent time in India and saw the vastly different levels of healthcare, from the private sector and state hospitals to the non-existent provision for those living in abject poverty.

While in India, Professor Armstrong spent time in a leprosy colony where the community had “reclaimed their identities” by redeveloping the land, building homes and medical facilities.

The Oxford student was particularly taken by the way the residents had built tools that addressed their physical disabilities.

“They had developed highly-mechanical machinery that could be operated with one finger,” she says. “I found it extraordinary and it really opened up my understanding about how I was practicing medicine and the assumption of what the ‘perfect body’ or the perfect ‘state of health’ was.”

Professor Armstrong began to develop an interest in the ways people utilise the spaces around them and in the late 1990s began working part-time at The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

She explains: “Medicine is about designing and engineering the body and the being, whereas architecture is the other part of the Darwinian equation: the engineering and designing of the spaces in which the body exists.

“I began to ask myself, ‘why do we as living beings inhabit dead spaces? Is there another way in which we can establish a relationship with the living world other than creating inert shells around us?’.

“I went on a journey to bring my knowledge of the body and technology into architecture.”

Professor Armstrong completed her PhD at The Barlett School of Architecture, while conducting her experimental work at The University of Southern Denmark, where she further explored the concept of ‘living architecture’, delving deeper into the possibility that metabolisms in the natural world could be translated into more sustainable architectural practices.

“The architecture profession – as much as its aspirations are to be sustainable – still has an infrastructure that’s deeply rooted in the technologies of 150 years ago and still advocates an industrial approach centred around fossil fuels,” she reflects. “I wanted to see if my knowledge of metabolisms could be translated into architectural processes.”

Knowing how complex metabolisms are in the natural world, the former medical student developed a simple droplet system where once the droplets – or protocells – began consuming their environment, they produced useful outputs such as energy and water.

Professor Armstrong’s research gained international attention and she was named one of the 2013 ICON 50, was added to the 2014 Citizens of the Next Century List by Future-ish and listed on the Wired 2014 Smart List.

She was also awarded a TED Fellowship, where she “learnt how to work with philanthropists; how to do elevator pitches and tell my story of interests in different ways.”

Professor Armstrong’s intention after completing her PhD was to use her pioneering work to start a business but, instead, was drawn into the world of academia.

She spent time at the University of Greenwich before moving to Newcastle University in 2014 to take up a specially-created position – professor of experimental architecture at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

The role, Professor Armstrong explains, is focused on asking, “what architecture in the 21st century can be”.

Since April 2016, Professor Armstrong has been involved in the €3.2m Living Architecture Project – a collaboration of experts from the universities of Newcastle, the West of England and Trento (Italy), as well as the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid, LIQUIFER Systems Group in Vienna and EXPLORA in Venice.

The multi-disciplinary team aims to investigate new levels of sustainable habitats and, as part of this, has developed several prototypes – including microbial fuel cell bricks that are inoculated with anaerobic creatures.

In December, the team will erect an internal partition wall at the University of West England in Bristol made from their ‘living bricks’.

It is hoped the wall will provide ‘polished water’ that can be used for washing and cleaning as well as a sustainable source of electricity.

“Each brick is capable of producing about two millivolts of electricity,” says Professor Armstrong. “It’s not a huge amount but once you get a lot of bricks together, it starts to stack up and should be sufficient to charge a mobile phone, for example, and eventually, power controllers such as Raspberry Pi or a digital screen.”

“In addition,” she continues, “the bricks will also be able to remove pollutants, like nitrous oxide, and produce forms of biomass.”

With the three-year Living Architecture Project ending in April next year, Professor Armstrong and her colleagues are currently looking at future funding opportunities to continue their pioneering research – which has already gained interest from Arup and the European Space Agency.

And while the ultimate goal is to create living architecture that can be produced at a scale to dramatically change the infrastructures of cities around the world, Professor Armstrong is realistic that such ambition requires much more research.

“I would say that scaling is possible but probably through interlinking rather than creating ginormous [living] batteries in the landscape,” she says.

Meanwhile, Professor Armstrong is currently focusing on the practical applications of living technologies within the home, to “allow people to customise their energy usage so that it is more attuned to the natural world.”

She continues: “By showing the inner life and change within buildings, it will give peripheral cues as to how the homes are ‘feeling’. The language around our homes may eventually become more aligned to the language we use around our pets.”

The concept of seeing your home in the same way as a family cat or dog may be a step too far for many at present but it’s a vision that Professor Armstrong will continue to explore – not only to push the boundaries of science but to create a more sustainable way of living for future generations.

Who knows, one day we may all be happily living and working in buildings that are ‘alive’ and are producing useful materials by copying the processes present in all our own bodies.

Newcastle University

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