Home & Design

Feb 1, 2017

THE ALIVE HOUSES

Have you ever thought over a paradox: a house, even a recent one, when not inhabited, gets degraded very quickly, while a humble old house, but exploited by people, keeps on thriving for decades? Isn't it because houses are "alive", - they live when they are lived in, and they die when not used by anyone. The concept of "living" houses seems to soon become a literal, not a figurative one.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), USA, has launched the "Engineering Living Materials" (ELM) program, aiming to create building materials that grow on-site. The materials would be used to construct buildings that repair themselves and adapt to the environment.

The contemporary construction materials used for building houses are expensive to produce and transport, they don't have a long-life cycle, they easily get damaged and do not adapt to the environment changes. On the contrary, living biological materials—bone, skin, bark, and coral, provide advantages over the non-living materials, being capable of growing, self-repairing, and responding to changes in the surroundings. DARPA's goal is to create a new class of materials that combines the structural properties of traditional building materials with attributes of living systems. Living materials represent a new opportunity to leverage engineered biology to solve existing problems associated with the construction and maintenance of built environments, and to create new capabilities to craft smart infrastructure that dynamically responds to its surroundings.

«The vision of the ELM program is to grow materials on demand where they are needed», said ELM Program Manager, Justin Gallivan. «Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage», Justin explains. Examples DARPA suggests are roofs that control airflow in a structure by breathing; chimneys that heal after smoke damage; and driveways, roads, or runways that literally eat oil spills.

In a nutshell, the technology of the hybrid materials creation is as follows: using the non-living scaffolds to give structure to and support the long-term viability of engineered living cells. These cells are derived from existing natural tissues, and are not engineered to perform synthetic functions. The long-term objective of the ELM program is to develop an ability to engineer structural properties directly into the genomes of biological systems so that neither scaffolds nor external development cues are needed for an organism to realize the desired shape and properties.

With sufficient development of the ELM it would be the ability to ship materials that could be placed at destination sites and quickly grow into the desired shapes and sizes using locally available resources to sustain growth and maintain life.

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