Designing buildings with living materials could help tackle climate change and even save Venice, according to Dr Rachel Armstrong of the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture.
Dr Armstrong is working towards engineering biological systems into smart paints, both protecting buildings and improving the atmosphere.
"Our buildings offer a huge engineered surface area on which we could develop new applications, especially biological ones," says Dr Armstrong. "We’ve been building with the same Victorian technologies for so long, now it’s time to try something new.
There are potential problems, such as the time it takes to grow organisms and the need to feed them and manage their waste, she says.
"But if architects can overcome these limitations and make the connection between artificial structures and natural ones, we could harness metabolic materials such as bioluminescent bacteria that produce light through biochemistry, for example, and reduce our energy drain on the grid."
In collaboration with Martin Hanczyc of the University of Southern Denmark, Dr Armstrong has been exploring protocell systems. She aims to program protocells to make carbonates from carbon dioxide, thus acting as a carbon sink. This could be the first step towards developing a smart surface coating that could extract carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the environment.
This approach could also have other applications, she says, such as propping up Venice's crumbling buildings by growing an artificial reef from protocells beneath them.
"Although these technologies are immature, they offer potential new ways of addressing climate change as an additional strategy to energy conservation," she says. "By developing these green technologies we hope to retool architects to help them meet sustainable and climate change challenges of the future."