The Construction Industry Needs a Disruption: Nature has the Answer


Groups of architects around the world are working on a revolution for the way we create our homes


by Eric Corey Freed, 

The way we build our buildings is stupid. (If you didn’t know that, I hate to be the bearer of bad news.) We have been building the same way for the last 200 years with very little change. In fact, you could resurrect a zombie from the Civil War, put him on a construction site, and he’d probably go right to work. Although that type of consistent level of knowledge is helpful, our stubbornness to cling to these old fashioned construction methods is holding us back.

If you look at a building from one hundred years ago, and compare it with one today, you can see the technology is virtually unchanged. But we didn’t know then what we know now about the long term health effects of asthma, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), multiple chemical sensitivities, or energy efficiency. Our ancestors used this technology without worrying about a global energy or water crisis, and with no surging demand from a population headed toward 9 billion people.

That’s not to say the industry is stagnant. The trends are clear. We can expect that building materials will continue to be more transparent, better sourced, and less toxic (but still never good for us). In addition, we know building codes will continue to get less and less prescriptive, more and more proscriptive, and increasingly focused on building performance. All this while lobbyists will continue to block any meaningful legislation to eliminate toxins from our building materials.

Current green building practices are reactive, incremental and don’t go far enough. For example, a living roof is wonderful, but it’s added over a toxic roof on a dead structural frame. What if, instead, the building were alive? Imagine the possibilities! It could produce energy, process waste, adapt to its surroundings and much more.

Although this sounds like science fiction, it’s actually possible. A small group of architects are working around the world on making such a revolution come to fruition. This potential revolution is coming, incorporating the fields of biology, DNA and construction in a way we’ve never done before. By using Nature’s technology, we could solve some fundamental problems with traditional construction and make healthy, green buildings available to everyone around the world.

I call it “Prostruction.”

Prostruction is the opposite of Construction.

In Construction, we use global supply chains, requiring great effort and expense to move materials around the planet; In Prostruction, all materials are sourced locally.

In Construction, we produce carbon dioxide as a waste product; In Prostruction, we use it as a building block.

In Construction, we build the same way everywhere; In Prostruction, we can evolve and adapt to each unique site.

Making all of this possible is our ability to manipulate DNA. For the first time in human history, we can easily catalog, replicate and edit DNA. Consider your own arm: it’s a type of beam that thins in the middle (to reduce weight) and thickens at the ends (at the point of highest stress), and made from a material (bone) that is four times the strength of concrete, yet only half the weight!

Tapping into nature’s technology and applying it to our buildings would transform the construction industry. Instead of mass production, we could have mass customization. Instead of applying colored pigment to the walls, the walls could change color the way a chameleon does. Surfaces could glow like fireflies, eliminating the need for electricity. The entire ceiling could absorb VOCs or act as a built-in smoke detector. When you pull a nail out of the wall, the hole could heal. We could even embed the building code itself into DNA of the building, such that if we grew a stair, it would automatically have 8 inch risers, negating the need for building inspectors (and you’re not going to miss them, trust me!).

Every surface could be a battery, a sensor, a heater, and a transmitter.

Such innovations would flip the construction industry from the current paradigm of “cut, slash, and burn” and into one of “grow, regenerate, and breathe.”

This idea of manipulating DNA to grow buildings or building materials is actually not new. It’s part of a growing field called, “Synthetic Biology”. In fact, “growing a house” is on the to do list of the MIT Department of Synthetic Biology website.

Let’s face it: the construction industry is in need of a disruption. Most of the buildings we build are not very good for us. The indoor air is ten times more polluted with known carcinogens than compared to the outside air. In fact, the average home contains over 17,000 known, identifiable, cancer causing chemicals.

In addition, job sites are potentially dangerous places. Buildings are routinely over budget and over schedule. While worker productivity is going up in all other fields, it’s actually dropping in construction. So productivity goes down while labor costs and material costs continue to rise, eating away at our fees and profit margins. This leaves us with virtually no budget for innovative research and development, and guaranteeing that we won’t fund a disruption under our current methods.

Innovation doesn’t typically come from inside an industry. True disruption comes from the outside. A candle manufacturer did not end up inventing the light bulb; the US Postal Service did not invent email. Those disruptions occurred outside. If we want to fix what’s wrong with the current construction industry, we need to look for innovations outside of it, and nature offers a wealth of incredible technologies that could radically improve how we build our buildings.

So let’s open our minds to these new possibilities found in Prostruction. We could affordably build (grow) healthy, vibrant, environmentally-positive and living buildings for everyone, and in doing so, potentially save the estimated 7 million people a year that die from chemical exposure from buildings.

To follow along on the latest research, search for hashtag: #HealthyHomesXPRIZE on Twitter and Facebook.

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Eric Corey Freed is a licensed architect and Founding Principal of organicARCHITECT, a visionary design leader in biophilic and regenerative design, as well as a Visioneer for XPRIZE, a global leader in designing and implementing innovative models to solve the world’s grandest challenges.

Eric is the author of 11 books, including "Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies.” In 2012, he was named one of the 25 "Best Green Architecture Firms" in the US, and one of the "Top 10 Most Influential Green Architects." He also holds a prestigious LEED Fellow award from the US Green Building Council.