Painful Truth: Building the city of the future, literally

How would you like to live in a building made out of bricks grown from bacteria, lounging on furniture made from compressed fungus, while looking out through your windows of transparent aluminum?

While computer technology has raced ahead and solar and battery technology look poised for major changes in the years to come, construction technology doesn’t look much different than it did two or three generations ago.

Sure, there are some interesting innovations, many of them visible here in the Lower Mainland. The Langley Events Centre roof is held up by massive beams of engineered wood, and similar technology is being used to build an 18-storey dorm at UBC right now.

There are factories that pre-assemble parts of houses, such as roof joists, allowing for faster assembly. And we have finally started using better insulation and more efficient heating and cooling systems.

But houses are still mostly wood frame, high rises are mostly reinforced concrete.

There are some hints of change. BioMason, a company based in South Carolina, makes bricks by pumping bacteria-rich water into pre-shaped forms full of sand. The bacteria produce calcium carbonate – the same hard stuff coral reefs are made of – until it binds the whole brick together. No need for firing in a kiln.

And yes, aluminum can be transparent, not just in Star Trek IV: The Funny One With the Whales. It’s more of a crystaline ceramic made from aluminum powder, but it’s still clear metal. (Probably too expensive for new dining room windows though.)

Wood seems like an old building material, but when you create super-dense engineered beams, you can do a lot of interesting things – including high rises, like that UBC dorm.

But then there’s the stuff that goes inside the home, like furniture or drywall.

Well, there’s Mycoboard, a product used in furniture that’s basically wood waste held together with mycelium glue – that’s biological ooze from mushrooms.

Some of these –maybe most – won’t pan out. They’ll be too expensive or fragile or turn out to attract some exotic species of termite or something.

But some will stick. And we should keep an eye on this field, because it’s literally about building the future. Our cities right now are particle board and reinforced concrete. But that’s only been true for about a century. We are just seeing the outlines of the materials of the future of the city.



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