Concrete Jungles

PLASMA 5 online article

‘No man is an island’ wrote 16th Century poet John Donne. He was right. We’re planets – each of us home to 40 trillion bacterial inhabitants. 

Richard Beckett is a researcher working in bio-augmented design at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture. His vision is to create buildings which – like the human body – could allow specific microbial communities (also known as ‘the microbiome’) to grow on them and in turn help us to fight infectious disease.

For him humans aren’t just the beings that inhabit a space, they’re spaces to be inhabited themselves. delete this par? He calls the concept “probiotic architecture”. “These indoor microbiomes can influence our health” says Richard “and I’m interested in how we might design buildings and their microbiomes to make buildings healthy and more resilient.’

Our understanding of the microbiome has progressed rapidly in recent years. Researchers are only beginning to unpick the entangled web that joins the microbes we harbour, and our body’s biological systems – from our digestion, to immune response, to hormones and even our neurochemistry. In the meantime, Richard is keen to work out how architecture can help pave the way to healthier buildings. “While we await better understanding of what exactly a healthy microbiome is from the medical fields, I hope to design ways to increase our daily exposure to microbial diversity.” 

It is this biodiversity which is central to the success of cultivating healthy microbiomes. Picture an acre of mono-cultured crops of oil palms, then compare this to a jungle flourishing with towering emergents, through to mosses spreading across the floor, and all the orchids, vines, lianas, lichens flowers and fungi all providing the home for teeming wildlife. One will leach the ground it grows on of nutrients and life within a matter of harvest cycles, the other will remain resilient for generations. The same is true of microbiomes. Richard speaks about how our current methods for keeping infectious diseases at bay using bleaching and sterilisation leads us more down the path to the oilseed fields than the blossoming forest. 

“The ‘kill all’ approach to microbes may in fact be helping bacteria to develop antibiotic resistance” say Richard “by blitzing surfaces with bleach you effectively create a blank slate for the first bacteria that comes along to thrive and multiply”.  Designing for microbial diversity creates competition. Competition means pathogens share their new home with other more benign species. Alternatively, we might purposely choose to grow specific strains of bacteria on our building surfaces for example that have antimicrobial mechanisms that can then prevent antibiotic-resistant microbes growing. 

And therein lies the ultimate goal for Richard’s research – buildings which can fight infectious disease before it ever reaches our bodies. In order to achieve this, he has taken an interdisciplinary approach from across the arts and science. 

The microbiological knowledge of Dr Sean Nair, from the Eastman Dental Institute from UCL is helping to cultivate strains of bacteria that prevent the growth of MRSA bacteria; the  material engineering expertise of Professor Mark Miodownik, director of the Institute of Making to help formulate the clays and concretes that foster the ideal porous surfaces for microbial growth; and Carolina Ramirez-Figueroa, product designer at the RCA – to help fashion tiles, handles and panels that invite peoples’ touch.


Tile A render PERSP

It’s perhaps Richard’s skill as an architect that allows him to translate successfully between these varied disciplines each of which exist at radically different scales. Architects, after all, are experts in negotiating between large and small. Reconciling humans with giants. From skylines and facades that play well with their neighbours, to each nook and corner of an interior that can happily accommodate the humans within it. 

As Richard explains: “We start by designing materials at the micro-scale with tiny holes at just less than half a hair’s breadth to create suitable porous conditions for bacteria to grow in. We then describe the meso-scale of 0 – 3mm where textures and geometries can create miniature climates and niches on surfaces that trap bacteria or help them disperse. Then at the macro-scale we are designing at the level that you can see and ultimately… touch”. 

Through design of invitingly tactile surfaces, Richard’s architecture acts as the interface for the microbiome, and in doing so creates a continuum between ourselves, our environment and one another.


full article published in PLASMA magazine 5


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