The way we build our buildings is stupid. 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.
If you look at a building from one hundred years ago, and compare it with one today, you can see the building 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.
We can expect that building materials will continue to be more transparent, better sourced, and less toxic. 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. 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 was alive? Imagine the possibilities! It could produce energy, process waste, and adapt to its surroundings.
This potential revolution is coming, incorporating the fields of biology, DNA, and construction in a way we’ve never done before.
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. 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!
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!).
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. 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.
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.
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. To follow along on the latest research, search for hashtag: #HealthyHomesXPRIZE on Twitter and Facebook or learn more at prostruction.life