Buildings that can repair themselves and cities powered by micro-organisms – these are examples of the potential application of biology and biotechnology to the built environment. So-called “living buildings” look to a future where individual buildings and eventually even neighbourhoods and cities include living systems in their design and engineering and share some of the properties of those living systems to become dynamic and adaptive and increasingly sustainable.

Building practices and methods have historically been constrained and involve the use of materials which, though beyond the mechanical capacity of the Victorians, are conceptually the same. Living buildings seek to tear down the established norm, and to replace it with something completely new.

Energy from fossil fuels consumed in the construction and use of buildings accounts for approximately 50% of the UK’s CO2 emissions. The energy requirement to produce alternative materials, for example, to replace concrete and steel derived from natural materials is much lower and the materials created are also recyclable- twin objectives in meeting the challenge of carbon reduction.

Early commercial uptake in modernising buildings has focused upon smart environmental controls and data-connectivity tools which simplify the management and efficiency of large buildings. The focus of bio and future architecture is developing materials which are self-sustaining, and generate a monetary and/or ecological value.

The technology already exists to create many of these alternative materials, from structures created from lab grown bone and self-cleaning paint based on the physical structures of the lotus leaf. Developers are already trialling bio-concretes, which are made from renewable resources rather than our finite supply of limestone. The bacteria blended into them acts as a repairing agent by sealing cracks as they emerge. CO2 respondent materials are another key focus. Membranes which are able to trap and distil the environment around them and produce useful materials from the harmful aspects of our environment will be helpful in mitigating the damage being caused. These and similar ideas will take time and investment before they become part of our everyday world but the role of bioscience in future building practice will be vital. Inevitably this will give rise to legal considerations.

Licensing and IP

A building or part of a building that is created by a new process, be that mechanical or biological, might have utilised a process or material that has been protected by an intellectual property right. Will a producer or a consumer need an ongoing licence or similar right to utilise the specific protected properties of the building that they have purchased? Similarly, we already buy many products which will continue to “upgrade” over their lifetimes by way of operating systems. How will this work in relation to bio products which might involve organic growth and regeneration-what growth will the owner of a building be entitled to and how will any disputes over these rights be resolved?

Regulation

Biological and ecological processes will no doubt attract a regulatory framework which will be vastly different from today’s building regulations. If something can interact with its environment, can the producer guarantee that there won’t be contamination or cross contamination of the environment or long term harm to human health? The architect, Alberto Estevez has created bioluminescent lemon trees by implanting them with jelly fish cells. These could replace street and other forms of lighting but only if the producers can guarantee the genetic safety of the bioluminescent lemon tree. Going one step further, if a building is able to register that its occupants are becoming unwell, could it be classified as a medical device?

Servicing, Insurance and Liability

If we are designing materials with a product lifespan vastly in excess of materials in use now, purchasers and providers will need to be comfortable with changing warranty expectations and liability periods. In addition, living materials will have different servicing requirements from those we are familiar with at present. This will also naturally feed into insurance considerations where the need to quantify new types of risk will lead to uncertainty. What happens if a living building dies? Or worse, what happens if a living building misdiagnoses, malfunctions, or causes harm?

Clearly the future of buildings looks incredibly exciting, with the potential to satisfy even the wildest dreams of futurologists. As these innovations continue to develop the surrounding legal framework will need to keep pace!