/ How can we engineer biological systems such as bacterial cellulose in order to tackle contemporary challenges such as urban resilience, unsustainable building methods, and circular economy? 

Jessica Oag Cooper (Winner of Sustainability Graduate Degree Degree Show Prize 2019)


Our buildings account for 40% of global carbon emissions, and with the predicted statistic that we will need to house an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050, it is vitally important that we are designing our built environment in the most sustainable way possible. This information has influenced the development of this project with specific focus on architectural materials, materiality in our emerging social economies, and our spatial environments. This has lead to critical exploration and focuses on finding an innovative use for bacterial cellulose; the most highly abundant organic material on earth. 

Bacterial cellulose is produced by the fermentation of bacteria and yeast in layers, similar to additive printing and manufacture. This cellulose can be grown into different shapes and is similar to plant cellulose in its structure which can be pulped, moulded, and dried. Additionally, it is an ideal material for design and architecture as it is strong, biodegradable, requires minimal energy to produce, and produces no waste. 

This research has concentrated on our local resources in order to design a solution which is low carbon within a circular cradle to cradle system, and beneficial to the local economy within Scotland. This has also enabled insight into every stage of usability and how it can benefit our entropic Anthropocene. This transparency of production has encouraged a critical re-evaluation of my previous exploration, which has resulted in a detailed process of reverse engineering in order to critically analyse each component. This has resulted in a new found appreciation of the material in its raw form; a sheet material which forms on the surface of a moist environment, which have been transformed into structural formations which further strengthen the material, and allow for a variety of applications within our architecture. 

The research presented uses the process of making matter as a design process and uses a transdisciplinary approach at the intersection of design, materials science, and biology. Due to this, the research inevitably changes in scale from nano to macro in order to further apply the material to our spatial environments. Suggestions of interior uses have been mentioned throughout, and the ability to change scale encourages future use of biomimicry, molecular structures, and appreciation of the scientific revolution in the late 1800s. This study is part of a growing body of research on neomaterilism, biomaterials, and ideas on how we can engineer material development to tackle current unsustainable building methods, further preserve our buildings, and encourage a no-waste world. 

‘We want to change the world with almost nothing. It is impossible to generate complex materials and architectures through harnessing the fundamental energetics of matter; in other words, doing more with less’

– A Manifesto for protocell architecture: against biological formalism (Neil Spiller and Rachel Armstrong, 2011) 

Throughout the exploration of materiality, it became clear that bioplastics, biomass matter, and sustainable material development is an active part of worldwide ongoing research, which I found to be a highly interesting and progressive field. I found that there are contradictions throughout many design projects which use biomaterials. Many claimed that the materials were highly sustainable, without exploration into its biodegradability or commercialisation. With capitalisation, many biomaterials would quickly become finite resources (such as specific uses for seaweed eg. Agar). Many of these projects sit in the ‘craft’ (Ashby, Shercliff and Cebon, 2007) and so far, many projects seem to speculate uses for material without comment to commercial value, which if the idea is useful or good enough is an inevitable scenario (Nkanaga, 2018). 

The aims for this project are to develop the material with critical examination in order to asses its benefit, potential, usability, and conceptual value, all in which align with innovation roadmaps (Innovate UK, 2016). Throughout, these processes will have spatial interiority in mind in order to fabricate designs and connect new material knowledge to interior design concerns. 

The planned analysis will concentrate on three components; urban resilience, unsustainable building methods, and circular economy.

The definition of each component will be as follows:

Urban resilience: Urban resilience is the ability of any urban system to survive, adapt, and grow through all shocks and stresses such as changing climate, political instability, rapid immigration whilst positively adapting and transforming toward sustainability. (United Nations, 2016)

Unsustainable building methods: Methods which use high levels of energy with large loss percentage such as electricity, water, and material wastage, high percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, and the excavation and production of non-sustainable materials. 

Circular economy: Circular economy is an alternative to traditional linear economy in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible and regenerate the material at the end of its service life. It is believed to be the only way to create a no-waste world. (WRAP UK, 2019, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2019, Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, 2019).

Throughout my exploration of material potential I discovered ways to dry, coat, colour, mould, and use it as a composite. However, this exploration did not cover material properties and close analysis of the properties inherent in bacterial cellulose. I believe that I may have been over-developing the material throughout stage two, which initiated exploration of potential uses for bacterial cellulose in its purest form, and approach it as a machine; simple, usable, and useful. The following approach is to appreciate these material properties, and analyse potential usability in our architecture. 

As specified in my previous steps throughout the research, the decision to appreciate the material in its sheet form was made in order to produce less energy when transforming the material. Therefore, the following subchapter explores sheet structures which can be made with no waste such as off-cuts, and are simple to create. This simplicity is designed to make the materials transformable on a construction site, and easily placed within a circular system. Furthermore, this challenges the context of the structure, and the basis for a possible typography for future designs. 

The first experiment mirrored the structure used in corrugated cardboard. This is simple to produce, and can be easily be made with machinery or by hand. This sample was made by softening the material with water and cutting it into strips and sticking them together. As the material dried, it became strong and rigid. This sample can be changed into many shapes, and layered to make a thicker and stronger structure. Overall, this sample was successful due to its strength, and its simple manufacturing.

The honeycomb structure is a collection of six-sided shapes that fit perfectly together. In theory, the geometry of this shape uses the least amount of material to hold the most weight, and is a common design used in aerospace, and automotive industries due to its strength. It is known to be at its strongest when it is sandwiched (Hexcel, 2019; Adrian Newey, 2016) ‘Honeycomb is an outstanding core material for sandwich structures. It is also used for energy absorption, laminar flow control, sound attenuation and dielectric applications.’ (Hexcel, 2019). 

Due to the wide scope of industrial applications, the next sheet experiment produced was a honeycomb structure made from bacterial cellulose. The material produced is strong (as show on next page) but was somewhat complicated to make by hand and required an overlap of material, this needed more material to produce a sample to same size as the corrugated structure which was previously made. This structure still has a potential use value, but would need additional machinery in order to produce on site. 



The research presented here outlines the capabilities of bacterial cellulose and forms a strong argument that its development will assist with creating a highly sustainable built environment. Biomaterials such as bacterial cellulose hold great potential in applications in design and architecture, and I believe this thesis provides insight into the challenges and solutions which may be faced with application. 

Appropriate and specific thought has been placed on circular economy, in order to critically assess bacterial celluloses’ sustainable impact. This has led to an accurate diagram which outlines the materials life span. This transparency allows the socio-economic impact to be measured, which has been commented on in this thesis and would need to be fully addressed when the process becomes capitalised. By reverse engineering each ingredient, each process has been critically analysed for its environmental impact, which can be further developed on. Processes such as harvesting sugar need to be further explored in order to utilise a by-product, and solutions need to be found when growing the material in an emerging economy, or an environment with limited water sources. 

The decision to appreciate the material in sheet form has enabled three-dimensional shapes with no off-cuts or waste, whilst creating a larger surface area of material than when pulping or attempting to make solid shapes. The structures presented show how these designs could be placed within spatial design, whilst utilising the material for its strength and aesthetic qualities. Furthermore, the structures have allowed comparison to other building materials and have demonstrated a need for an alternative sustainable material. It has been concluded that creating a material that is highly sustainable and accessible will ultimately help the challenges we face within urban resilience. Therefore, it is possible to engineer bacterial cellulose to assist with these challenges we face in our Anthropocene. At this time, the full potential of bacterial cellulose has only recently begun to be researched. In order to exploit the full potential of using bacterial cellulose, a transdisciplinary approach needs to be continued with insight from design, biology, and material science. Interiority has been continually explored through the project, from its beginnings as a material found in the interior of a bacterial cell, to its application. This change of scale opens up opportunity for conceptual design, which would be a highly interesting direction. The knowledge presented in this research successfully deepens sourced knowledge and demonstrates ideas of neomaterialism and innovation, within interior space and architecture. 





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