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  • Writer's pictureTobe Sheldon

Revolutionizing Construction: The Rise of Biogenic Building Materials

Updated: Jul 28


Fast growing biogenic building materials, timber bamboo, eucalyptus, hemp, straw, mycelium

Building Tomorrow: Launching the Low-Carbon Construction Era

The global quest to tackle climate change and create habitable environments has sparked the development of innovative solutions that create harmony between advancement and conservation. A prime example of this paradigm shift is the increased focus on decarbonizing the built environment using fast-growing biogenic building materials. These materials, born from regenerative and rapidly renewable plant and fungi sources, are reshaping the construction industry by serving as green alternatives to conventional building materials like legacy concrete, steel, and slower-growing trees. In this exploration, we'll traverse the fascinating landscape of biogenic building materials, examine their implications on biodiversity, and investigate their application in real-world scenarios. The objective is to reveal their potential and challenges, kindling a conversation around the evolution toward low-carbon construction methodologies.


The Case for Fast-Growing Biogenic Building Materials

The escalating concerns of urbanization and climate change call for the urgent need for viable, low-impact substitutes for traditional building materials. Biogenic building materials, harvested from rapidly renewable natural resources like plants and fungi, are becoming pivotal in this transition. These materials are not only renewable, but they also require less energy throughout their lifecycle and assist in carbon sequestration.


Fast-growing biogenic materials offer an eco-friendly solution that sets them apart from traditional slow-growing materials like hardwoods, which are linked with deforestation and prolonged renewal periods. These materials reach maturity swiftly, replenishing their supply in months rather than decades, and function as effective carbon sinks, absorbing atmospheric CO2. These properties catapult them to the forefront of sustainable construction.


Significantly, these materials also foster biodiversity. Promoting regenerative agricultural practices, they aid in rejuvenating degraded soils and enhancing soil health, thereby supporting a myriad of species and cultivating robust ecosystems. Hence, using biogenic building materials surfaces is a vital strategy within sustainable development, bearing significant implications for the construction industry and the well-being of our planet.


Biodiversity in nature

Impact of Fast-Growing Biogenic Building Materials on Biodiversity

Fast-growing biogenic building materials can notably positively impact biodiversity, but potential hurdles must be addressed. Renowned ecologist E. O. Wilson once asserted, "Biodiversity is our most valuable but least appreciated resource." The utilization of these sustainable materials can play a significant role in supporting this invaluable resource.


The cultivation of fast-growing plants can contribute to the creation of diverse habitats for a wide range of species, serving as a positive impact of these materials on biodiversity. For example, a bamboo forest can host various species, from pandas to a multitude of birds and insects, thus enhancing local biodiversity. Moreover, the quick growth and harvest cycles of these plants alleviate the pressure on slower-growing species, facilitating a balanced and diverse ecosystem.


However, potential negative impacts need to be considered. Monoculture, the practice of growing a single crop over a vast area, can reduce biodiversity and render ecosystems more vulnerable to diseases and pests. To counteract this practices such as rewilding, crop rotation, intercropping, and regenerative agriculture should be employed to maintain soil health and promote species diversity.


Exploring the Intersection of Biodiversity and the Construction Industry: Real-World Applications of Biogenic Building Materials


Timber Bamboo

timber bamboo

Exceeding wood in construction attributes, timber bamboo offers strength twice that of wood. This increased strength allows for less material usage in building frames for similar structural loads, making it a practical solution amidst deforestation, climate change, and the materials shortage crisis. Timber bamboo's efficiency in carbon capture and storage when utilized in building frames is remarkable—it is five to six times more effective than wood, thanks to its regenerative nature and rapid growth. A mature bamboo clump can be sustainably harvested annually without replanting, preserving soil ecosystems and eliminating mass carbon release events common during timber clear-cutting.


With its extensive root system, bamboo can help restore degraded lands and reduce soil erosion, being instrumental in reforestation and afforestation efforts in the tropics and subtropics. Its resilience to diverse soil conditions allows it to flourish where other plants might struggle, thus sparing productive lands from competition.


On the architectural front, Bali-based design firm Ibuku impressively showcases this biogenic building materials potential. Renowned for creating extraordinary bamboo structures, Ibuku's work ranges from residential villas to public buildings. Their unique designs combine local materials with traditional building methods, creating a unique architectural aesthetic emphasizing sustainability.


Complementing this, the Bamboo Stalactite Pavilion, conceived by Vo Trong Nghia Architects for the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, spotlights bamboo's architectural and artistic potential. Entirely made of bamboo and rattan, this intricate, self-supporting structure merges traditional materials with modern, sustainable design, demonstrating the limitless potential of biogenic materials.


Timber bamboo buildings - a diverse approach

Taking a more Western approach, BamCore is revolutionizing the construction sector by engineering timber bamboo into framing systems that can be adapted to modern architectural styles. Founded in California, BamCore taps into the inherent sustainable potential of bamboo, utilizing it to produce the unique Prime Wall™ framing system. By intertwining their business ethos with environmental stewardship, they compellingly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between economic growth and biodiversity preservation.


Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus, a diverse genus with over 700 species primarily found in Australia, is a robust asset in biogenic building materials. A study by N. Sembiring et al. acknowledges Eucalyptus as an environmental stalwart endowed with characteristics that contribute significantly to ecological wellbeing. Known for its swift growth and regenerative capabilities, Eucalyptus trees are crucial in our fight against climate change, efficiently sequestering atmospheric carbon. The genus optimizes water usage and breathes life into unproductive or degraded lands. These traits mitigate disruption to soil ecology and nurture sustainable biodiversity, offering vital habitats and nourishment for a wide range of native species.


A compelling example of Eucalyptus in action is seen in Portugal, where the global company Sonae Arauco has harnessed the potential of this tree to produce innovative wood-based panels. Used extensively in construction and interior design, these panels are a testament to the versatility of Eucalyptus. Sonae Arauco's commitment to sustainability is evident in their practices, which include responsible forest management and the promotion of local biodiversity.


In the United States, companies such as Smith & Fong Co. and BamCore are harnessing the rapid growth of eucalyptus to create eco-friendly construction and interior design materials. Smith & Fong Co., a pioneer in eucalyptus utilization, crafts high-quality plywood and flooring products committed to sustainable practices that align with environmental responsibility and contribute to LEED certification.


Additionally, BamCore has expanded its innovative product range to include a Eucalyptus Super Combi load-bearing panel in their groundbreaking framing systems. By incorporating eucalyptus, BamCore highlights the plant's potential as a diverse and sustainable resource in the construction sector. These efforts continue to push the boundaries of green building technology, setting new standards in the industry.


Hemp

The extensive utilization of industrial hemp in France is a compelling demonstration of its ecological and economic benefits. Regarded as the leading hemp producer in Europe, France primarily harnesses this versatile plant within the construction sector. Significantly, this crop acts as an effective agent in enhancing soil quality while simultaneously encouraging the diversity of local wildlife. As reported by Interchanvre, the French hemp industry's official organization, "hemp crops serve as essential sanctuaries for wildlife, especially for skylarks and partridges." These species have sadly been witnessing a decline across Europe, thus rendering these hemp habitats critical for their conservation.


Furthermore, hemp cultivation in France operates without the requirement of pesticides, thereby fostering healthier and more biodiverse local ecosystems. This agricultural approach bolsters ecological resilience and minimizes the industry's environmental footprint.


Across the Atlantic in the United States, the emergence of forward-thinking companies such as Hempitecture aims to propel hemp into the mainstream construction market. These pioneering firms utilize the sustainability and versatility of hemp to revolutionize construction practices, underscoring the importance of ecological conservation and sustainability.


Hempitecture, in particular, specializes in designing and creating bio-based insulation materials derived from hemp. These groundbreaking products not only offer superior thermal performance but also contribute significantly towards the reduction of carbon emissions. As such, the introduction of hemp within the construction industry marks a dynamic shift towards "more sustainable and ecologically conscious construction practices" globally.


Straw

Straw, an agricultural by-product, offers significant potential as a biogenic building material, especially as a cost-effective, renewable insulation solution. Utilizing straw in construction can substantially diminish a building's environmental impact, demonstrating that even humble materials have powerful applications in sustainable architecture.


In the United Kingdom, innovative firms such as ModCell are capitalizing on the thermal attributes of straw to construct energy-efficient residences. ModCell's groundbreaking 'Flying Factories' enable the processing of straw bales on or near the construction site, reducing transportation expenses and associated emissions. Using straw, essentially an agricultural waste product, "relieves the pressure on other resources," promoting a more circular economy. Moreover, the cultivation of cereal crops for straw production can bolster various farmland bird species, "contributing to the local biodiversity."


Despite its merits, straw bale construction in the United States has yet to find widespread acceptance in the mainstream construction industry due to site-specific limitations. However, it has found favor among the do-it-yourself enthusiasts, owing to its economical cost, relative ease of construction, and exceptional insulation and fire protection properties. Companies such as Indigo Hammond + Playle Architects, LLP, a straw bale house builder and carbon-neutral building company based in Davis, California, are witnessing a growing interest. This indicates that straw may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but it certainly holds promise for "those seeking to forge a more sustainable path in construction."


straw and mycelium structures

Mycelium

An intriguing demonstration of sustainable innovation in construction materials is the utilization of mycelium, a type of rapidly-growing fungi. Mycelium significantly contributes to biodiversity by decomposing organic matter and converting it into nutrient-rich soil, supporting a variety of plant species. Okom Works harnesses this remarkable process to create building materials. These materials can be grown in a matter of weeks and are fully compostable at the end of their lifecycle, injecting a powerful element of circularity and biodiversity into construction.


Recognizing and managing the effects of these fast-growing biogenic building materials on biodiversity is pivotal for their sustainable use. This necessitates meticulous planning and responsible practices, which enable these materials to enrich diverse ecosystems while providing a feasible and sustainable alternative in the construction industry. This reflection is part of a broader ethos: "Sustainability in construction extends beyond energy efficiency or waste reduction—it's also about enhancing biodiversity and ecological balance."


These examples highlight the immense potential of fast-growing biogenic building materials to revolutionize the construction industry while supporting and enhancing biodiversity.



The Transformative Potential of Fast-Growing Biogenic Building Materials on the Built Environment

The environmental, economic, and industrial advantages of fast-growing biogenic building materials position them as sustainable alternatives to traditional construction materials. Their broader adoption signifies a promising shift towards a more eco-friendly future.


Environmentally, these materials are renewable and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow, offering a sustainable lifecycle and effective carbon sequestration. This ability to mitigate production emissions and reduce overall atmospheric CO2 positions these materials as potent allies in the fight against climate change.


Economically, the cultivation and processing of these plant-based materials can foster job creation across various sectors, including farming, manufacturing, and construction. As technologies advance and demand for sustainable options rise, these materials will become more cost-competitive, solidifying their place as an affordable solution for eco-friendly construction.


Industrially, adopting these fast-growing biogenic materials represents an exciting move towards sustainability in the construction sector. With unique properties like strength, flexibility, and resilience to earthquakes and fire, they open new avenues for innovation in design and construction. Their lighter weight and lower embodied energy enhance the sustainability profile of construction projects, reducing transportation costs and energy usage.


In conclusion

Fast-growing biogenic building materials are poised to play a revolutionary role in the construction industry, steering it toward a more sustainable and environmentally responsible direction. By embracing their benefits and mitigating their challenges, we can envisage a future where our buildings contribute positively to the health of our planet, instead of accelerating its degradation. This underscores the possibility for harmonious coexistence between environmental preservation and industrial progress, a balance that's crucial in our collective quest to mitigate climate change.



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