The Better Brick: 2010 Next Generation Winner
This year’s winner—a bioengineered brick, conceived by a young American architect—may be modest in physical scale, but it has the potential for global impact.
By Suzanne LaBarre
Posted May 12, 2010
Brick built the ancient citadels and hypocausts of the Indus Valley and ornamented the Chrysler Building, that greatmonument to the machine age. But in recent years, it has had a more sinister legacy: environmental menace. Tossing a clay brick into a coal-powered kiln, then firing it up to 2,000˚F, emits about 1.3 pounds of carbon dioxide. Multiply that by the 1.23 trillion bricks manufactured each year, and you’re talking about more pollution than what’s produced by all the airplanes in the world. The winner ofthe 2010 Metropolis Next Generation Design Competition proposes a radical alternative: don’t bake the brick; grow it.
In a lab at the American University of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, Ginger Krieg Dosier, an assistant architecture professor, sprouts building blocks from sand, common bacteria, calcium chloride, and urea (yes, the stuff in your pee). The process, known asmicrobial-induced calcite precipitation, or MICP, uses the microbes on sand to bind the grains together like glue with a chain of chemical reactions. The resulting mass resembles sandstone but, depending on how it’s made, can reproduce the strength of fired-clay brick or even marble. If Dosier’s biomanufactured masonry replaced each new brick on the planet, it would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by at least800 million tons a year. “We’re running out of all of our energy sources,” she said in March in a phone interview from the United Arab Emirates. “Four hundred trees are burned to make 25,000 bricks. It’s a consumption issue, and honestly, it’s starting to scare me.”
This year’s Next Generation competition asked entrants to invent a “small (but brilliant and elegant) ‘fix’” for the designedenvironment. Jurors saw space-saving clothes hangers and solar-powered window shades and souped-up planters. Dosier’s bricks are certainly small—in lab tests so far, about the size of a Lego—but with further research, their impact could resonate all over the world. Consider the prospects in countries like China and India, where outdated kilns put brick production among the top coal consumers. “There wasa strong feeling among the judges that the award should go to someone dealing with an issue on a global scale,” says Chris Sharples, a juror and a principal of SHoP Architects. “Here was a very simple concept defined by scientific method and an example of how you can come up with some very innovative ways to solve basic problems.” Choosing it as the winner was, he adds, a “no-brainer.” It wasalso a testament to the value of an architect who knows her way around a microscope.
Dosier, 32 years old, isn’t the first to dabble at the crossroads of microbiology and chemistry. In Precambrian times, bacteria created geological formations through a process that scientists would only begin simulating 3.45 billion years later, growing ground-firming minerals in oil patches and contaminated soil.Nor is she alone in trying to green the humble brick. Intrepid entrepreneurs have tamped everything from fly ash and plant refuse to car tires and plastic bottles into a neat little block and called it a brick (thoroughly peeving the brick industry, which will tell you that anything short of clay and shale is just a cheap imitation). Dosier’s act of alchemy was to apply science to design. “Thereare thousands of examples of microbial mineral precipitation in the scientific literature, but few if any of them have been explored for use in fabrication of construction or design materials,” Grant Ferris, a geology professor at the University of Toronto, who conducted early MICP studies, writes in an e-mail. “This is what makes Professor Dosier’s work so compelling. Bioremediation and...