Could the future of sustainable building design be built on straw, vines and tree bark? This semester, a pilot architecture studio is exploring if technologies derived from the planet hold the secret to saving it.
Developed by Professor of Architecture Jana VanderGoot the new studio is challenging graduate architecture students to apply “eco-technologies”—techniques that leverage the forces and processes of nature—to design buildings that respond, adapt to, and support the surrounding environment.
Through the design of a bio-wall, students are looking to abundant materials, natural processes, and age-old building philosophy to design sustainably and lighten the human ecological footprint. Materials, ranging from moss and bark to wool and bamboo, are sandwiched together to work synergistically with the surrounding environment, able to respond to different conditions, communities and ecologies. While bio-walls aren’t necessarily green—about one-third of the students did not integrate vegetation—they function like living systems, cleaning air and water, growing food, supporting wildlife and insulating against heat and cold.
“This is a step beyond sustainability as we often hear it discussed,” said VanderGoot. “It teaches students how the built environment is the natural one and positions buildings as extensions of their surrounding infrastructures and ecological systems. It’s a holistic approach to design that dismantles the dangerous dichotomy of nature and humans. And it’s changing the way designers of the built environment are approaching issues surrounding climate change.”
The pilot course is the result of a $15,000 Faculty Grant from VentureWell, received by Associate Professor VanderGoot, Assistant Professor Ming Hu, Assistant Professor Naomi Sachs, and Post-Doctoral Fellow Paul Jacob Bueno de Mesquita, to design coursework that engages students in developing solutions to real-world problems. VanderGoot is one of just a handful of architects participating this year, who regularly collaborate with scholars in STEM fields to develop sustainably minded project work.
“Sustainability has been at the heart of our work for a very long time, but I think it’s only recently really come into focus,” said VentureWell Senior Program Officer Victoria Matthew. “We needed to do more than encourage people to move in that direction by elevating their expertise and immersing them in the skills they can carry over to their students. I feel so lucky to be able to sit in on these conversations and see this great work.”
What VanderGoot is bringing to her students this semester is what she calls deep ecological design work: building typologies that aren’t superficially separate from the environment and other species, but intrinsically connected. An ecologically-centered building can enhance and restore its environment during its lifetime and return to the earth after its life is complete. In an industry that prides itself on designing products that stand the test of time, VanderGoot is proposing something more short-lived.
“What Jana is proposing is really turning things on their head,” said Matthew.
Many of VanderGoot’s students looked to living materials to build their walls. Graduate student TaLisha Jenkins’ wall cleans the air with the help of softwood and microalgae, which is 400 times more effective at carbon capture than trees. The soil and microscopic organisms tightly compacted for Daryl Vargas’ wall can eventually be repurposed as topsoil for garden beds or, depending on the admixtures, ballast for road construction. Almas Haider’s design, called “the watering hole,” looks to cultural benefits of ecological coexistence, designing a wall of modular downcycled steel parts that offers both green space and a community food source, particularly for fringe communities where those resources are scarce.
“Bio-design is important because it supports a human way of existing on this planet that would increase our own longevity,” she says. “Not just because current development practices come with pollution, harmful mineral extraction and oppressive labor practices, but so that the proven benefits of clean air and water, and spending time in spaces made of materials that we can recognize, are accessible for everyone.”
Students benefited from co-classes with Assistant Professor Sach’s undergraduate landscape architecture class, case studies on ecological design, as well as conversations with local tribal communities, a relationship forged in 2017 with the UMD Solar Decathlon house, reACT. These relationships are shedding light on how Indigenous communities in North America have tended and shaped landscapes to create their built environments for centuries. More importantly, conversations with tribal communities touch upon the importance of design intent and appropriation, bringing voices to the table that have been inherently missing.
“It’s the first step in restorative justice,” said Angela Stoltz, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Education at UMD whose children are Nanticoke, during a discussion with students. “Native people have the right and should have the place to share their perspectives. It’s not until we listen to other perspectives that we start to realize the voids in our own.”
Students pinned their concepts and, as a group, carefully considered everything from where the materials came including the structure’s relationship with the landscape, the cultural context and how the materials can be reused at the end of the structure’s lifecycle. Students were required to calculate the eco-intensity impact of their walls at every point, including manufacturing, transport, use and demolition.
“This earth has finite resources,” said Rico Newman to students, a tribal elder of the Piscataway Nation. “There’s going to come an end to those things that make that machine run. At the end of the day, we need to get out of our comfort zones.”
With help from Stoltz and the tribal leaders, students were able to recognize these age-old conversations and give proper credit to tribal traditions, such as the Seventh Generation Principle, where every decision made about energy, water and natural resources has the power to impact seven generations, spanning the past, present and future.
“The work we’re trying to promote is not present in much of the academic literature on ecological thinking,” says VanderGoot. “We are instilling the idea that a bio-wall has a life; it is imbued with spirit as are humans and other living organisms. The spiritual principles shared with us by tribal communities have made the social justice piece more concrete. Our students have really benefited from being exposed to the practical and spiritual knowledge systems of local tribes; that they are integrating more than just the scientific elevates the design to a higher level of sophistication.”
The studio is the start of a series of projects and coursework centered on restorative design practice at the University of Maryland in cooperation with the reACT Think Tank, a coalition of faculty, students, staff and community stakeholders—including area tribal communities—working to develop and test sustainable technologies and cultural practice in the built environment.
“It’s about making the best space for everything in the ecosystem,” said Kyle Harmon, a member of the Nanticoke Nation. “It’s worked for thousands of years.”