The Challenge of Letting Go

Existing sustainable building models emphasize control over all aspects of architecture and design. The Living Building ChallengeTM, the most rigorous sustainable building standard that exists today, encourages designers, contractors, building owners, politicians and government officials to create built environments that benefit nature. It encourages “humanity to reconcile the built environment with the natural environment” [1]. While my Biodesign team agrees we need to reconcile manmade buildings with nature, we propose a different approach to this reconciliation. Starting from the perspective of existing building residents, my team and I are exploring a DIY approach to sustainable building.
In collaboration with my team members, I’m designing a circular waste management and food production system. Combining bioreactor technology and mycorrhizal networks, my team and I envision a future in which a home’s waste does not need to be managed by large-scale infrastructure, and a home’s food does not need to arrive by large-scale transportation networks. As the team’s designer, I’m researching design solutions that can empower individuals to close the loop between their waste management and food production.
When compared with alternative waste management systems, studies indicate that membrane bioreactors are becoming increasingly popular for waste management thanks to their relatively clean effluent and smaller infrastructural footprint. Nevertheless, the cost of bioreactors remains high due to energy demands, replacement and maintenance costs, and sludge disposal [2]. I’m investigating the feasibility of installing bioreactors in easily accessible locations to reduce replacement and maintenance costs, and the feasibility of using found materials to build the bioreactor. One concern with at-home bioreactors is nutrient excess: if homeowners do not build or manage the bioreactor system properly, nutrients could leak out of the system and cause eutrophication [3]. Perhaps such unexpected plant growth would not be such a bad thing, though. To truly reconcile “the built environment with the natural environment,” shouldn’t we as humans change our attitude towards nature? Shouldn’t we be willing to let nature flourish as it may instead of dictating when and where it can grow?

Download a PDF storyboard of a web experience of the vision here (inspired by One Shared House 2030 [4])


[1] Living Building Challenge:

[2] Kraume, M., & Drews, A. (2010). Membrane Bioreactors in Waste Water Treatment – Status and Trends. Chemical Engineering & Technology, 33(8), 1251-1259. doi:10.1002/ceat.201000104

[3] Natural Resources Conservation Service. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2018, from Yet Determined.Html&ttype=detail&pname=Fate and Transport of Nutrients: Phosphorus%2

[4] One Shared House 2030:

Macro Symbiosis

The Macro Symbiosis Project provides a systemic solution [1] for sustainable urban lifestyles, taking biological, ecological, social and cognitive systems into account.  As climate change …

Nature by Default: Bioreceptive Design for Architecture and Urban Development

Last November, I traveled to my parents’ house to spend Thanksgiving with family. During dinner, my aunt recounted how terrible a day she had when her son’s iPhone broke. How could he possibly go through an entire day without it?! How could she possibly get through the day without being able to call her son’s personal phone?! I was surprised by how emotional my aunt and cousin became while describing that day.

Between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert, I went looking for my two youngest cousins who had finished eating and left the “kid table” well before those at the “adult table.” I found them sitting side-by-side on the floor of a hallway, nose-to-screen. No wonder it was so quiet. Past family holidays were punctuated with screams of laughter and singing as my younger cousins prepared shows to perform for the adults, or chased each other around the house in their active interpretation of the game hide-and-seek. That holiday I realized the screen-centric world of Black Mirror wasn’t as extreme a view of the future as I’d thought.

Bioreceptive magnesium phosphate concrete for panels on building exteriors (from the BiotA Lab [1])
As a biodesigner, I’d like to create another alternative view of a future; one that replaces screen time with nature time. When we walk outside in modern cities today, we have to go out of our way to walk through natural environments. Some cities have large parks that provide havens of green space in densely populated places, such as New York. Other cities line the streets with trees and build around bodies of water, such as Seattle. Nevertheless, these experiences of nature are constructed. Unless your parents send you to an outdoor education program or you go hiking through the woods, as a city dweller, you miss out on natural outdoor experiences.

Sketch concept: how bioreceptive panels applied to existing urban houses could support mycorrhizal networks

Using tree houses as inspiration, my group and I will show a future in which living with nature becomes the default. Today, sustainable lifestyles require expensive solar-panel installations, rooftop gardens and green walls. We’ll show how bioreceptive design [1] can re-introduce nature to our cities. If the walls of our buildings support ecological habitats the way tree bark does, we could overcome the barriers to nature engagement that negatively affect our health, both physical and mental [2] (see “nature-deficit disorder” and related research). Then, perhaps we could create mycorrhizal networks in cities, integrating these networks that trees use to share nutrients in forests [3] into urban environments. Integrating nature into cities by default would create healthier lifestyles for plants and for people.


[1] Cruz, M., & Beckett, R. (2016). Bioreceptive design: a novel approach to biodigital materiality. Architectural Research Quarterly, 20(01), 51-64. doi:10.1017/s1359135516000130

[2] Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., & Greenfield, P. M. (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.036

[3] Bingham, M. A., & Simard, S. W. (2013). Seedling genetics and life history outweigh mycorrhizal network potential to improve conifer regeneration under drought. Forest Ecology and Management, 287, 132-139. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2012.09.025