The house of our dreams is made of DNA

“This tree next to my workshop is my teacher”, Antoni Gaudí used to say when asked where he had learned his singular architecture: he learned from nature.

We call it biolearning, learning from nature to build. Genetic architecture is about that. It is not a delusion or a funny anecdote, it is a plan for the future that allows us to build the houses and cities of our dreams, sustainable homes, as sustainable as the forests.

Those of us who investigate genetic architecture study the systems that allow living things to grow. It is architecture based on biology: we plan houses, cities and worlds in harmony, sustainable. DNA houses are not a virtual project, we have already laid the first bricks in the real world.

DNA houses can grow on their own

There is an engine that pushes the wonderful capacities of nature: the DNA that is inscribed in each cell organizes the growth and functions of all living beings. We learned its secrets a long time ago to obtain better results in agriculture, even to develop drugs. Now, the objective is to apply its advantages to other fields of human endeavor, perhaps to all. Thus, we can also apply it to architecture and design, where we have already made important advances.

For example, from genetics one can think of houses that grow on their own, whose “bricks” will be living cells, something that will mean a considerable improvement in the sustainability of the planet, which we cannot avoid.

In the year 2000 a line of research called Genetic Architectures was born at the ESARQ – School of Architecture of the International University of Catalonia. The world’s first genetics laboratory dedicated to investigating architectural targets was then created.

The first achievement was bioluminescence to cover the human need for night light in a more natural way, without electricity, without installations, without artifice, just following the lessons of nature when it comes to offering light.

lemon trees as streetlights

In a first phase (2003-2006) the gene responsible for bioluminescence (Green Fluorescent Protein), present in various living beings such as jellyfish Aequorea Victoria.

Later, various biolamps (2007-2010), live bioluminescent bacteria lamps, which offered their natural light, illuminating the various architectural and urban spaces in which they were installed for days.

Finally, in a third phase (2011-2014), the genes responsible for the bioluminescence of these bacteria were integrated into the DNA of seven types of ornamental plants, which can grow in gardens, balconies and living rooms.

Alberto T. Estévez, Genetic Barcelona Project, 1st phase, 2003-2006. Left, image of a possible world (image of Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Milà, with bioluminescent urban trees). Center, the magic light of the lemon trees with GFP. Right, comparison between real leaves of the same type of lemon trees, with GFP and without GFP: top photo taken with a conventional SLR camera (direct vision of the human eye), and bottom photo taken with a special UV camera. (Images and photos by the author).

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Alberto T. Estévez, Genetic Barcelona Project, 2nd phase, 2007-2010:

3D printing with living cells

Once again for the first time in the world for an architecture school, they have recently acquired bioprinters. This is a technology with which we are already investigating 3D printing with living cells, specifically bone, which allow the natural growth of structures that may be architectural. This means that we would have living “bricks” to build, and the houses will grow.

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Alberto T. Estévez, 3D printing with a bioprinter of real living bone cells to achieve architectural structures, 2021 (col. Yomna K. Abdallah, computational designer). Left, image of bone architecture generated with Artificial Intelligence. Right, photos of real live bone cells taken with a conventional digital camera, with an optical and fluorescence microscope (Images and photos by the author).

All these are radical examples of what we call biological architecture, an architecture that has living elements from its conception, which define it from intramolecular and cellular levels. The proposal goes far beyond work on the mere surface of things, the limit for the human being until this 21st century.

At this time, the field to take advantage of the integration of living beings in architecture, with a view to improving sustainability, is enormous.

Green roofs for all buildings in the world

It’s more than a dream. We work so that the roofs of buildings around the planet are green, landscaped, alive, even the facades are. We will have its advantages of thermal insulation, therefore energy improvement, mitigating the effect of urban heat islands, improving the absorption of urban dust, pollution, and CO₂. In addition to the creation of biodiversity and possible urban agriculture that it implies.

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Alberto T. Estévez, Green Barcelona Project, 1995-1998: creation of a large interconnected park on the roofs of the buildings.

Why are we doing this?

Our greatest challenge as a species, planetary sustainability, includes the climate, energy, and food crises, the global increase in temperature, melting ice, pollution, the mass extinction of species, the overexploitation of natural resources, the scarcity of drinking water, the accumulation of garbage and plastics, etc. All linked in turn to social inequalities. That is why we speak of an integral ecology, which has materialized in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Environmental and social problems must be addressed with equal urgency. And if they are not attended to together, something not without effort and sacrifice, they can never really be resolved. The challenge of a sustainable future is the task of each and every one, from their own place in the world, with personal responsibility: only the sum of the work of all humanity in pursuit of such sustainability will be able to continue a dignified life in our Land.

From our part of the world, as architects, we work so that the house of our dreams, the cities we inhabit, are in harmony with nature and the future is sustainable.

Luckily, all these issues are being collectively assumed more and more, there is hope!

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