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Insights What do living building materials mean for the environment

If you are active in the built environment space, you have probably already come across living building materials. It is a catch-all term used to describe any sort of material that replicates the functionality of a living organism and can be used in construction. For example, living building materials may be able to self-replicate, reproduce or self-heal. Although living building materials don’t have to contain actual living materials, some do.

Living building materials are growing in popularity in the construction space. This is, in part, due to the growing concern about the negative impact that construction can have on the environment. Ambitious targets to turn all industries carbon net zero also means that governments are putting pressure on the construction industry to find greener solutions.

In this article, we will explore the exciting living building materials space. We will also be diving into some of the challenges of the area and how you could help overcome those challenges.

Popular living building materials

Living building materials are already being widely applied to private and commercial construction projects. For example, the incorporation of calcifying bacteria allows certain types of cement to heal themself, making it the perfect material for creating long-lasting buildings that don’t require constant repair and maintenance.

Green roofs are already common and growing in popularity. The use of multiple layers including plants, substrate, and drainage means that this alternative roofing absorbs water from rainfall. This can delay the discharge of water into the sewer systems and can even purify rainwater, putting less pressure on urban infrastructure.

Mycelium-based composites can be used in a similar way to other composites in construction. For example, they can be formed into and used to replace the use of timber, foam, and plastic insulation. In fact, as mycelium-based composites are low in thermal conductivity, have high acoustic absorption, and have good fire safety, they show promise for use in thermal and acoustic insulation foams.

The benefits of living building materials

So, why are the use of living building materials so important to the future of the construction industry?

Firstly, many living building materials have the ability to help drive down carbon emissions. For example, it is widely known that the use of green roofs can help capture carbon. This is especially beneficial in urban areas with high carbon output. Carbon capture and reduction is one of the biggest driving forces behind the use of living building materials, helping the industry move towards net zero emissions.

Living building materials can also help overcome other environmental factors. The use of living materials can often support the control of rainwater flow, this can limit the strain put on city drainage systems and mitigate flooding risks. Similarly, living building materials can support thermal control. This can be achieved through the use of thermal materials to keep heat in buildings, or through the use of materials that can help dissipate heat captured in urban environments.

The use of self-healing or super-resistant living building materials can drastically increase the lifespan of buildings and limit maintenance and repair. Building longevity means that fewer building materials are required over a longer period of time, eliminating the need for the potentially harmful production and mining of those materials.

What are the main challenges of living building materials?

There are several big challenges that need to be overcome to drive the viability and widespread use of living building materials across the globe.

Cost is probably the biggest factor impacting the widespread use of living building materials. With urban population growth ever increasing, there is more pressure on local governments to build more housing and commercial property with smaller and smaller budgets. Although living building material offers considerable benefits, they are also typically more expensive than other types of materials - making them a ‘hard sell’ in many cases.

We have already mentioned some of the innovative living building materials and their benefits. However, the concept of living building materials is still in its early stages with many more innovations and ideas needed to overcome new environmental challenges. This also means that many living building materials are showing early signs of promise with the potential to be effective in the long term and on a larger scale.

AtkinsRéalis ’s commitment to better living environments

Here at AtkinsRéalis , we are committed to helping create more sustainable living environments. When you work with us, you can contribute in a positive way to helping achieve the vision of a

brighter, better future. Our teams are already working on ambitious projects that include the use of the latest, innovative building materials.

If you think a career that involves progressing the use of living building materials might be for you, you can check out our cities and development jobs, project management roles, and environment and geoscience opportunities.