The Learning Centre

Second Year Studio Project.

Nominated for 2013 Teron Prize.

Learning Centre


The Learning Centre is an example of what can be understood as a new approach to “living architecture”. Unlike bio-mimicry where natural forms are emulated with inanimate materials, living architecture aims to culture or grow self-sustaining ecosystems which are also habitable structures, serving the specific needs of their human inhabitants. Living architecture marries biological and structural engineering to create living spaces that are both wondrous and efficient.

The Learning Centre began with the planning of a plaza that would integrate into a specific urban block within downtown Ottawa. Through further research on the surrounding community, it became apparent that the district was zoned for almost complete redevelopment. In this new light, it was less important to integrate into the surrounding architecture than to be a vision statement for what the community could become.

In its first incarnation, the Learning Centre was conceived as a natural history bookstore within the surrounding plaza . From there, it evolved into an enrichment centre for children and young adults. In its current form, it includes a single occupant residence for its caretaker. The Centre focuses it’s teaching on literature, art, and environmental science. A stage with a main floor and mezzanine view area allows the building to serve in evenings for small concerts, open mics, and public speaking events.

The Centre is constructed through a process of controlled growth and deposition of genetically modified calcium carbonate depositing bacteria. Environmental conditions for the ecosystem are modified as necessary so that certain populations of micro- organisms with certain desirable properties dominate through natural selection as needed. Different micro-organism populations are engineered and selected for their exothermic, endothermic, and bioluminescent properties as well as for their structurally reinforcing secretions.

The building is designed to invite people to form new relationships within their community and with the larger bio-sphere.

A. Imagineering: Bio-mimicry vs. bio-governance

A part of our social psyche craves a return to nature. We long to belong within an on- going process of greater creation. This theme runs through the history of architectural theory. Psychologist Erich Fromm and others theorize that “biophilia”, an instinctive need to live among other forms of life, is endemic to our species. And yet, as real and as pressing as this instinct may be, we must also acknowledge other social needs— notably for security, convenience, and comfort—that make our decision to isolate ourselves from the bio-sphere seemingly irreversible.

This project exploits a cluster of newly emerging technologies to resolve the tension inherent in our relationship to our domiciles. The goal is to not to just mimic natural forms. Nor is it to grow “the tree house of the future”. The idea is to leverage the latest developments in biological and mechanical engineering to culture a domicile from both animate and in-animate materials that, through its status as a living organism, actively generates properties needed by its human inhabitants. The Learning Centre should be viewed as a self-sustaining ecosystem which includes its human inhabitants as one of its component life forms.

For years architects, scientists and engineers have drawn inspiration from designs already present in nature. By shifting design from bio-mimicry to bio-governance, the beauty and efficiency found in nature can be exploited directly. The opportunity is to embrace a new paradigm of living within life trained to create the structures and spaces we desire.

B. Physical Form and Materiality: Ribbing and Nutrient Distribution

Calcium carbonate “ribbing” provides structural integrity for the learning center. This ribbing is formed through cultured growth of genetically modified micro-organisms that excrete the material in a fashion similar to corals as they form a reef.

During the construction phase, the goal is select a “constraint set” to restrict growth of the ribs much as gardener uses a trellis to train the growth of a vine. Constraint sets may include prescriptions for open space and structural separation, distribution of light, acoustic properties, and heat flow through the structure.

An array of 3-D printers is programmed to “grow” the ribs subject to the constraint set. Rib growth works through a process of iterative bio-feedback. A given printer begins by depositing a patch of amalgam consisting of genetically modified micro-organisms (selected for their ability to excrete calcium carbonate), nutrients to stimulate accelerated growth of the micro-organisms, and additional inorganic substrate materials. After waiting a few hours for the micro-organisms within the patch to grow and reproduce, the printer evaluates relative population densities and, subject to the constraint set, preferentially deposits the next patch of amalgam where the population densities are greatest. In this fashion, ribs grow through a constrained process of natural selection.

Once rib growth is complete, populations of the calcium carbonate excreting organisms are allowed to wane. Now nutrient-rich water flows down through the ribs from a reservoir in the roof. These nutrients support cultured populations of micro-organisms selected for their exothermic and/or bioluminescent properties. In this fashion, microbial ecosystems within the Learning Centre can be controlled to provide structural growth, structural repair, heating, and supplementary light.

Joints in the flooring, similar to those that form naturally in columnar basalt, channel water flow that regulates temperature. Populations of exothermic bacteria are stimulated within the flooring during cooler months to provide additional heating.

The courtyard fountain features a cluster of copper lily leaves elevated on long pipe pedestals. As nutrient rich water courses both through and between the pipes, they resonate at harmonics modulated subtly by the mosses that coat the pipe interiors.

C. Social Impact: A Trellis for Human Behaviour

The Learning Centre aspires to alter the world views of its human inhabitants without forcing immediate changes in their day-to-day behaviour. While some change to procedures for building maintenance (or, more correctly, ecosystem sustenance) is inevitable, the Centre will fail if it significantly disrupts the daily habits.

Rather, the hope is that, human inhabitants will gradually come to appreciate the benefits they receive through symbiosis with other organisms in their dwelling. By shifting the human-dwelling paradigm from one of “occupier and occupied territory” to one of “co-existence within a greater bio-sphere”, the urban social paradigm will also inevitably change.

The Centre aims to guide human growth in much the same way as it guides growth of its non-human life forms. It engrains the benefit of symbiotic relationships and can help grow its owner grasp a bigger sense of what it means to be alive. In effect, the Centre is a trellis for humans to evolve beyond their traditional role as consumers of life, to one as caretakers of life systems.

D. Environmental Impact

While the net environmental impact of the Learning Centre and similar living dwellings should be positive, potential for disruption to truly natural ecosystems does exist.

Genetically modified organisms used within living dwellings might have un-intended negative impacts (potentially even catastrophic ones) on naturally occurring micro- organisms and their associated eco-systems.

Extreme care must be taken to ensure that environmental impact is both controlled and, if need be, reversible. At the same time, if we are avoid the disastrous global consequences of our unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels (generated by micro- organisms millions of years ago), it behooves us to find new ways of reaping the benefits of micro-organisms living today.

E. Economic Impact: Micro-ecosystem

The economic impact of living architecture can be immense. Endolithic bacteria that exist within the walls, floors, and ceilings, may generate heat, heal structural damage, and even allow for future modifications to building design. Living dwellings can evolve with changes in their surroundings and need to be demolished less frequently.

Inhabitants reduce dependence on fossil fuels because they leverage living fuels. In addition, building maintenance will require a basic understanding of horticulture and bio- relationship engineering. This education lays the foundation for potential homegrown food production and local waste management. Independence in the areas of food, energy and waste can dramatically reduce the financial burden placed on homeowners for living expenses.