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Biowall Designs Break Down Divides

Architecture Studio Course Teaches Students Unity of Built Environment and Nature

By Maggie Haslam

Biowall rendering

Rendering courtesy of Yan Konan

Architecture Professor Jana VanderGoot is leading a graduate course in which students are designing biowalls, which can enhance and restore the environment during their lifetime and return to the earth after their life is complete.

From the insulation properties of straw to the water-cleaning power of plants, a new architecture course is exploring whether the natural processes of the planet hold the secret to saving it. 

Graduate students led by Professor Jana VanderGoot are combining these “eco-technologies” with abundant materials and age-old building philosophy to design biowalls—building types that harmonize with the natural environment—to lighten the human ecological footprint. 

Featuring natural materials like moss, bark, wool and bamboo, biowalls function like living systems with various ecological benefits: cleaning air or water, growing plants or 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 effort is the result of a $15,000 grant that the nonprofit VentureWell awarded to VanderGoot, Assistant Professor Ming Hu (architecture), Assistant Professor Naomi Sachs (landscape architecture) and Postdoctoral Fellow Paul Jacob Bueno de Mesquita (applied environmental health) to design coursework that engages students in developing solutions to real-world problems. 

Ecologically centered buildings, said Vandergoot, can enhance and restore the environment during their lifetime and return to the earth after their life is complete. In an industry that prides itself on designing products that stand the test of time, Vandergoot’s students are creating something decidedly more short-lived. 

“What Jana is proposing is really turning things on their head,” said VentureWell Senior Program Officer Victoria 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,” features modular downcycled steel parts that offer both green space and a community food source, particularly for 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 Sach’s undergraduate landscape architecture class, case studies on ecological design, and conversations with local tribal communities, a relationship forged in 2017 with the UMD Solar Decathlon house, reACT. Their conversations are shedding light on how indigenous communities in North America have tended and shaped landscapes to create their built environment for centuries. 

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 and community stakeholders—including area tribal communities—working to develop and test sustainable technologies and cultural practice in the built environment. 

“This earth has finite resources,” said Rico Newman, 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.”

Biowall rendering with key: 1) Wooden trellis. 2) Structural wall. 3) Recycled plastic bottles wall for insulation. 4) Plants grid system. 5) Structural support wall. 6) Wool for plants. 7) Concrete ground floor. 8) Irrigation system

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