What are the Benefits of Low-Tech Biodesign?

Brick patio and dog
The author's brick patio, in process. (Courtesy of the author)

University of California, Davis, Professor of Design Christina Cogdell wrote an essay recently explaining her preference for low-tech biodesign. The full essay was originally published by Biodesigned.org, a nonprofit independent publication of Biodesign Challenge, and can be read here.

Cogdell’s main focuses: 

  • Low-tech biodesign, from adobe to brick 
  • “Living architecture,” and its many interpretations 
  • Working with the imperfections of nature 

We print her essay in part here in the Curiosity Gap Blog, where she talks about the beauty of imperfection.

Building an adobe wall is slow and methodical.

It’s the kind of work I get lost in. The tan dust and bits of straw rub off on my gloves as I lift each brick. They are heavy, more than twenty pounds each, and walls are often two rows thick. I patiently stack brick upon brick, one at a time. It’s 2005 in northern New Mexico. The sun is hot but the air is thin near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Cooling down just requires a brief pause in the shade. I can smell the earth. Adobe is clay mud and sand mixed with straw and dried in the sun. When it is warm, it exudes a sense of rootedness. How could it not?

The wall I am building will have tree trunks called vigas sitting aloft, beams spanning a small studio to support the roof. The thick ends of the trunks are laid level underneath, all resting on one wall, setting up a slight slope to the roof towards the other side for water runoff. These pine trees burned in a fire that ravaged the National Forest west of Bandelier National Monument a few years prior. My then-husband and I drove our 30-foot-long 1970 Crown coach bus, empty of seats, up the winding roads to gather the wood cleared out by the Forest Service. With the help of a friend, we loaded dozens of 15- to 20-foot trunks through the huge, sliding windows before driving back down to Santa Fe not just one time, but five trips in total. The woodpile filled a good part of our backyard. Since our dream of building a cordwood house never materialized, most of the wood ended up heating our neighbor’s home through multiple cold winters. For the vigas, however, I stripped the charred trunks of bark with a drawknife to ready them for construction.

Building a house with your own hands and those of friends creates community, shelter, and value. The work is hard but gratifying, as simple materials from the earth come together to create a place of beauty. Standing in that studio, looking out the salvaged casement windows, I could see the old apricot tree I had brought back to life laden with fruit, next to my garden and a flagstone patio.

Cogdell in class
Professor Christina Cogdell holds up a fresh sheet of cellulose during her biodesign class in 2017. The students were experimenting with bacterial cellulose that can be made into clothing. They were testing for color and texture.

It’s 2020, and after many moves, I now have my own home in the small town of Winters, California. It’s a 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival residence, just like the houses in Santa Fe. It is quarantine, and in between teaching my classes at UC Davis online, I am laying a semi-circular brick patio at the base of a redwood tree in my backyard. It’s the largest tree in town. It towers over my house as it would over even the tallest adobe structure, and it is home to squirrels, mice, and hummingbirds. I see them often, now that I am fully present.

Living architecture — many meanings

For the last 10 years, I have been researching and writing about “living architecture” — a phrase with almost as many meanings as practitioners. It never refers to adobe though, despite the straw in the bricks and adobe’s perfectly circular life cycle from dirt to dirt. Adobe is just too low-tech.

“Living architecture” is usually digitally designed and manufactured to mimic nature in some way like Herzog & de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest. Or it operates with artificial intelligence. Alternately, it is grown from bioengineered living organisms, whether at a small or large scale like Marcos Cruz’s Neoplasmatic Architecture, or relies on materials produced using biology or synthetic biology. Often it is referred to as “genetic” or “generative” architecture.

As a historian and critic, it was impossible for me not to explore “living architecture.” Intellectually, I have a keen ideological radar, honed first through my exit from evangelical Christianity in my early 20s. Many might argue with the idea that religious and scientific frameworks function similarly. All such explanatory frameworks are theories of life and as such are ideological.

I published Eugenic Design, parsing the ways that the popular science of eugenics infused streamlined design and U.S. culture in the 1930s. Fourteen years later at the end of my 40s, I penned a similar critique of current scientific ideology in design, Toward a Living Architecture? It exposes the computational basis of “generative” and “genetic” architectures that masquerade as biological evolutionary forms. A general life cycle analysis of high-tech digital design and production — with its huge amount of embedded energy, rapid extraction of finite materials, and significant pollution — reveals its unsustainability in contrast to actual bio-based design such as those made from wood, mycelium bricks, straw bale, or adobe.

A collaborative process with the earth

I pair book writing with creative making — adobe architecture then, and more recently, building a simple brick patio in my garden beneath the regal redwood. Adobe and a giant redwood have very different architectural properties, starting with the spans and heights they are capable of producing. One is dirt and the other grows from it—into the tallest being on earth. In this, they mimic the horizontality of the earth and verticality of urban structures. I dream of the discovery of new biomaterials that permit the architectural functions of both — strength, stability, height, span, insulation, durability and compostability.

The garden is structured to focus attention on the giant redwood. I have spent days turning over the earth with a sharpshooter shovel, eventually cracking through the sole of my left shoe at the arch which tops the shovel with each thrust. My hands are calloused, fingernails dirty and torn despite wearing gloves. I curse when my shovel is stopped short by roots. Still I truly enjoy the work. I wear myself out so thoroughly each day I can’t help but sleep through the night.

I add compost where garden beds of perennial flowers now start to grow, and sand where the bricks now run in six descending arches (only 12 more rows to go).

Despite the tingling in my fingers from weeks of repetitive digging, grabbing and lifting, I sit in the sand using a painter’s stir-stick to clear the sand to the height for each brick. I test my best guess with a level in two directions before moving ahead. I am shooting for even ground, but it slopes relentlessly up towards the base of the tree, so the wine in my glass on the unfinished patio at the end of the day tilts at a slight angle.

Theoretically, I could make my patio perfectly level. I could dig deeper, cutting through large roots of the redwood tree with a chainsaw. Perhaps a modernist landscape architect would have made that decision. For me working with the imperfections of nature is a key part of biodesign. I appreciate the unevenness, I want our small ecology here to thrive, and biodesign is by nature a collaborative process.

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