I recently spoke with Mitchell Joachim, Ph.D., about the emerging theories and science of ecological design. An associate professor of architecture, planning, and sustainable design at New York University, Joachim co-founded Terreform ONE and Terrefuge, research firms devoted to developing new, ecological methods of construction.
Joachim was selected by Wired magazine for “The 2008 Smart List: 15 People the Next President Should Listen To,” and he has also appeared on The Colbert Report. Popular Science dubbed Joachim an environmental visionary in their 2010 piece “The Future of the Environment.” In addition, Joachim has won the History Channel and Infiniti Excellence Award for City of the Future, as well as Time magazine’s Best Invention of 2007.
Joachim is a futurist in the tradition of Jules Verne, and fortunately for us, a leader in ecological design. He was formerly an architect at Gehry Partners and Pei Cobb Freed. He has been awarded fellowships at TED2010, Moshe Safdie Associates, and the Martin Society for Sustainability at MIT. In 2009, Rolling Stone magazine honored him as one of “The 100 People Who Are Changing America.” Here’s what he told me about his vision for the future of green building:
“I don’t make any promises or predictions. I make propositions. In this sense, my work resembles science fiction. Sci-fi writers don’t claim you will one day purchase the technology they describe, but instead, they imagine what the world would look like if this technology were available. To get anywhere, we start by thinking about it. Much of what Jules Verne designed never got built, but some very significant ideas, such as getting to the moon in a staged rocket with a capsule that landed in the ocean, did. He conceived the idea, and then when NASA needed a blueprint to get to the moon, they referred back to Jules Verne. If you want the best economic forecasting available, turn to science fiction. The smart phone came straight out of Star Trek.
“My background is ecology, urban design, and architecture. My partner is a molecular biologist. Together, we are exploring existing technologies in new ways, for example, the application mycelia fungi as both insulation and structure for homes. We are developing materials with bioluminescence, surfaces with a little bit of lighting imbedded into the cellular structure—something akin to, but well beyond the LED. We’re also working on a very old model called pleaching, using cellular plant systems to design structures, but stretching the concept beyond the garden structures and topiaries created by botanists. We use CAD to create a computer model that triangulates plant structures into super-strong organic forms that can be cultivated into very specific architectural shapes. In other words, we’re growing homes out of trees instead of chopping trees down to build them. (To see details on how, watch this video.)
“At first hearing, this approach may sound offbeat, but the direction leads us past the limited concepts of efficiency and sustainability. Efficiency means doing less harm, better than being wasteful, but it doesn’t lead to improvement. Today, ‘sustainability,’ has no real meaning. At least, it has no scientific meaning, ask 10 scientists and you get 10 answers. We need to go beyond net-zero to positive products, like the ones we’re designing that do more than ‘do no harm,’ they actually improve the environment by scrubbing the air or adding oxygen while recycling carbon dioxide.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of moving toward more efficient construction. I was very happy with last year’s Greenbuild Show in Toronto. While other construction forums have shrunk with the recession, Greenbuild has gone from a mere handful of people on the fringe, to over 27,000 attendees this year. Unfortunately, not everyone is on board with the changes. Architects are not that interested in low-flush, there’s no sex appeal. Designers trained to think like plastic surgeons focus on image, they become obsessed with driving high-end cultural styles. We need more professionals driven to find smart solutions. The answers to our major problems are accessible now without any change in technology. When the Obama administration asked us what invention we should get on board with now so we can get on this green economy I said, ‘Start by changing the light bulbs.’
“You ask me about the future? It will come sooner rather than later. While it used to be hard to convince someone of a new idea, the process has accelerated. Now ideas can take hold within a few years, or even a moment via a viral blog. I believe that 50 years from now dying in a car accident will seem absurd. Our homes will be living, self-regulating environments, not dead structures. The keyboard and mouse will disappear. Technology and culture will have merged. Computer-generated projections will become the primary interface--it will be pervasive. Unfortunately, this will not mean less poverty, disease, and war. Human reality has not shifted, we will still remain divided into a world of have and have not’s.”