Biodesign in Architecture: Living Buildings Powered by SynBio

A conversation with Ginger Dosier about the future of architectural materials and design
Biomanufacturing, Chemicals & Materials
Katia Tarasava, PhD
April 28, 2024

Materials are one of the most vibrant areas of synbio innovation today. However, while fashion and other “fast” consumer markets quickly adapt to the changing trends, architecture has historically been relatively conservative when adopting new technologies. The challenge comes from the fact that architectural materials are long-lasting; therefore, their creators have to use the information we have today to predict how those materials will need to perform in the future. It takes someone with a long-range vision to create materials that will serve our needs a hundred years from now. One such person is Ginger Dosier, co-founder of Biomason.  

Ginger Dosier, Cofounder of Biomason

Dosier, who is the chair of the Chemicals and Materials track at SynBioBeta 2024, is an architect turned biomaterials scientist and entrepreneur. After graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art, she became interested in how architectural materials were made. She set up a lab in her spare bedroom where she experimented with the early prototypes for Biomason’s biocement®. This incredible technology uses microorganisms as ‘masons’ to literally grow concrete. The nature-inspired process produces concrete that sequesters carbon instead of emitting it. 

This ethos—the belief that materials can do more—defines Dosier’s vision for the future of materials: “We’re just at the beginning of questioning what materials can do,” she says. I got a chance to interview Ginger Dosier and ponder some of the questions that she considers on a daily basis, like ‘Will the materials that we make today be able to handle the extreme weather events precipitated by climate change?’ ‘How long will they last in the environment?’ ‘And what are the consequences of their persistence?’

Let’s examine some of those questions and see how synthetic biology can help us reimagine the aesthetics, function, and the lifecycle of architectural materials. 

Architectural Materials Lifecycle

Back in 2020, an article in Nature made a staggering estimation that anthropogenic (human-made) mass had surpassed the Earth’s living biomass. If this trend continues, anthropogenic mass is projected to reach 3X the global biomass by 2040. A large portion of that is construction materials like concrete, metal, plastic, bricks, and asphalt. Those materials can last in the environment for hundreds of years, polluting ecosystems and threatening biodiversity. 

“Some materials used in construction are meant to last for hundreds of years, while others aren’t meant to last 100 years, but rather serve a role,” says Dosier. “For both, we need to think about the consequences of their persistence in the environment.”

While we cannot stop building new structures, we can change what kinds of materials we use. Dosier believes that architects have a big responsibility when considering the lifecycle of building materials. Until very recently, there was not a lot of information about how materials are made, what they do to the environment, or how long they will last. But today, lifecycle analyses are becoming a lot more prevalent. Companies like Costain out of the U.K. specialize in helping their clients carry out comprehensive assessments and develop strategies for sustainable architectural solutions.  

Impact on Biodiversity

The construction industry is number six on the list of industries that generate the biggest environmental footprint. It is responsible for half of the world’s raw resource extraction and contributes up to 50% of all landfill waste. Additionally, buildings have a significant footprint, not just when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution but also land use. The land we build structures on is the same land that serves as a habitat for plants and animals that we share our planet with, so we must consider the impact of our building practices on biodiversity. 

One of the things Dosier proposes is being more cognizant of how we use the available land. For example, we could reduce the footprint of buildings’ foundations with stronger supporting materials, be more selective about what materials touch the ground, and ensure that the materials we use are not hazardous to the environment we place them in.

Decarbonization of Materials

Our buildings account for a staggering 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. While most of that comes from operational processes, such as heating and cooling, the building materials themselves are significant contributors. Today, materials extraction and refinement are responsible for the majority of the total CO2 emissions. Specifically, concrete, the most widely used material in construction, contributes heavily to our CO2 emissions. Decarbonizing materials is one of the main priorities of the industry today. 

[Tanankorn Pilong/Canva]

Dosier thinks that decarbonization can take many forms. The first is replacing extracted raw materials with bio-based alternatives. Suppose those bio-based technologies could manufacture materials from waste CO2 even better. Additionally, we need to think about where those materials are produced. Restructuring global supply chains to produce materials locally could have a substantial impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, developing living building materials that can sequester atmospheric carbon could reduce the operational carbon footprint of buildings.

Now, let’s explore some technologies that are revolutionizing architectural materials and transforming the buildings of tomorrow. 

Biocement for a “Greener” Concrete

Concrete is ubiquitous in construction and one of the biggest culprits behind the industry’s CO2 emissions. Those emissions mostly come from how cement (the binding agent that holds concrete together) is produced today. This problem was at the center of the founding mission of Biomason. Biomason has developed a technology that uses microorganisms to create a cement alternative using a process of solid-state fermentation. In this process, microbes put carbon to work by forming calcium carbonate crystals between aggregate particles, eliminating direct emissions from the cement production process. 

An image depicting cement with bacteria acting as the bonding agent. This visual shows a cross-section of concrete where bacteria are forming bonds between aggregate particles (DALL-E)

Biomason is not the only company working to solve the cement material challenge. Prometheus Materials, which was founded by a University of Colorado Boulder professor Wil Srubar, is taking inspiration from the way corals and oysters build their shells. Using microalgae with other natural components, Prometheus has developed a zero-carbon bio-cement and bio-concrete. Minus Materials is another startup that works on decarbonizing cement. They are using algae to create limestone, which is responsible for 60% of the emissions associated with the production of Portland cement. Algae-grown limestone, on the other hand, becomes a permanent carbon sink when it is mixed into cement. 

Solugen, a Houston-based company specializing in carbon-negative chemicals, uses a different approach to make concrete production more efficient. The company has created Relox™, a series of concrete admixtures that reduce the use of cement and water in concrete as well as improve the strength of the resulting material. This biodegradable and non-toxic solution is made using enzyme chemistry and renewable feedstocks. 

‍In addition to the polluting production process, the short lifespan of concrete is a major problem for the construction industry. Basilisk in Delft, Netherlands, is tackling this challenge by making self-healing concrete. They do this by embedding special limestone-producing bacteria into concrete that can repair cracks. If the concrete cracks and water seeps in, the bacterial spores germinate. They digest the calcium lactate embedded in the concrete mixture and seal the cracks by producing calcium carbonate. 


Concrete is an important construction material, but so are the various types of architectural fibers. “We need fibers in architecture—to reinforce concrete, for example—as well as to make the fabrics of our lives,” says Dosier. She points out that because fibers are used in textiles and fashion, this important class of materials is much more responsive to innovation. Citing the framework presented in Stewart Brand’s book The Clock of the Long Now, Dosier explains that materials used for applications like packaging and clothes are among the fastest levels of innovation. Thanks to the overlap in the use of fibers between textiles and construction, however, the architecture industry is able to take advantage of innovations in those materials. 

An Image emphasizing the potential future of architectural fibers [DALL-E]

Some of the leading experts in fiber research come from the German Institute of Textile and Fiber Research. The institute focuses on creating sustainable fiber solutions, such as carbon fibers from lignin, as well as optimizing all aspects of the production chain, from utilizing carbon-negative feedstocks to bringing in Industry 4.0 technologies to establish more efficient manufacturing processes. 

In a surprising initiative, Researchers at MIT have pioneered a project to develop lab-grown timber alternatives. This one may sound like a crazy idea at first—after all, trees produce timber, the ultimate carbon-negative technology. However, producing wood locally, in places where it does not normally grow, faster, or in a way that imparts specific material characteristics to it could help create more sustainable supply chains. Additionally, lab-grown timber can reduce deforestation and waste by producing wood in the shape of a finished product.

Another way to think about materials sustainability is by utilizing materials that are already abundant. Unlike trees, kelp grows incredibly fast. Keel Labs is developing seaweed-based fiber with a significantly lower environmental footprint than conventional fibers. This is part of the future-thinking materials strategy, switching from traditional feedstocks that are becoming depleted to others that can take their place: 

“We're starting to see more seaweed overgrowth, like the Sargassum in the Pacific," says Dosier. "So, our creative response to this is 'what can we make with it'?" 

Paints and Coatings 

Finally, important types of materials used in construction are paints and coatings. A lot is happening in that space as well, from companies like DSM, BASF, and Visolis making greener chemicals such as solvents and resins to sustainable bio-based pigments from Nature Coatings, PILI, and others. But Dosier thinks that producing more sustainable alternatives to existing types of materials is just the beginning of what biology can do: 

"If we put the power of biology in those types of materials, and maybe they do even more," she says. "Maybe they also absorb pollution inside of our buildings."

An example of this type of visionary thinking is an IndieBio accelerator program graduate Pneuma Bio. This company is developing 'living and breathing materials' with photosynthesizing algae embedded in them. The technology is currently being developed for fiber and textile applications. Still, its founders envision uses where photosynthetic green microalgae are embedded inside the paints that cover the walls of buildings to sequester CO2 from the air and even generate electricity for the building. This approach gives a whole new meaning to 'green materials.' 

Building a Sustainable Future

"There's an infinite world of what could be possible when we start to take two subjects like architecture and biology and put them together," says Dosier. 

All it takes is imagination and long-range vision to bring these ideas to reality. However, the practical considerations of bringing new technologies into existing markets include making those products cost-competitive. In order to make bio-based alternatives truly sustainable—not only from an environmental but also economic perspective—companies need to consider what kind of inputs they use. 

Dosier is a big advocate of diversifying feedstocks, utilizing waste streams where possible and moving away from aseptic fermentation requirements. In addition to that, she believes we need to incorporate more diverse perspectives when developing new technologies and include local contexts, as opposed to developing 'one-size-fits-all' types of solutions: "In my opinion, ubiquity is what got us in trouble in the first place," she says. "We need a more distributed and diverse perspective on global supply chains and be able to adapt those technologies on a location-to-location basis."

You can hear more perspectives from Ginger Dosier and other synbio leaders who are driving materials innovation in last month's episode of the SynBioBeta podcast. And, of course, catch Chemicals and Materials track sessions at SynBioBeta 2024.

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