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How soil can help save the Earth

The greatest challenge to our near-future cities is in how we can grasp the full potential within our buildings to create a new relationship with the natural world, so we are not merely depleting resources and polluting our environment with toxic waste, but purifying and enriching it.

If we are to embody truly sustainable environments in our cities, then we need to establish a positive, new relationship between soils and architecture. This is not a call for more primitive lifestyles, but to establish the need for modern infrastructures and processes that promote regenerative and life-giving systems.

This may sound like a far-future scenario, but this kind of functional transformation already exists in the natural technology of the soil.

While solutions do not need to be invented, their specific context requires architectural consideration. Indeed, soils may actually be artificially produced and incorporated within the fabric of our buildings, and many of these approaches are, almost universally, applicable across a breadth of architectural styles, property types and geographic locations. So, communities may adopt them without sacrificing historical traditions and cultural identities.

The near-future transition we need to make in sustainable thinking is to reconnect with the complex technology of soils

While we have recently been wooed by ideas of “green” architectures, our growing penchant for greenery is provoking crises in conservation, since they cannot be sustained without harvesting rare bog soils from irreplaceable ecosystems.

The near-future transition we need to make in sustainable thinking is to reconnect with the complex technology of soils, which act as integrating infrastructures on an architectural scale that enable the free flow of elemental systems such as air, water, heat and matter through their bodies. Applying the technology of soils within buildings may make better use of our waste water and organic matter, and enable us to grow native, not transplanted, greenery.

Such activity could take place invisibly in existing architectural spaces that are under-imagined. Currently, cavity-wall insulation is filled with inert materials, such as fiberglass and foams, which perform no useful functions other than to trap insulating air. Yet, Astudio architects are researching how these same spaces may become sites of soil production through domestic composting practices.

Earth can act as filters for purifying waste water, transforming organic matter into heat and passive spaces into physiologically active sites, fitted with units that recycle organic waste and water. For everyday situations, composting produces comfortable, slow-release chemical energy that could be controlled by simply letting more or less air into the system. In an emergency, these units may increase our survival should our grid systems fail, as well as increase the city’s resilience to withstand and recover from potentially catastrophic assaults.

Composting is growing in popularity. Armed with “red wrigglers”, a species of worm, New Yorkers have started a composting revolution where organic waste is turned into nutritious soil.

Yet waste matter may be transformed and applied in different ways too, using different techniques and technologies. The winners of the Bill and Melinda Gates concept challenge to redefine the toilet have developed systems for transforming human waste into electricity with microwaves, recycling urine to flush or turning excrement into charcoal.

In case you worry about what these innovations will look like, the Philips Microbial Home Probe project proposes a series of luxurious products where the house of the future is viewed as a biological ecosystem capable of filtering, processing and recycling what would normally be considered as waste.

Rather than following the modernist obsession for sterility, Philips proposes a new relationship with micro-organisms to run our homes and invite them in to produce methane fuel for cooking and lighting. For example, a bio light is proposed using bacterial bioluminescent lighting, an urban beehive to combat the decrease in insect pollinators, a bio-digester island, biological larder, a plastic waste up-cycler and a filtering squatting toilet.

Our near-future cities will have a much richer infrastructure than today. They will sustain living communities of biological and chemical agents that will function like soils and be monitored through “smart” sensors. They may be beautiful items or invisibly woven into the building fabric to make more efficient use of resources. Yet these radical solutions are also compatible with our diverse needs and lifestyles. Ultimately, they will transform our biologically desert-like urban environments into fertile, bio-diverse ones.

Dr Rachel Armstrong, senior lecturer and 2010 senior technology, entertainment and design (TED) fellow at the University of Greenwich, School of Architecture, Design and Construction, is a medical doctor who focuses on the wellbeing of communities in the built environment.