SOM creates a spiral of algae bricks for the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

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SOM, in collaboration with Prometheus Materials, a Colorado-based company, has unveiled a unique spiral installation made from bio-bricks for the 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial. The installation was constructed using Prometheus Materials’ Bio-Block, a building material made from micro-algae and aggregate that provides an eco-friendly alternative to traditional concrete. This project marks SOM’s partnership with Prometheus Materials to develop an algae-based, zero-carbon substitute for concrete blocks commonly used in buildings.

The installation is situated at The Mews building in Downtown Chicago’s Fulton Market District. Designed to mimic the shell-like composition of bio-cement, the spiral shape invites visitors to explore the installation away from the bustling street. The spiral entrance faces inward towards the walkway, while at its center, blocks were arranged to create openings that offer views of the surroundings.

The International Masonry Institute and J&E Duff used a conventional stacked masonry technique to assemble the installation. The ends of the spiral, forming the entrance and interior wall, feature an offset arrangement that creates undulating walls, showcasing the versatility of the block form and improving the structural stiffness of the installation.

Prometheus Materials, founded in 2021 by professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been developing the Bio-Block material to meet the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards. The material is currently undergoing ongoing performance testing and aims to serve as a direct substitute for Concrete Masonry Units (CMUs). This process eliminates the need for portland cement, the most common type of cement responsible for approximately 8% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions due to its production and use in concrete.

Loren Burnett, President of Prometheus Materials, stated that the project exemplifies how product development, design, and construction can contribute meaningfully to addressing the climate crisis.

As architects and designers increasingly seek sustainable alternatives in construction, there is a rising interest in materials made from reclaimed waste and alternative sources. Grimshaw, a renowned UK-based architecture studio, recently collaborated with the University of East London to develop a brick made from sugarcane.

The 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial, with the theme “This Is a Rehearsal,” showcases the work of more than 70 global architects, artists, and designers. It explores the role of architecture in collective care and the betterment of urban life. The biennial will run from September 21, 2023, to February 11, 2024. For more information on global architecture and design events, refer to the Dezeen Events Guide.

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