SOM showcases algae-based ‘bio-block spiral’ at Chicago Architecture Biennial

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SOM Unveils Innovative Algae-Based Material at Chicago Architecture Biennial

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) has made a bold statement in innovation and sustainability with the unveiling of its groundbreaking material experiment, the Bio-Block Spiral, at this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial. Situated in The Mews in Fulton Market, this forward-thinking pavilion showcases an algae-based concrete and brick alternative that has the potential to revolutionize the construction industry’s carbon footprint. Developed in collaboration with Prometheus Materials, the Bio-Block Spiral not only demonstrates SOM’s commitment to carbon-neutral construction but also offers a glimpse into the future of sustainable architecture.

SOM Design Partner Scott Duncan explains, “Extending our history of material research and prototyping at the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Bio-Block Spiral introduces our collaboration with Prometheus Materials to develop an algae-based, zero-carbon alternative to the concrete blocks found everywhere in our buildings and cities.”

The Bio-Block Spiral is the result of SOM’s pioneering explorations of environmentally responsible construction methods. Fabricated by Prometheus Materials, this remarkable structure utilizes naturally carbon-sequestering microalgae that undergo a patent-pending photosynthetic biocementation process. The outcome is the Bio-Block, a sustainable alternative to conventional concrete that has the potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by a staggering 8%. While ongoing performance testing is still underway, Bio-Block is already available for select projects and can directly substitute the carbon-intensive Concrete Masonry Units (CMUs) commonly used in modern construction.

The team at SOM highlights that by replacing traditional concrete blocks with Bio-Blocks, one metric ton of carbon emissions can be eliminated. The construction of the Bio-Block Spiral serves as a significant milestone in the deployment of this innovative material. Constructed by skilled union masons from the International Masonry Institute (IMI) and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Administrative District Council 1 of Illinois in collaboration with Clayco and J&E Duff, the project showcases the tangible reduction in carbon emissions, solidifying SOM’s commitment to sustainable building practices.

The installation itself reflects the unique material composition of the bio-cement. SOM’s visionary architects have designed a spiraling form that entices visitors to step off the street and immerse themselves in the installation. Through the use of rotated Bio-Blocks at regular intervals, apertures are created, providing a view of Halsted Street and emphasizing the elegance of block-and-mortar construction. Pleated ends demonstrate the block’s versatility and enhance the installation’s structural rigidity, allowing it to stand independently. A projected film on the wall provides insight into the proprietary manufacturing and conventional construction processes behind the work.

Located in The Mews in Fulton Market District and hosted by Shapack Partners, Focus, and Walton Street Capital, the Bio-Block Spiral encourages visitors to interact with the Bio-Block and observe how it responds to elements such as wind, moisture, and temperature fluctuations during Chicago’s autumn months. This installation, in line with the Biennial’s theme of “This is a Rehearsal,” represents a pivotal moment in the journey towards a carbon-neutral building industry.

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