Imagining buildings of the future

The bioreactor façade at the BIQ house in Germany quite literally went ‘live’ recently with the introduction of microalgae into the building’s shading system.

The microalgae façade was installed as part of the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg. Once up and running, its performance will be monitored to determine whether bio-chemistry can produce a viable source of sustainable energy in real-life urban scenarios.

This is a milestone for the team that developed the bio-reactor concept – Colt International, SSC Ltd and Arup (with support via funding from the German Government’s "ZukunftBau" initiative). And it will be a huge coup if the team can demonstrate that bioreactor façades can provide biomass energy at the same time as offering dynamic shading, thermal insulation and noise abatement.

Yet this technology is merely one step toward a whole raft of new thinking that could fundamentally change the way we live.

Alive in 2050

A new report by Arup’s Foresight + Innovation team foresees all sorts of structures that will be integrated into the fabric of tomorrow’s towns and cities. The study titled It’s Alive (pdf, 8MB) describes how buildings could function in 2050. Imagine living in a home above or below a level in the same building that is used to grow and process crops for urban residents. That makes perfect sense if you want to integrate food, water, waste and energy components.

You might also discover the benefits of having a ‘detachable’ home in case you decide to live closer to your work. Or  ‘Smart’ building technologies that allow you to interact with friends and neighbours, while also acting as a 'central nervous system' for your home or office — balancing heat, light and nourishment.

Evolving further

And that’s just what might be realisable for 2050!

It’s not much more of as stretch to imagine cities as living organisms in an even more literal sense. Some of these ideas were explored in the Sustainable to Evolvable series curated by Rachel Armstrong. Biological bridges. Interactive building elements. Highly efficient recycling and re-use systems designed into the fabric of the urban environment. All of these concepts are perfectly possible. But, few will happen overnight.

Too early to tell?

2050 may be too early for some of the big ideas we’re seeing for the reinvention of the urban environment – certain self-healing building materials, for example. But at the same time, retailers are already selling large, retractable window boxes that represent a micro-scale version of urban food sourcing, so maybe the future is closer than we think.

We can predict two things for certain though. One, urban populations are exploding across the world, especially in emerging economies. Two, buildings are already evolving from passive, solid shells to become much more sophisticated and interesting spaces.

As the long as the first trend continues, then it is absolutely imperative that we all work to ensure the second keeps pace.


  • Illustration showing what a possible building of the future could look like. Open gallery

    In 2050 75% of the population will be living in citites - what will we expect from the design and function of urban buildings?

  • The outside of the BIQ house. Play video

    This short film looks at the history of the BIQ house project and the groundbreaking technology used.

  • Rachel Armstong curated a series of blogs called 'Sustainable to Evolvable'.

  • It's Alive report cover

    The report looks at how buildings might function in 2050.