Charcoal Bricks Offer a Biodiversity-Boosting Concrete Alternative
Plants and wildlife invading the basic elements of our homes can be an absolute nightmare. Whether we’re battling carpenter bees, termites, and other pests in wood siding or dealing with damage from something as seemingly innocuous as moss growing on the roof, there tends to be a tension between our built environments and the natural world.
Most standard building materials are designed to attempt to thwart nature, whether they’re successful or not. But what if architecture and infrastructure were made to live in harmony with it instead?
A new material called Green Charcoal bio-bricks gives us an intriguing glimpse at what this could look like. Engineered by researchers at the Indian School of Design and Innovation in Mumbai as a more sustainable alternative to concrete, the bricks are intentionally porous. The aim is to provide more places for plants and wildlife to thrive within urban environments, boosting biodiversity.
Made of charcoal and organic fibers from the loofah (also spelled luffa) plant, which is actually a vegetable, this brick is infused with soil and contains thousands of tiny air chambers so living ecosystems of plants and insects can grow within it.
Researcher Shreyas More says the bricks could also help cool buildings naturally by absorbing and releasing water while also providing us with a sense of material connection with nature, even in the middle of the city. Plus, concrete manufacturing is responsible for about 8 to 15 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, making the building industry one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis.
“The green charcoal brick replaces metal reinforcements found in standard RCC with luffa’s fibrous network, which provides strength, appropriate flexibility, and ensures a high porosity. These luffa pores provide anchorage for plants and act as thousands of tiny water tanks reducing the temperature of the brick, thereby cooling the interior environments.”
“One of the components of the biodegradable brick mixture — charcoal being an adsorbent of nitrates — is used in small portions on the surface. This creates a co-dependent system where the charcoal adsorbs impurities from the air that serve as nutrition for the plants to feed on.”
“In biophilic spaces, people are happier, patients recover faster, students learn better, retail sales are higher, workplace productivity goes up, and absenteeism goes down. If the facades of buildings, compound walls, and dividers that follow the road network are built using the green charcoal bricks, they will not only clean the air or control rise in temperature, but [they] will also inspire a positive social behavior.”
One thing More doesn’t mention is what materials the bricks might have to be lined with on the interior side of a building to keep insects, mice, and other potential pests from burrowing straight through to our kitchens, bedrooms, and other areas that should really be kept as pest-free as possible. But there are probably ways to handle that problem.
With important pollinators declining around the world (and cities occupying some of their prime habitats), the need to make room for nature within our built environments will likely only continue to grow in the years to come. Natural building materials that collaborate with nature instead of fighting it could be one way to help do that.