3D printed mycelium reefs seek to improve urban biodiversity

Urban Reef, a Netherlands-based firm focused on research and design for climate adaptation, has developed a series of novel 3D printed ‘reefs’ that have the potential to stimulate water circularity and improve the biodiversity of cities.

The company has fabricated two types of reef from ceramics and natural materials like coffee grounds and mycelium via 3D printing that reportedly create a habitable environment for various fungi to thrive.

The reefs are similar to living walls, however the structural design achieved through 3D printing promotes their integration within cities without human intervention.

Promoting inner-city biodiversity

Founded by Dutch designers Pierre Oskam and Max Latour, Urban Reef is seeking to address issues of climate adaptation, water circularity and biodiversity within the built environment. The company provides a platform for experimental research utilizing new combinations of biomaterials, 3D printing techniques, computational design and architecture.

Oskam, the firm’s conceptual designer, and Latour, the firm’s computational designer, used these techniques to create their novel urban ‘reefs’. Using natural materials, the designers sought to create structural ecosystems that can be integrated into existing environmental objects, such as fountains, and provide an environment for fungi to grow. 

To create the reefs, the designers opted for porous materials like ceramics and other composites made from seeds, coffee grounds and mycelium – a network of fungal threads. They then 3D printed a porous mixture of the materials into structures with complex geometries to allow moisture from the environment to pass through, creating an ideal environment for different types of fungi to grow. 

Utilizing this method, the team has developed two concept products; the ‘Rain Reef’ and the ‘Zoo Reef’. The former is a rain collector with an undulating shape that, once saturated with the collected rainwater, instigates vegetation to grow on its outside. The reef is 3D printed using a material mixture of clay, seeds, mycelium and coffee grounds to form a structure that is porous, durable, sustainable, and bioreceptive, and which can be used to collect water in concrete-heavy cities where rainfall tends to run off into drains.

The second concept reef, the ‘Zoo Reef’, is designed to be a substitute for concrete fountains in cities, where Oskam and Latour identify there is “a lot of potential” for biodiversity stimulation. By interconnecting a complex labyrinth of spaces with different sizes and orientation regarding the sun, wind and rain, the Zoo Reef would instigate multiple varieties of microclimates to develop.

From concept to reality

While Oskam and Latour’s urban reefs remain in the research and development phase for now, the pair are confident their project will have real-world applications in the future. 

“At Urban Reef we consider the city as a potential habitat to organisms, not exclusively humans,” the pair told Designwanted. “We position ourselves as human within the natural environment deviating from the modernist view of the human transcending nature.”

As such, the designers are seeking to improve their knowledge of natural processes in order to integrate them into their design methods for future projects. They hope their products can integrate seamlessly into existing city designs and landscapes in order to improve urban biodiversity and stimulate better water circularity.

3D printing and sustainable design

3D printing has been leveraged elsewhere by designers to harness sustainability gains and showcase the potential of environmentally-minded design. 

Just last month, 3D CAD software provider Dassault Systèmes and London-based architect Arthur Mamou-Mani opened a new exhibition at the London Design Museum that fuses art, science and industry to demonstrate the possibilities of sustainable design. Named AURORA, the installation is made up of recycled 3D printed PLA panels that underwent life cycle assessments to inform the partners’ design processes and subsequently reduce the environmental footprint of manufacturing. 

Sustainable design via 3D printing has also come into focus in the construction sector, with Italian 3D printer manufacturer WASP completing its most recent sustainable liveable sculpture, “The House of Dust”. The firm has completed several other sustainable housing design projects in the past, including its Gaia eco-house and TECLA sustainable housing model.

Elsewhere, back in May Protolabs announced a £20,000 prize fund for designers and companies taking part in its Hackathon Challenge, which sought to prepare design engineers across Europe for future sustainability challenges.

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Featured image shows Urban Reef’s Instagram page.