Mapei special

Algae are the future biomaterial for architecture and design

3D printed to produce everyday objects, dried and pressed to provide thermal insulation for buildings or exposed to the sun for filtering air from pollution: three projects show the possible sustainable use of algae in architecture and design.

While wood, bamboo, cork, straw and other vegetable-based materials are widely used in architecture and design, it is much rarer to see algae being adopted, even if they are a fundamental resource for our ecosystem. In recent years, several independent or academic researches have been exploring the properties of these materials.

Algae Platform
Producing design objects through sustainable processes, starting from the specificities and the natural and cultural resources of the place is the purpose of the research project Algae Platform, developed by Atelier Luma in Arles, France.

The Camargue, where the centre is located, is a unique area: the largest river delta in Western Europe is characterised by a landscape that includes vast lagoons, marshes, reed beds, sandbanks and cultivated areas. Algae Platform is a network coordinated by Dutch Studio Klarenbeek & Dros and composed of designers, researchers, artists and biologists, whose interaction leads to the unprecedented development of biomaterials derived from macro and micro algae.

The aim of the project is not only to experiment and produce objects, but it is mainly educational: “this is a research space not only for design but in a broader sense, allowing visitors to see the product in its whole life cycle, starting from the resource, the water and the algae, which come together to form first a material and then a product—and from there we can think further, about what becomes of the product,” says Maartje Dros in Design as a Tool for Transition, the publication summarising the approach of Atelier Luma.

Algae Geographies, view of the installation within the exhibition "Broken Nature", Triennale di Milano, 2019
Algae Geographies, view of the installation within the exhibition "Broken Nature", Triennale di Milano, 2019

Life Reusing Posidonia
The Life Reusing Posidonia research was conducted by the Institut Balear de l'Habitatge (IBAVI) in the Balearic Islands to experiment with the reduction of building consumption: 50% of energy during construction, 50% of waste production, 60% of water consumption and 75% of energy for heating or cooling.

Among the various strategies adopted for the construction of a first prototype – a complex of 14 residential units in Formentera – is the use of Posidonia Oceanica as thermal and acoustic insulation material. The plant grows abundantly in the island, but researchers specify: “the use of Posidonia oceanica in building construction should be done with the greatest caution and their use should be limited only to areas where accumulation on beaches exceeds the amount necessary to maintain the balance of the coastal dune ecosystem.”

The harvested algae are dried and compacted to a density of 300 kg/m3. Placed in pallet formwork, the insulating material is covered with polyethylene and EPDM membranes for protection from external agents. The project is respectful of traditions, the environment and the local economy.

Life Reusing Posidonia. Photo José Hevia

Through the urban cultivation of microalgae, Ecologic Studio is able to produce oxygen and reduce the contaminants contained in the air. PhotoSyntetica is a research that the London studio has been carrying out for some years through various experiments, prototypes and installations that turn buildings into real filters for air pollution.

The architects have developed a tent that functions as a photobioreactor in which the action of a 2sqm module has the same efficiency as a tall tree. It combines the qualities of EFTE’s coating – a lightweight, robust, transparent and chemically inert polymer material – with the ability of algae to capture solar radiation and absorb CO2 ten times more efficiently than trees.

In a recent article on, Giovanni Comoglio described the functioning of the tent: “Unfiltered urban air is introduced at the bottom of the façade and air bubbles naturally rise through the watery medium within the bioplastic photobioreactors. CO2 molecules and air pollutants are captured and stored by the algae, and grow into reusable biomass. photosynthesized oxygen is then released from the top of each module.”

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