SOM debuts installation of Zero-Carbon Bio-Blocks at 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial

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SOM debuts installation of Zero-Carbon Bio-Blocks at 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial
A Spiral Installation of Algae-Based Concrete models a Collaborative Approach to Reduce Carbon Emissions in the Building Industry. © SOM | Dave Burk

CHICAGO, IL.- For the Chicago Architecture Biennial opening, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) showcases an algae-based, concrete alternative at The Mews in Fulton Market. Developed in partnership with Prometheus Materials, Bio-Block™ Spiral offers a model for carbon-neutral construction.

“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,” said SOM Design Partner Scott Duncan.

Fabricated by Prometheus Materials out of naturally carbon-sequestering microalgae put through a patent-pending photosynthetic biocementation process, Bio-Block offers a sustainable alternative to concrete and, if deployed at scale, could reduce our global CO2 emissions by up to 8%. Bio-Block is in the midst of ongoing performance testing – while available for select projects – as a direct substitute for the carbon-intensive Concrete Masonry Units (CMUs) ubiquitous in modern construction.

By replacing just the concrete blocks with Bio-Blocks, the Spiral reduces carbon emissions by one metric ton. 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 using conventional masonry techniques, Bio-Block Spiral marks an important next step in the material’s deployment.

“This project demonstrates how product development, design, and construction can come together to address the climate crisis in a meaningful way,“ said Prometheus Materials President Loren Burnett.

Hosted by Shapack Partners, Focus, and Walton Street Capital at The Mews in Fulton Market District, Bio-Block Spiral invites Biennial visitors to not only see and touch the Bio-Block, but to also observe how the construction responds to wind, moisture, and temperature fluctuations during Chicago's fall months. Responding to the curatorial theme, This is a Rehearsal, the installation anticipates a pivotal moment in our progress toward a carbon-neutral building industry.

“We are thrilled to host the Bio-Block™ Spiral in The Mews at 167 Green, the 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial’s only exhibition in Fulton Market District,” said Shapack Partners Founder and CEO Jeff Shapack.

Echoing the shell-like material composition of the bio-cement, SOM conceived of a spiraling form that invites Fulton Market visitors to step off the busy street and explore the installation. A central space offers views to Halsted Street using rotated blocks at regular intervals to create apertures, underscoring the simplicity of the block-and-mortar construction. Pleated ends demonstrate the versatility of the block form and improve the structural stiffness of the installation, allowing the Spiral to be self-supported. A film projected on the wall highlights both the proprietary manufacturing and the conventional construction processes of the Bio-Block Spiral.

Bio-Block Spiral was designed by SOM and Prometheus Materials with support from 167 Green, Clayco, the International Masonry Institute, J&E Duff, Sherwin Williams, Cushing Co., and Spec Mix. It is on view daily from 8am to 8pm through the fall at The Mews, between Green Street and Halsted Street in Chicago’s Fulton Market District.

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