Agricultural Waste and Transforming the Future of Building Materials

As the world grapples with responses to global warming, Mae-Ling Lokko, A10, is a voice for rethinking the science of architecture

Through the pathbreaking research of Mae-ling Lokko, A10, agricultural byproducts, or waste, are gaining new respect as building materials that will transform the future of architecture.

As an architectural scientist, Lokko is at the forefront of an emerging discipline that brings together sciences, engineering, and architecture within an ecological framework. Her work centers on the upcycling of agrowaste and biopolymer materials into high performance clean building material systems for humidity control, indoor air quality remediation, and water quality control applications, a way of thinking “across the entire life cycle of whatever building you are designing and building,” says Lokko, who recently joined the Yale School of Architecture as an assistant professor.

It’s a rounded perspective that the Ghanaian-Filipino scientist and architect sees as critical to shape a safe and stable climate future, one that transitions away from carbon-intense building technologies, non-biodegradable materials, and the environmental damage caused by mass-produced construction.

For her innovative explorations that bridge architecture and the construction industry, she has garnered high praise. She is one of 25 solo practitioners and startups chosen as part of the 2023 New Practices, a global annual survey by ArchDaily, a review that “detects and showcases those who are taking architecture in its new direction under unstable times and demanding challenges.” In 2019, she was among the finalists for the Hublot Design Prize. Her research also has been nominated for the Visible Award, in recognition of socially engaged art practices and Royal Academy Dorfman Award.

She’s also bringing fresh ideas to the fore as an entrepreneur. In 2017 she founded Willow Technologies, based in Accra, Ghana, a sustainable materials and building technology company that collaborates with local and global partners to accelerate the development of low-carbon technologies that hew to ethically responsible supply chains. She has most comprehensively demonstrated the versatility, durability, efficiency, and aesthetics of upcycled coconut husks.

Lokko earned a master’s and, in 2016, a Ph.D. from the School of Architecture and Center for Architecture, Science and Ecology (CASE) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she also was an assistant professor and director of the Building Sciences Program. She shares her journey toward sustainable, transformative architecture and the need to restore a closer connection to natural resources in the built world.

The Intelligence of Vernacular Architecture

Lokko’s upbringing gave her an international outlook on architecture. Her father, a surgeon, settled the family in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, England, Malaysia, Grenada, the Philippines, and Ghana, and in each locale, she noticed “there was always some type of vernacular architecture that used distinctive, economical plant-based materials and sophisticated practices.” But they were also fading away due to the rise in the use of glass, concrete, steel—modern materials of progress and development. 

Golden Cube, recylced cellulose

As a doctoral student at Rensselaer School of Architecture, Lokko and Associate Professor Gustavo Crembil won a Rotch Foundation Studio Grant and collaborated on the “Golden Cube, a full-scale shelter structure developed, designed and built by students. Their 2016 project demonstrated the hidden value of waste: the shed was built with custom-made cellulose (recycled paper) pressed panels, and binding agents made of flour and starch.
Photo: Gustavo Crembil

In tropical countries close to the equator, for instance, roofs, which are key conductors of heat, can make or break a building’s comfort level, a visceral experience that research studies now support. “Metal roofs, which may account for less than 1% of the building's mass, account for over 70-80% of a building’s heat gain,” she says. But when plant fibers are used roof construction— palm, coconut fibers, reed, straw— “the difference is so perceptible: the temperature and humidity were lower, and the buildings far more comfortable.

There is so much intelligence in vernacular integration of plant materials,” she adds, “just in terms of understanding how a roof and a façade heat up, how moisture retention can change from one side to another of the building, how all of this moisture and heat can be absorbed and then released. To me, a building is a living, breathing thing, rather than one that sealed and inert.

At Tufts, Lokko pursued art history with a focus on architectural studies; her coursework was complemented by a junior year abroad at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. Her career plans were evolving away from the traditional path, “sitting in an office of an architectural firm drawing and modeling all day.” Rather, she was attracted to potential of natural fibers in architecture. “I remember in my last semester at Tufts I took a class with Fio Omenetto [professor of biomedical engineering]I because I was so drawn to his research on silk as a material to build and design with. In fact, that class got me thinking about a graduate career focused on bio-based materials.”

Her most influential pivot point came at the beginning of her Ph.D. program, where she was involved in the research and development of highly sophisticated solar façade systems. “I remember thinking: this technology will likely never make its way to places like Ghana or the Philippines.”

She decided to find a research area that engaged with real-world problems and one that she could see herself working in long-term. But there was a dormant research area around agricultural waste and no funding at the time.

“I had to find my own funding and find a way to stay in the program by planting the seeds for my future research. There was some precedent research in that area, based in coconuts. I could easily identify with it because there was a ton of coconut waste in Ghana.”

A Leap of Faith

Construction materials from agricultural by-products and materials, such as bamboo, hemp, rice, mushrooms, and coconut husks, are seen as viable solutions to the need for immediately available materials with appropriate response to climate conditions. With coconut recently touted as a healthy drink and a base for cosmetic products, coconut production has boomed, but so too has coconut waste in the form of husks. “In Ghana, it’s illegal to dump coconut husk because the husk is so dense that it is a problem for waste collection and landfill operations machines,” she says. “People tend to burn it in open air in the city, so what begins as a land pollution problem quickly becomes an air pollution problem.”

But she also knew that the coconut “is like a tree of life—everything from that tree is milled for something, from ropes to brooms to mats. Sometimes they down cycle it into soil substitutes for hydroponics. And I thought: ‘Wow. What if this research could activate a green economy around transforming the purpose and the untapped value of the husk?’”

That question led her to visit a coconut farmer and his family on his farm in the Eastern region of the country, where she started thinking about a small biomaterial industry that could create more sustainable building materials from the discarded husks.

“I didn’t really have any inkling then of how move forward,” she says. “But the problems were so potent that I wanted to explore the idea – and I thought it could be applied to not just Ghana, but many tropical countries where coconut farmers primarily make less than $1 a day and the waste is in their hands.”

The Strength of Sustainable Materials

Husks, incorporated into construction materials, are a durable additive with benefits spanning a spectrum of applications that could replace traditional building material such as wood, says Lokko. Particle boards made of bioadhesives and agrowaste disintegrate at lower temperatures and pressures than plywood or medium density fiberboard. Feed broken down husks with fungal mycelium, a process whereby the fungi consume the sugar in the agricultural waste, and they grow into a material “similar to Styrofoam, which is a great replacement for insulation and has acoustic applications—all sorts of, niche applications,” she says.

interior insulation panels made of hemp-fed fungal mycelium

Interior insulation panels made of hemp-fed fungal mycelium; their form is inspired by the shape of oyster mushroom heads. The panels were part of Lokko’s “Agrocologies,” exhibited at the Housing the Human Festival in Berlin 2019, and which invited viewer to see how agrowaste processing can be integrated into the ecosystem of the home. Photo: Camille Blake

Coconut husk-based building materials also have tremendous potential as a sustainable material for ceiling and roof applications. “They are good desiccants, meaning they are very good absorbing humidity and indoor air pollutants,” she says. “We have modeled how one might be able to use it in ceiling and roof applications in concert with climatic patterns. During the day it's like dried out normal fiber board, but at night it's almost like a soggy mat because it's absorbing all the humidity. And that cycle allows for the passive cooling of a building.”

Her research continues to expand. A plant called Moringa, popular for tea and supplements, has a flour-like byproduct that has been shown to be effective at treating toxic water, including textile waste water, by creating a sludge. That byproduct, in turn, has the potential to be transformed into bricks, giving a potential pollutant a new and useful purpose.  

The Full Measure of Change

Her coconut research has specifically illuminated the central question Lokko wants to answer: how do we find new models for biogenic materials within our current production system? She calls her ideas on distributed material production “the most meaningful part of my work.”

mycelium hemp wall

At the “Hack the Root” installation at the Liverpool Biennial in 2018, Lokko demonstrated how fungus can be grown into modular panels. The mycelium hemp wall deploys the vegetative state of fungi (rather than the mushroom-like ‘fruit’) and shows how it can be grown into modular biomaterial building panels with high insulation and acoustic value. Photo: Mae-Ling Lokko

She contrasts the traditional production process of building materials—concrete, lumber, among other materials— as “an extraction system, with a view that factors in the entire life cycle of the building material. With that holistic perspective, “you begin to reimagine your relationship to plants and to other living systems and to frame building materials around their impact on climate change,” she says. “Concrete is the second most used material after water. If it were a country, it would be one of the top three emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, after China and United States. But bamboo, a renewable natural resource, has been proven a viable structural alternative to concrete. So, another question is: How can we reduce the carbon footprint and create a flexible framework for building?”

The shift to low energy production processes and non-toxic materials depends, in large part, on continued efforts to demonstrate the superior technical performance of biomaterials. She is excited by the collaborative community she recently joined at Yale. Her voice is one of many raising awareness about the relevance of biomaterials. “The plant world has so much to offer the build world,” she says. “I’m excited to see it gaining the respect it deserves.”

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