Professor Niklas Fanelsa is opening up new possibilities for designers at TUM School of Engineering and Design withbiodesign, which is revolutionizing architecture and design.

TU München

“I work in two research fields – bio-based construction materials, and regional and circular supply chains,” explains Niklas Fanelsa, Professor of Architecture and Design at Technical University München (TUM). The connection is immediately obvious: “If we’re talking about bio-based materials, it makes sense to use them in a regional and circular way.” The issue, then, is to create closed cycles and materials that are formed naturally and are thus guaranteed to be non-harmful to human health and the natural environment.


If we’re talking about bio-based materials, it makes sense to use them in a regional and circular way.

Green revolution

Sound pretty unspectacular? In fact, Fanelsa is currently revolutionizing the way we build and produce. And he is not alone. Biodesign is a network of researchers and practitioners that is providing an answer to the building materials crisis and an alternative to the linear approach of our modern age, a constant chain of developing, using, wearing out and finally disposing of new materials while leaving the environment to bear the brunt. But now, radical change could be on the horizon. From a long-term perspective, it is conceivable that products, or even whole buildings, will grow instead of needing to be built as they are today. However, much research will be necessary before this can happen, and Fanelsa is starting with the fundamentals. TUM goes “from plant material to living organisms that act as co-designers”; in other words, from wood to algae and bacteria. Fanelsa observes that it simply makes sense to take a closer look. Instead of leaving heaps of maize to rot in the fields or turning it into biofuels, Fanelsa and his team are exploring substances in the maize as the basis for creating new materials – such as insulation material, the subject of a current project in France. And Fanelsa has company as he spearheads the building revolution. The Oslo start-up Agoprene, for example, is producing foam material using algae and seaweed. TUM itself is also a hotbed for an increasing number of spin-offs breaking new ground.

Hops as sound insulation

Niklas Fanelsa is a mentor of HopfOn (https://hopfon.com), a startup developing acoustic paneling from the beer constituent. At present up to 80 percent of the plant ends up on the fields as fertilizer, already a relatively positive gain for circularity. But more – much more – is possible. Describing his personal journey towards sustainability, Fanelsa recalls that as an architect, he was involved with old buildings: “It’s fascinating to think that houses used to be completely biodegradable, built from local stone, clay and wood. Today we face huge costs if we need to dispose of building materials.” Fanelsa began his research in 2022, applying his expertise in bio-based construction materials to research. He is well aware that materials from bacteria still sounds like a pretty exotic idea. “Of course, we cannot translate these ideas into practice tomorrow” – but thanks to basic research, the day after tomorrow is a feasible prospect. HopfOn is proof of how fast things can go. The idea of using hops to make acoustic paneling emerged from a master’s thesis by Marlene Stechl, who brought construction engineer Thomas Rojas and investment manager Mauricio Fleischer on board to form an interdisciplinary team that already has a market presence.


Houses as carbon sinks

That, too, is design – the design of human relationships. But Fanelsa sees further potential applications for hops, a relative of hemp. A research project with a housing company in Regensburg will investigate the use of hemp + lime, a material also known as hempcrete, as insulation on a larger scale. But these new developments do not come for free. For Fanelsa, this new world of construction also involves the awareness that users should be willing to pay “something extra” in exchange for “lower energy costs and a healthy indoor climate within the home.”“

The unquestionably ambitious long-term plans by the TUM Bio Design Lab involve buildings as carbon sinks; in other words, buildings that capture more carbon than is released by their construction and operation. That would be an extremely successful partnership between humans and nature – and also an extremely effective one, given that the construction industry is still responsible for around 45 percent of carbon emissions. Change is urgently needed, also with help from biochemists and business experts to move ideas out of the academic and scientific world and into real life.