Plants & Architecture

Bio-inspiration from plants for the future built environment through green infastructure, biobased materials and architectural design.

Cluster leader: Prof. Iain Donnison, Aberystwyth University

The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2050, 70% of the global population will be living in towns and cities, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings is one of the fastest and most cost-effective ways to provide global energy savings and reduce CO2 emissions. Risks to health from high temperatures are increasing with climate change, and new ways to mitigate urban heat island (UHI) effects are needed. By 2050, the global population will increase by 2 billion people, requiring a 70% increase from current food production. In recent years, initially niche trends in urban farming are becoming more mainstream. Crop production within cities is advantageous by reducing transportation costs, as well as providing aesthetic and health benefits.

Plants & Architecture identified opportunities for the use of plants and plant-based materials in the built environment and the development of crop production (e.g. green infrastructure, such as green walls and roofs, and vertical farming).


The Cluster focused on three areas of research:

  • Bio-derived materials: The use of plants as a construction resource, particularly in composite materials, as well as design of new materials inspired by plant structure.
  • Green infrastructure: The use of plants in and on buildings to benefit urban climate, citizen wellbeing and urban design.
  • Crops in new environments: Techniques to grow food in/around urban populations including Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) and the effects of new growing environments on plants.

Research activities:

  • Developing new plant-based fibres and composite materials, and testing their use for different building purposes.
  • Using computer models to investigate the effects of green infrastructure on mitigating urban heat islands, as well as the impact of plants on indoor environments.
  • Laboratory experiments and field trials investigating the growth of: i. different plant species under the adverse conditions for growth presented by green-infrastructure (shallow, free-draining soils and wind-exposure); and ii. different crops under controlled urbanised conditions.

Key findings:

  • Development of new composite materials produced from bio-derived polymers and natural fibres that delivered class-leading performance with strength properties equal to synthetic composites – a rare feature for bio-based materials currently available on the market.
  • Biopolymer-blended sheets incorporating plant nutrients were successfully utilised as a slow-release fertiliser for green infrastructure planting systems.
  • Replacement of synthetic polymers with bio-based resin shows potential to reduce carbon emissions from the building industry.
  • Selection of the right species and varieties of plants on green roofs is key to the delivery of ecosystem services in the built environment. For example, with the right species, green roofs demonstrated sustained energy-saving performance during a heatwave.
  • Controlled environment-grown plants have different physiologies and chemical compositions to outdoorgrown plants.
  • The precision-delivery of stress will likely be a key element of whether controlled-environment agriculture can deliver nutritional crops at scale (e.g. stress encourages antioxidant production).
  • Yield and energy use are not linearly related in controlled-environment agriculture. A more precise understanding of individual crop biology is required, including the need to investigate the potential to breed ‘CEA-specific’ crop varieties.

Publication highlights:

  • Xing, Y., Jones, P., Donnison, I. (2017). Characterisation of Nature-based Solutions for the Built Environment. Sustainability 9: 149.
  • Xing, Y., Bosch, M., Spear, M., Donnison, I., Ormondroyd, G., Jones, P. (2017). Exploring Design Principles of Biological and Living Building Envelopes: What Can We Learn from Plant Cell Walls? Intelligent Building International 10: 78-102.
  • Gwynn-Jones, D., Dunne, H., Donnison, I., Robson, P., Sanfratello, G., Schlarb-Ridley, B., Hughes, K., Convey, P. (2018). Can the optimisation of pop-up agriculture in remote communities help feed the world? Global Food Security 18: 35-43.

The NRN-LCEE produced the following briefing on the policy implications of Multi-Land’s research:

Nature-based solutions for the built environment

The Plants & Architecture researchers included:

Aberystwyth University

  • Iain Donnison                               
  • Paul Robson                                
  • Maurice Bosch                           
  • Peter Wootton-Beard                 
  • Rebecca Hindhaugh                  

Bangor University

  • Graham Ormondroyd                
  • Morwenna Spear                       
  • Simon Curling                              
  • Durai Prabhakaran      

Cardiff University

  • Phil Jones                                    
  • Yagang Xin                                  
  • Diana Waldron

Please see the ‘NRN-LCEE Final Overview 2013-2019’  for further details of the Cluster’s research.