Jackie Thompson


Mae-ling Lokko, a Ghanian-Filipino architectural scientist is working on upcycling agro byproducts to create clean building material systems.  Agro waste is a worldwide problem not only because its represents important raw inputs that can be used for agricultural production, but also the opportunity costs to use it as building materials. Waste creates huge environmental and sanitary problems which is why researchers are looking at ways to create a circular economy from waste or agricultural by products.   

An Emerging Discipline

Each year, huge volumes of building materials are used to erect homes, buildings, and other structures. These resources are used up creating an enormous pressure on the environment not only through the production of building materials, but also the processes of harvesting them. While the tendency is to use building materials that are renewable to decrease the pressures on non-renewable ones and protect the environment, waste accumulate and is dumped in the environment. Reusing, recycling, and transforming these supplies make sense to attain a circular economy, reduce pollutants, and improve resource use.

Architectural science can look at ways to avoid waste and upcycle by products. It aims to fuse the technical aspects of a building with art and science. According to Lokko who is an assistant professor at the Yale School of Architecture, high performance building materials that are ecologically friendly can be used to tackle humidity control, indoor air improvement, and water quality control issues. Thus, this way of thinking considers the complete life cycle of any design or building. In so doing, it helps in developing a solid and safe climate future moving away from carbon-intense tech and use of non-biodegradable materials. It also assists in reducing the environmental damage caused by mass construction. One of her ideas as an entrepreneur was the upcycled coconut husks having proven their durability, versatility and efficiency. In tropical countries, Lokko says that metal roofs are responsible for 70-80% of a structure’s heat gain. However, when plant fibers are used such as coconut, palm, and straw, the temperature and humidity are lower, and the comfort is much better. She further added that plant materials are logical ways of improving the efficiency and comfort of a building.

Eco-Friendly Materials Are Robust

Lokko further explained that husks are ‘durable additives’ that could potentially replace wood and other traditional building materials. It is also a fantastic replacement for Styrofoam that is used for insulation and other acoustic applications. Builders can use coconut husks can for ceilings and roofs. Because they are good desiccants, they are useful in controlling humidity and indoor air pollutants.

In addition to coconut husks, there are other agricultural crop waste materials that can be transformed into building materials. For example, sugarcane bagasse ash (SCBA) is a byproduct of burning agri waste. It can be used to replace cement in concrete production. Sugarcane bagasse fibers are also identified as a sustainable building material possessing thermal and acoustic qualities. Bamboo leaves ashes may be used as pozzolan or partial replacement of cement. Cement use is reduced if it is included in the mixture. Evidently, the strength of the mixture must be acceptable so as not to compromise the stability of the structure or building.

Agro waste offers a lot of potential to enable the shift from high energy production processes to environmentally friendly practices. However, much depends on demonstrating the exceptional technical performance of biomaterials developed from agricultural by products.


Photo by Ray Bilcliff: https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-leafed-plant-close-up-photography-1579426/