How this team plans to design eco-friendly buildings using waste materials

24 Sep 2019

Elizabeth Gilligan. Image: TechWatch

Concrete Jungle is one of 12 finalists in the upcoming Invent 2019 competition. TechWatch’s Emily McDaid spoke to founder Elizabeth Gilligan to find out more.

Elizabeth Gilligan is hoping to completely change the way we build our cities. As she reaches the final stages of her PhD in architecture at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), she is pursuing her passion. She wants to ensure that the world’s buildings are constructed to become an integral part of the surrounding ecosystem.

Gilligan’s company, Concrete Jungle, will manufacture bioreceptive facade panels for the outside of buildings – be they homes or commercial constructions – using waste materials.

She explains the economic argument for her waste-driven building designs.

“Companies are already paying to get rid of waste, and now we can show them that waste is actually a resource that’s useful. The future is about creating a circular system where no one ever produces waste because someone else uses it.”

The waste from which the panels are made should be sourced locally – meaning that the exact nature of the product is intended to change from region to region. “We source the waste materials from local factories, from industry,” Gilligan says.

‘Everything that’s ever changed in human history is down to how we manipulate materials – the iron age, bronze age, stone age – history was all about how we make things’

Activists around the globe have a rallying cry to “be the change you want to see in the world”. That means that small steps can result in huge global changes, if they shift people’s mindsets.

Gilligan is not afraid of this challenge. When I ask if she’s an activist, she says: “Everyone should be an activist. I’d like to do more, but I’m not sure I’m worthy of that title yet.”

‘Everyone can use their imagination’

Gilligan learned these truths from a young age. She is one of eight siblings – five of which have serious disabilities and were adopted by her parents. This unique family from the south of England raised a talented and ambitious daughter.

Gilligan applied for a fellowship with one of the tech giants in San Francisco alongside 5,000 candidates from 17 countries – and she won a position alongside just three others. The fellowship involved intensive prototyping at its headquarters in California.

“My upbringing taught me how important life is and how you should seize every opportunity that you have,” she says.

At the beginning of her career in architecture she held a coveted position at Foster and Partners in its materials research unit.

“Foster’s taught me everything about materials – the wonder of materials and how they can completely change and inform architecture and change how we make things.”

I remark that new materials may be the last frontier of human innovation. Gilligan goes further, saying that materials began the very concept of human invention.

“Everything that’s ever changed in human history is down to how we manipulate materials – the iron age, bronze age, stone age – history was all about how we make things.”

She goes on to say that “everyone can use their imagination to envision the way the world could be built”.

Of her move to Northern Ireland, Gilligan says: “There is something really special about here. The entrepreneurial community that’s been built here is really cool.”

About Concrete Jungle

  • The panels, which form the outside walls of buildings, are made from 90pc recycled materials, with a mix of organic and synthetic materials
  • They appear like a ‘living wall’ with sedums growing out of the concrete – these locally grown plants are hardy, drought-resistant and able to withstand varied climates
  • The panels use concrete incorporated with waste materials that would otherwise go to landfill
  • Once constructed, the walls can be homes for insects, birds and other wildlife – increasing biodiversity
  • They use 85pc less carbon to produce (compared to standard panels) and they reduce air pollution by 60pc by absorbing atmospheric CO2
  • The team of co-founders, also from QUB, are Prof Ruth Morrow, Dr Rory Doherty and Dr Sree Nanukuttan

Concrete Jungle is a finalist in the annual Invent competition run by Catalyst, aiming to showcase the best and brightest innovators that Northern Ireland has to offer. Invent 2019 will take place on Thursday 10 October in Belfast, where 12 finalists will battle it out for a £33,000 prize fund.

TechWatch by Catalyst covered tech developments in Northern Ireland