The field of regenerative medicine is still in its infancy, beginning around 1992, when researchers started experimenting with ways to encourage the human body to heal its own damaged tissues and organs.

This later led to exploration of biofabrication. Conceptually, this process of regenerative medicine is a form of 3-D printing that uses “bio-ink” to create new tissues, skin, and organs to solve a host of medical ailments.

What does this new frontier of biofabrication mean to the built environment? Could it be possible for ORs to be equipped with bio-ink and print new organs or bone on demand?

One result is from the University of Wollongong in Australia, which recently released a handheld bio pen that will allow surgeons to “draw” with the ink to fill in damaged bone, cartilage, and, potentially, skin.

Dean Goldschmidt from the University of Miami has called regenerative medicine “one of the biggest evolutions of medical history” and compares the opportunity to “the introduction of antibiotics in the 20th century or the discovery of DNA by Avery, MacLeod, and McCarty during the Second World War.”

If this technology is as disruptive as Goldschmidt suggests, it has the potential to radically change research facilities, medical schools, and the delivery of care, with a dramatic impact on the spaces required from an architectural perspective.

3-D printers have already impacted design opportunities in architectural offices, and the on-demand capability allows incredible visualization tools. So it’s easy to see how transformative this type of technology could be to other professions.

The next step is the transition of these technologies into the clinical realm. To accommodate them, it’s inevitable that certain planning and building axioms become obsolete and make way for new opportunities. In this case, we may see central sterile departments move away from sterilizers in the traditional sense and, instead, unique devices might be printed and recycled on-site for cases the next day.

The sterile core behind the OR could be much more than a series of storage areas for supplies and instead be transformed into a processing lab equipped with 3-D printers to tissues. Pre-admission testing could involve the creation of a personalized bio-ink to be used during surgery.

As architects and planners, we need to acknowledge the upstream research that has the potential to impact the needs of our buildings. Taking a step back from traditional planning strategies, we should question historic adjacency requirements to respond to things like biofabrication.

We may not know exactly what products we’ll need to accommodate, but we do know there will be new technologies. How we build in flexibility to accept and embrace the science fiction of today that might be the reality of tomorrow determines how functional our buildings are over time.

The iPhone was released just seven years ago but has transformed how we access and transmit information, both as architects and clinicians. How far can biofabrication go in the next seven years?

As an architect and senior associate and healthcare planner with Ballinger, Christina Grimes, AIA, EDAC, LEED BD+C, has worked with many regional, community, and academic medical centers to develop exemplary health facilities. She combines a design background with the needs of clinicians to build on the context of a particular institution and its mission. She balances the design priorities of patients, staff, and family, while integrating trending topics such as evidence-based design, technology integration, sustainability, and long-term flexibility for institutions. She can be reached at