biomimicry & its contribution to sustainability
Biomimicry involves learning from the many remarkable adaptations found in biological organisms in order to inspire new design solutions. It is based on the way functions are delivered in biology rather than just looking at forms and in many cases can lead to innovations that achieve radical increases in resource efficiency.
The sustainability paradigm has very often focused on mitigating negatives – trying to make things ‘less bad’ – but I feel we now need to move beyond that and devise solutions that have a positive impact. This can be in the form of schemes that repair some of the damage that has been done to ecosystems or it could be a building that creates a fantastic, healthy working environment for its occupants. The Sahara Forest Project is a good example of the former and the Biomimetic Office addresses the latter. Biological systems are regenerative and it is time we created buildings that do the same.
From an architectural perspective, there is an important distinction to be made between ‘biomimicry’ and ‘biomorphism’. Modern architects have frequently used nature as a source for unconventional forms and for a symbolic association. There are some examples of how this has produced majestic works of architecture such as Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax building. In the esoteric realm, Le Corbusier used allusions to natural forms extensively for their associated symbolism. The reason that it is necessary to make a distinction is because we require a functional revolution of sorts if we are to bring about the transformations described above and I firmly believe that it will be biomimicry rather than biomorphism that will deliver the solutions we need.
things that architecture learn from nature
There’s so much to learn that I’ve written a whole book about it! It’s titled ‘Biomimicry in architecture’ (Second edition 2016) and it describes how we can learn from nature to make more efficient structures, benign materials, zero waste systems as well as ways to manage water, heat, light, and energy much more efficiently in the built environment.
Biology has evolved solutions to many challenges that are directly equivalent to those faced by architects. The closest thing to concrete in biology is arguably coral – a large scale mineral structure. The contrast between the two is profound: concrete production releases carbon dioxide whereas coral grows by taking carbon out of its environment. Glass manufacturing demonstrates what Janine Benyus refers to as a ‘heat, beat and treat’ mentality: materials are energy intensively excavated, processed and formed. In biology, organisms such as glass sponges show the possibility of making glass with higher optical quality using many orders of magnitude less energy.
While some of the adaptations in biology are beyond our current capabilities there are straightforward approaches that can be implemented immediately, such as building with materials made from atmospheric carbon (wood being the obvious example but also others that are coming on to the market like BioMason bricks). There are countless adaptations in biology that can inspire us (with existing technology) to design structures that use a fraction of the material of conventional approaches, to develop more efficient processes for heating, cooling, lighting and many other aspects of the built environment. Similarly, many of the solutions we need to make the circular economy a reality can be found by studying the characteristics of ecosystems. We have all the solutions we need to design out 99% of the waste that we currently produce.
the future of biomimicry & projects
Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport is a masterpiece of efficiency inspired by giant Amazon water lilies. Many of Nervi’s projects were won in competitions and the secret to his success was his frequent ability to produce the most cost-effective schemes. In a satisfying parallel with the refining process of evolution, the combination of ingenuity and biomimicry led to a remarkable efficiency of resources.
One of the projects of which I am most proud of is The Biomimetic Office. We used biomimicry (studying nearly 100 different biological organisms) to rethink a very conventional building type and delivered some significant design breakthroughs. One of the big opportunities was to rethink the way we brought light into the building – partly to save energy but mainly for the benefits it would deliver in terms of wellbeing. Learning from the mirror structures of a deep sea fish called a spookfish, we were inspired to create a pair of large mirrored surfaces in the atrium that would bounce light into the lower floors. We learnt from highly efficient structures like bird skulls and cuttlebone to radically reduce the amount of concrete in the building. Similarly, lessons from curved leaves and shells led to an innovative glazing system that will achieve a 50% saving in glass and a 75% saving in aluminium.
3D printing is a crucial technology that will allow us to get much closer to the ways that things are assembled in nature. As Professor Julian Vincent has observed, “In nature, materials are expensive and shape is cheap.” What this means is that biological organisms often achieve a remarkable efficiency by placing the materials exactly where they need to be – often resulting in quite complex structures.