Biomimicry in buildings

Biomimicry, the study of natural structures and processes in order to help solve man-made problems, are being used in buildings in a innovating new way.

Architect Michael Pawlyn believes in biomimicry, so much so that he has founded his own architectural firm based on its tenets. He just published a book with RIBA on the practice and has spoken at spoken at TED on its virtues.

The book, Biomimicry in Architecture, not only gives examples of where biomimicry has been used, but also answers some of the issues that naysayers raise. These include how you could tackle water purification, energy needs and heating in a completely closed loop model where there is no waste.

Pawlyn argues that a lot of the technology needed to make this happen is already available. In the book, he points to George Chan's sorghum brewery in Tsumeb, Namibia, which was built to deliver "good beer, no pollution, more sales and more jobs". It produced 12 products instead of simply just beer and these included the nutrient-rich alga Spirulina, mushrooms grown in the spent grains and gas from an anaerobic digester which was used instead of burning wood.

What is needed is a shift in mindset -- perhaps even the way that we pay for things. Pawlyn suggests that we need to shift taxation away from employment and on to the use of resources, for example. "There are plenty of people who might scoff at the idea of zero waste or getting all of our energy from the sun, but the fact is that nature has existed that way and flourished for millions of years. Although the challenges are hellishly difficult, I'm absolutely convinced that they're possible," he says.

So far, he says, a lot of architects have simply made nods to biomimicry in their designs. Pawlyn states: "Some aspects of biomimicry have been played around with for a long time for example mimicking the structure of termite mounds. There have been a lot of architects who have toyed with biomimicry, but have been quite dependent on seductive imagery such as spiders' webs, but often the designs haven't been seen through in a particularly thorough way. Sometimes the examples from nature are just used as a departure point for developing original and whacky forms.

"If you look beyond the nice shapes in nature and understand the principles behind them, you can find some adaptations that can lead to new innovative solutions that are radically more resource efficient. It's the direction we need to take in the coming decades."

There are architectural firms that have fully embraced biomimicry. Pawlyn points to Tonkin Liu and structural engineer Ed Clark at Arup who were inspired by the forms of shells to create "a new form of construction derived from planar surfaces" -- the Shi Ling bridge.

But he acknowledges that it is practical issues, including time and money, which are getting in the way of a more widespread use of biomimicry. He says: "Most clients want things in a hell of a rush. There's a lot of pressure on both time and fees. If you're developing a new idea, there's normally a process of R&D that you need to go through. There's not normally enough time within a normal architectural commission to do that. There's very little decent R&D that goes on in the building industry. People would be shocked at how backward construction is compared to consumer electronics for example. The pace of change is painfully slow."

Despite the work of organisations like The Biomimicry Institute in the US, founded by science writer and consultant Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, many architects simply don't know enough about the potential benefits of this mode. Pawlyn says that having a biologist at the design table right from the early stage of a project could not only change this but throw up some "major breakthroughs".

He put this to test with a recent project for his firm, Exploration, when the company was commissioned to create a concept study for a biomimetic office building. He adopted "a magnificent seven approach" to creating his team of architects, polymaths and "brilliant thinkers who I have got to know over the past 20 years". These included Professor of Biomimicry, Julian Vincent, David Crookes from structural engineers Fluid Structures and Graham Dodd from Arup R&D. "By starting without a defining vision and creating one collaboratively, I think we were able to create something that reflected the best of what everyone had to offer," Pawlyn says.

Exploration has now been asked by the client to put together a proposal to take things to the next stage. He admits though that the costs, as with any nascent technology, are still quite high: "The scheme at the moment looks quite expensive but that's because we've tried to identify the absolute ideals to get one of the most productive, enjoyable and energy efficient buildings ever created. Now what we need to do is work out what the right budget figure is to aim for."

There are companies out there, as Pawlyn describes them -- the "Googles of this world" -- for whom the idea of having "a really distinctive and charismatic building that promotes innovation and creativity" appeals. The cost of R&D is still prohibitive and nothing short of governmental intervention, pumping resources into innovation, will alleviate this, the architect argues.

Pawlyn himself has firmly tied his colours to the mast and is currently working on a TED book about rapid manufacturing -- a technology that he says could play a huge part in a shift to "an ecological age" in which buildings and even cities could be regenerative. We could use rapid prototyping and natural products such as cellulose, says Pawlyn, or even harvest carbon from the atmosphere to create biorock -- which is already being used in coral restoration projects.

Pawlyn enthuses: "For me, biomimicry is just one of the best sources of innovation to get to a world of zero waste because those are the rules under which biological life has had to exist. And it hasn't just existed in a really miserable, self-denying way, but in a celebrated, abundant and regenerative way. I think we need to move to a far more positive way of talking about the future. A lot of sustainable design has got very stuck in very familiar solutions and even familiar materials and forms, and so there's so much more to it.

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