Biologists and Designers Team Up to Do It Nature’s Way

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Sustainable development is moving to a new level where buildings are integral to nature, supporting nature’s work rather than interfering with life-sustaining ecosystems. HOK, the world’s largest architecture-engineering firm, has teamed up with the Biomimicry Guild to bring about this innovative shift with the introduction of biomimicry to the build environment.

Biomimicry enables architects and engineers to design buildings and other structures that perform like nature, notes Mary Ann Lazarus, director of Sustainable Design for HOK.

“A building designed with biomimicry principles might or might not look like a tree, but different aspects will function like a tree,” explains Janine Benyus, a biologist, cofounder of the Biomimicry Guild and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

In fact, under this new order of sustainability, buildings, outdoor art and other manmade structures would function like trees, meadows, flora and fauna, capturing, cleaning and storing rainwater; converting sunlight to energy and carbon dioxide to oxygen; protecting soil from erosion; disseminating seedlings; and eliminating waste.

The Biomimicry Guild is a Montana-based consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs create bio-inspired design adaptations that emulate nature’s best ideas.

“We look at nature’s R&D lab, which has been around for 3.8 billion years, and use those incredible strategies and concepts to make better products in the business world,” Benyus explains.

Although there are examples of buildings with biomimcry features worldwide, the Guild is the first organization to bring the concept full circle, tapping nature’s vast storehouse of knowledge on how things work to improve products and affect environmental sustainability.

The Guild’s role in the biomimicry building model involves three processes:

    1. Scoping to develop an understanding of the challenges and set design goals. “Taking our cue from native ecosystems, we begin by asking questions like, how many tons of CO2 is sequestered by the native ecosystem per year, how many gallons of water are stored per storm, how many gallons are filtered per month and so forth,” says Dayna Baumeister, biologist and Guild co-founder.

    “If we wanted to build a biomimicry building in New Orleans, we’d first go there and ask the question: What has lived here for centuries and survived the hurricanes?” explains Benyus. “On St. Charles Street, there are 400 live oaks, and only four died as a result of Katrina,” she notes. “So we’d examine those oaks, look at their root structure, settlement patterns and how they build in ways to protect themselves from prevailing winds and frost — what can we learn about their seasonality and response to fire or floods?”

    2. Creating is the inspirational work when, after observing how nature deals with challenges to sustaining life under existing conditions, ideas and strategies adaptations that mimic nature’s solutions are developed. “We come up with a list of building best practices for a specific region that fits the weather, the soil, the storms,” Benyus says. “This helps to create a building that’s not imposed on the environment, but is brought into line with it.”

    In developing strategies/ideas, Baumeister says the biologists take a genius-of-nature approach and apply Life’s Principles:

    Life Adapts and Evolves: It becomes locally attuned and responsive, resilient and integrates processes.

    Life Creates Conditions Conducive to Life: It optimizes rather than maximizes, leverages interdependence and involves benign manufacturing.

    3. Evaluating is the final phase. The team determines how well the creation mimics natural solutions — how well the strategies worked — by comparing the results against natural ecosystems. The goal is to match or improve on nature’s work.

Now in its second year, the alliance is applying biomimicry to designing two new Indian cities, Lavasa Hill Station, an 11,200-acre project, and 12,500-acre special economic zone, in a moist deciduous forest in a highland region of India, as well as smaller projects globally and at home.

These projects are allowing the team to develop eco-performance principles that can be used by industry professionals worldwide to build biomimcry solutions into their own designs, emphasizes Lazarus.

“We’re helping engineers and architects understand how it works, going beyond engineering and architectural solutions to understand eco-performance and measure ourselves like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design),” says Andrew Kilmer, senior landscape architect and a project manager for the Indian projects.

He points out that the goal of eco-performance principles is not to compete with LEED, but to provide a sustainable enhancement and design tool that allows designers to measure how well adaptations function compared to nature. “We need to understand the genius of place, which is what a site tells us about how critters manage to live there, and how the local ecosystem works."

On the Lavara project, the team will develop a model, or guidelines, for applying biomimicry principles to moist deciduous forests, explained Dhaval Barbhaya, HOK senior planner/urban designer for the Indian projects. The eco-performance matrix is designed as a FIT (fully integrated thinking) system that integrates environmental, social and economic components of development, which is a requirement for achieving sustainability.

Using details of the Lavasa project, Barbhaya explains strategies being considered to manage water there. The Lavasa region gets five to 11 meters of torrential rainfall during the three-month monsoon season, then it is dry the rest of the year. Due to the canopy of leaves, 20 to 30 percent of rain never hits the ground, but rather is evaporated through an up current; 50 to 60 percent infiltrates the soil; and the rest is runoff.

“We will have to build a system that mimics what the tree canopy does in the forest,” Barbhaya says. “This may take the form of a building that creates an up current, or we hold the water and let 20 percent to 30 percent evaporate into the air.”

The leafy forest canopy also helps to prevent erosion by dissipating the intensity of raindrops, notes Andrew Kilmer, senior landscape architect and project manager on the Indian projects. Animal homes built using saliva make the soil stiff and hold the soil in place when it floods, he says, noting that HOK will mimic this effect using a polymer product to stiffen soil.

The matrix also addresses social factors that affect environmental integrity. For instance, new rules will eliminate the walls Indians traditionally put around their property, which would prevent natural dissemination of seedlings by native animals.

Ultimately, our species will have to learn to reduce our impact and generate new models, says Baumeister. “We have to make it through this transition, and there’s no better place to look for help but to the other 30 million organisms who have learned to survive on this planet. This alliance with HOK allows us to take biomimicry into a field where there is an opportunity to have a huge impact,” she adds.

“We’re really excited about what we can bring to the table and what biomimicry is already bringing about,” says Lazarus, noting that a number of HOK clients are already very interested in this approach to sustainability. “We believe biomimicry will not only help us significantly reduce the environmental impact of our projects, but also has the potential to help define a whole new sustainable standard for our profession.

“In the mist of the gloom and doom of climate change, we’ve found a different way of thinking about building that gives a beautiful and fundamentally difference performance [matrix] designers need" to move to the next level of sustainability, she adds. “We’re a year into this and really jazzed.”


See also:

Architects, Engineers LEED the Way to a Sustainable Future

Katrina Sparks a Revolution in Green Modular Housing

Building a Sustainable School on a Shoestring

New Technologies Zero in on Wasted Energy

Oh, Those Sexy Building Codes: More Effective Than 100 Nuclear Plants


(Photos: Street scene, HOK; Eastgate Centre, Mandy Patterson/CC; Termite mound, Mercedes Lisón Martín/CC)