The strength of nature is “lazy and intelligent,” says Sigrid Adriaenssens, a professor of engineering at Princeton who specializes in biomimicry, in an interview with Redshift. Nature is exceptional at turning waste into food, a basic tool for balancing ecosystems that architecture has largely ignored in its history.
Human bones are four times stronger than concrete (and only half as heavy); spider silk is five times stronger than steel. Shells and crab claws are difficult to break, yet chalk is soft enough to draw on sidewalks. A study in Nature Communications reveals how soft clumps enter crystals and give them remarkable strength. Unlike concrete and steel, however, bones, silk, shells and crab claws do not generate industrial emissions in their production.
The production of building materials accounts for about 12% of all carbon emissions. And buildings are some of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions; they are also full of toxic chemicals that can make people sick. CannonDesign Director of Sustainability Eric Corey Freed sums up the problem succinctly: “The way we build our buildings is unwise.”
Flower-like building shading systems As an engineer, Adriaenssens works to build shading systems that use elasticity, geometry, and thermobimetal to open and close in response to sunlight – like a flower. Biomimicry tends to be referred to more by architects than engineers, but there is reason to believe the latter field has more in common with the practice. While it is often beautiful, biology does not concern itself with aesthetic choices as architects do. As engineers, nature relentlessly pursues raw utility, with graceful symmetry as a byproduct.
Cell tissue and building skins Jenny Sabin, architecture professor and director of Sabin Design Lab at Cornell, has focused on knitting as an analog bioinspired unit, and produces photoluminescent textiles with unmistakable cellular structures. Knitting mimics cellular network behavior and the way cells are bound together to become tissue. “The whole morphology is based on fibrous strand systems,” she says. “Knitting is the first example of 3D printing. You add one link to the next row by row.”
Her eSkin project (funded by the National Science Foundation in partnership with materials researcher Shu Yang, mechanical engineers Jan Van der Spiegel and Nader Engheta, and cell biologist Kaori Ihida-Stansbury) incorporates structural color to change the material’s opacity and color in response to sunlight levels. Examples of structural color found in nature include the wings of the blue morpho butterfly and the iridescent feathers of birds.
Bio-utilization brings life to building materials (literally)
But what if the components designers use are actually alive? Biomimicry is a relatively new field with loosely defined boundaries, but generally speaking, there are two approaches: simulating biological processes and the alternative of living materials, called bio-utilization.
In an effort to reduce carbon emissions in brick production, bioMASON brick grows in its factory in North Carolina in oven-free, greenhouse-like conditions. “What we’re creating is biologically cemented,” says founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier.
The Etsy headquarters in New York anchored bio-fil design principles and strategies in the project through a series of visioning sessions with each of Etsy’s user groups. After the visioning sessions, a working meeting was held that included a focus on bio-fil design and ecologic principles, and studies of these concepts were conducted throughout the project’s schematic design and design development phases.
Overall, biomimicry and biophilia are becoming increasingly important in architecture as a way to create buildings that not only function well but also promote health and well-being, while being more environmentally friendly and energy efficient. By studying and mimicking the patterns and systems found in nature, architects and designers can create buildings that are more adaptable, resilient, and efficient.
4 ways architects and engineers can make biomimicry a reality
So, what can architecture and engineering learn from and emulate nature? The answer is much more, with an increase in interdisciplinary collaboration. The more biologists, architects, mechanical engineers, and materials researchers work together, the more likely it is that hybrid fields like biomimicry in architecture can take root.
Incorporate nature into every project
Consider form. There are countless ways to incorporate natural forms into a building: modeling columns after trees, for example, or using botanical motifs in wall coverings and textiles.
Study the unique characteristics of each site – the surrounding terrain, the path of the sun, the climate, and the flora and fauna. Some of these elements can then be foregrounded in the architecture. “One thing I usually do when we want to integrate the building into the site is to go around and collect samples – leaf samples, stone samples, flower samples, patterns,” says Freed. “We document them, scan them in, color correct them, and have them as a repository for the site,” Freed explains.
Permaculture means learning from nature. Nature is our model for designing houses, gardens, farms, forests, villages and cities.
Become a biomimicry advocate.
Not everyone has the resources or expertise to jump right into designing mollusk-inspired roofs. But Freed believes architects can still promote the cause even if they can’t yet emulate nature. “They don’t need to become amateur biologists overnight, but instead can increase enthusiasm and interest in using this approach to achieve better buildings,” he says.
Michel Wolfstirn of Biomimicry Norway recommends getting to know nature better in order to build knowledge and culture in the living world, through botanical gardens, asknature.org, or ‘reconnect’: spend time in nature, observe and try to understand why the characteristics you observe are there, what function they have, then it may be easier to take inspiration from it.
Look for environmentally documented materials
The internationally recognized book “The Ecology of Building Materials” by Gaia architect Bjørn Berge, provides deep insight into the environmental impacts of building materials.
Biomimicry Norway contributes to innovation in businesses with material development that learns from nature. They facilitate waste-to-resource projects, bio-based material workshops and material-driven design exercises.
Michael Pawlyn uses nature’s brilliance in architecture. TedTalk. Michael Pawlyn was the first architectural office to receive the ISO14001 environmental management system certification.