The Ultimate Designer: Biomimicry

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Practice Leader—complete communities | Associate urban designer

What did Santiago Calatrava, Antoni Gaudi and J. R. R. Tolkien have in common? They each envisioned a world that was inspired by the ultimate designer: nature.  

Whether you’re experiencing the Brookfield Place’s atrium in Toronto, the Park Guell’s gardens in Barcelona or the Hobitton of the Shire’s hillside tunnels in Middle Earth, the first thing you’ll notice is how the natural world influenced their work. Calatrava, Antoni and Tolkien’s use of the natural infrastructure--such as forest canopies, skeletal roofs, El Drac (the famous local lizard), and hobbit holes--helped solve problems, whether fictional or real, through design and planning. Their approach is similar to biomimicry or biomimetics, which "seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul."

Today, the idea of blending technology with nature is increasingly influential, given that scientists learn a lot from the long processes of evolution to create designs that are more resilient against climate change and extinction. However, to understand this approach more easily, I find it helpful to classify biomimicry into three areas: bones, skins and systems.

I. Bones
“The concrete industry alone accounts for as much as 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, due in part to the high temperature (more than a thousand degrees) needed to produce cement. Meanwhile, “natural materials are made at room or body temperature. They don’t need this huge amount of energy, so they’re always going to be more sustainable.”                                                                                                                                                           – Michelle Oyen, reader in Bioengineering

In Linda Poon’s A skyscraper made of bones: How Biomimicry could shape the cities of the future, she described how Michelle Oyen, in her bioengineering lab at Cambridge University, replicated the natural formation of bones and eggshells to make building materials that are more sustainable than concrete and steel. It’s remarkable to see how much we can learn about bones at the cellular level, and cross-engineered with the lightweight quality of a polymer, resulting in a more sustainable alternative that is robust and elegant. In the case of Calatrava’s skyscraper, the Turning Torso opened in 2015 in Sweden. What started out as sketches of the human spine has turned into a 54-storey high building with a 90-degree twist. In the flora realm, we can find similar skeletal rationality in the structure of a tree or the veins of a leaf. For example, Gaudi’s nineteenth and twentieth-century buildings in Barcelona are renowned for the curvy columns, rooftops and ceilings that mimic the design of tree trunks and leaves.  

II. Skins
“Mound termites, native to Africa, South Asia, and Australia, are pros at building self-regulating structures that maintain oxygen levels, temperature, and humidity.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   - Shara Tonn, author

When deconstructivism appeared in the 1980s, giving rise to the fragmentation of the constructed building through works by architects like Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, we started to see the manipulation of the structure’s surface skin or exterior façade. Seeing this organic architectural autonomy in building design reminds me of the cross-sections of a termite structure—some as high as 30-feet tall—with a sophisticated ventilation system made up of a large central chimney and smaller chimneys. In the heat of the day, this allows the hot air to rise through the exterior vents and fresh air in the central chimneys to sink down, thereby circulating oxygen and carbon dioxide. At night, the flow reversed. As Shara Tonn, who holds a master’s degree in Earth Systems from Stanford University, explains: by mimicking termites’ strategies, architects and engineers can better design building cladding or “skins” to breathe and maintain a passive cool internal temperature in hot, arid climates. Moreover, the way the eyes of moths or the leaves of plants self-clean have inspired scientists to develop a new type of ‘smart’ window that utilizes nature-inspired nanostructures to clean themselves and reduce window-cleaning costs in tall buildings.

III. Systems

Some years back at a Green Building Conference, Dr Tan Loke Mun, a Malaysian architect, described the tree as an exemplary provider of life. He hypothesized the concept of the Green Tower, which he modeled after a tree, as a sustainable building standard.  At the “canopy”, there is a large helium-filled self-supporting floating roof with photovoltaic solar panels and rainwater harvesting, which supports solar hot water collectors and irrigation systems throughout the building. The “trunk” is covered with high-level greenery and maintains a micro-climatic system for its inhabitants.  There are anthill-inspired crevices that catch the wind and sheltered connections at the ground level. Finally, the basement contains underground connectivity to other buildings and services, along with power generator and water recycling systems in the “roots of the tree”.

So, what happens when Biomimicry meets urban design and how can a city be more like an ecosystem? It is no surprise that urban environments behave like complex natural systems, all interconnected by buildings, streets and underground utilities such as the animals, insects and plants all living within the same forest. Moreover, I agree with Biomimicry architect Ilaria Mazzoleni when she says, “Nature is really a master example of making different things work one to the other and eliminating things that don’t fit with the picture.”  Just as there are the art and science of observing nature, urban planners and designers are using Biomimicry to examine how nature allocates resources efficiently and reduces waste, and to influence the method we design cities. Take Zaha Hadid’s OneNorth master plan in Singapore for instance. She approached the design for this 182-hectare mixed-use development by looking at the original topography of the locale and working out the metrics of how the natural environment should perform and subsequently shape the urban grids, building forms and road systems cohesively.

In North America, there are many organizations like Biomimicry Alberta and Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design that facilitate research and provide education and training in this area of expertise. It is clear that Biomimicry will play a significant role in the future of architecture, urban design and planning—and perhaps, even tackle the urgency of global warming. What do you think?

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