As consumers are increasingly requesting innovative, sustainable and resilient design, those on the leading edge of architecture and engineering are looking to nature as a source for inspiration.
The Biomimetic approach and the sustainable features implemented in The Eden Project serve as a guideline for achieving radical savings in resource efficiency. (photo courtesy of WikiCommons)
Biomimicry is a science focused on emulating nature’s patterns, processes, and strategies in order to create sustainable solutions to human challenges. Engineers are beginning to ask, “How would nature solve this?” Nature has spent 3.8 billion years developing intelligent ways to solve problems relative to environmental challenges. Out of necessity, organisms have adapted to create systems conducive to ensuring continuous survival of their species.
The term Biomimicy was popularized by Scientist Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus and her partners started The Biomimicry Guild, a consulting company that is recognized as a global leader in nature inspired innovation services and biomimicry training for professionals. Most organisms have unique patterns and ways of surviving. Research on such patterns is what Benyus and her Biomimicry 3.8 colleagues have distilled to create a collection of “Life’s Principles” which “are what biomimics use to both drive and evaluate the sustainability and appropriateness of our designs”.
For Biomimicry to successfully integrate into the design and engineering field, the Biomimicry institute created Asknature.org, an open-source database that organizes information by design and engineering function. Even in the moment of creation, anyone is able to ask nature for design inspiration.
“Look at nature as a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.” –Michael Pawlyn
The Eden Project: A Paradigm of Biomimcry
The Eden Project. Source: Pam Brophy via Wikimedia Commons
The Eden Project, a popular attraction in Cornwall, England, is a charitable enterprise and home to the world’s largest indoor rainforest.
The built environment is the most fertile ground for Biomimicry. Per the USGBC, buildings account for around 39% of CO2 emissions and consume 70% of the electricity load in the U.S. Like nature, humans require resilient, zero-energy, zero-waste regenerative environments that are adaptive, responsive and aware. Ecosystems purify water, mitigate flooding, create habitats, sequester carbon, adapt to their environments, harvest energy, and recycle waste. By emulating nature’s genius, the built environment can gracefully provide these ecosystem services.
The goal of the Eden Project was to create a landscape to educate people about the living world. This project exemplifies how biomimicry and sustainability can provide a framework for the successful integration of nature with architectural and engineering projects, moving us towards building a more sustainable future.
Constructing the Eden Project
Designed by Grimshaw Architects, the site was being quarried and therefore provided a unique challenge: ‘How do you build a large greenhouse on a piece of land that is irregular and continually changing?’ Soap bubbles provided a model for the solutions to these challenges and helped generate a building form that would work regardless of final ground levels. Studying pollen grains, radiolaria, and carbon molecules helped the team devise the most efficient structural solution using hexagons and pentagons.
Due to weight impositions, the hexagon and pentagon panels used for the final build could not be made of glass. A material called ETFE, a high strength polymer, was manufactured in units seven-times the size of glass and still remained stable. The weight of these ETFE panels is one percent that of glass panels, yet they are strong enough to withstand the weight of a car. With these large lightweight panels, the building required less steel, allowing for more sunlight. The hexagonal cushions trap air between two layered panels acts as a thermal blanket, resulting in a building which requires less electricity to heat. In addition, ETFE resists corrosion and self cleans, and is easily recyclable, meaning at the end of its useful life it will provide technical nutrition for a new product. The result is a highly efficient and sustainable structure that weighs less than the air contained within it.
The core of the building is an education center, which tells the story of plants using biomimicry and sustainable construction. The design of the roof is based on Fibonacci spirals, a mathematical pattern found throughout nature.
The Key to Renewable Success
Cradle to Cradle is a biomimetic approach to the design of products and systems created by Architect William McDonough and Chemist Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things is an eco-sustainable design manifesto, written on polymer, which can be infinitely reused. The “Cradle to Cradle” agenda emphasizes the importance of intelligent design. Many industries currently operate in a one-way “cradle to grave” manufacturing cycle: extract resources, turn them into short life products, and then dispose of them. Cradle to Cradle aims to achieve a goal of zero waste, with materials viewed as nutrients circulating in healthy, safe metabolisms.
To emulate the success of nature, manufacturing must shift from current linear models to a closed-loop model. Diagram courtesy of WikiCommons)
Nature has a great deal to teach us about material flows. Everything is used and organisms have well defined, proven ways of taking care of waste products. In ecosystems, waste from one organism becomes a nutrient for another. This interdependence and symbiosis is a very important guideline for best practices. To accomplish this goal within manufacturing and engineering, the paradigm of waste must change from a threat to an asset.
When biomimetic and cradle to cradle paradigms are applied as guideline for engineering and design, buildings, products, and/or processes that are inherently more sustainable and economically viable become possible. These guidelines will help its users increase energy efficiency, eliminate or create less waste, reduce material costs, and create opportunities for new products and new markets by igniting innovation and allowing increased living standards to become more attainable.