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Biomimicry: New Directions in Sustainable Design

By Michael Pawlyn

July 2008

Biomimicry is a rapidly developing discipline that finds inspiration in the startling solutions that natural organisms have evolved over the course of the last 3.6 billion years. Proponents of biomimicry contend that many of the solutions that we will need during the sustainability revolution are to be found in nature: super-efficient structures, high strength bio-degradable composites, self-cleaning surfaces, zero waste systems, low energy ways of creating fresh water and many others.

Typically man-made systems and products involve using resources in linear ways. Often the resources are derived in highly energy intensive ways, then used inefficiently and ultimately end up as waste. While some benefits can be derived by looking at each of these stages separately it is worth remembering Einstein’s maxim that problems are not solved by thinking within the same level of consciousness that created them. Biomimicry offers completely new ways of approaching design such that radical increases in resource-efficiency can be achieved.

The application of peak oil theories to resources other than just oil has revealed the extent of transformation that will be required during the next few decades. If future generations are to enjoy a reasonable quality of life then we urgently need to redesign our buildings, our products and our systems to be completely closed loop and running off current solar income. While no-one would suggest that this transformation is going to be easy, biomimicry offers a vast and largely untapped resource of solutions to such problems. There are countless examples of plants and animals that have evolved in response to resource-constrained environments and a lot can be gained by treating nature as mentor when addressing our own challenges.

A number of organisations have looked at natural systems for ways in which man-made systems and products can be rethought to yield much greater efficiencies. Ecosystems are a wonderfully rich interaction of different species that thrive in exactly the ways that human civilisation will need to develop – closed loop and living off current solar income. The Cardboard to Caviar project, developed by the Green Business Network in Kirklees and Calderdale, managed to transform a low value material into a high value product and earn money at each stage in the process. Others such as Gunther Pauli of Zeri.org have achieved similar alchemical transformations, turning linear wasteful systems into a highly involved web.

While natural systems inspired the schemes described above, natural forms also represent fertile territory for designers. The Eden Project was a radical re-interpretation of an established building type, inspired by various natural forms including soap bubbles, Buckminster fullerene molecules, pollen grains and dragonfly wings. The result of this biomimetic approach was a highly dramatic piece of architecture that achieved a factor one hundred saving in its envelope design at a third of the cost of a conventional approach. The superstructure of the Humid Tropics Biome is lighter than the air that it contains.

The Namibian fog-basking beetle lives in a desert and has evolved a way to harvest fresh water in this arid environment. This example of a natural process has inspired innovations in a number of fields of design including architecture. Grimshaw’s Las Palmas Water Theatre is a carbon neutral desalination plant that takes the form of a stunning outdoor amphitheatre. The Sahara Forest Project (by Exploration Architecture Limited, Seawater Greenhouse Limited and Max Fordham and Partners) is a proposal for restoring large areas of desert to agricultural land while producing large quantities of fresh water and clean energy. The Sahara Forest Project aims to apply principles from natural systems to create design that is not just ‘sustainable’ but actively ‘restorative’.

Nature generally makes materials with a minimum of resource input, at ambient temperature and pressure and does so in a way that enhances the environment rather than polluting it. McDonough and Braungart’s ‘Cradle to Cradle’ model presents a compelling case for how we need to rethink the way we make things. The Cradle to Cradle model clearly demonstrates the potential to design out the whole concept of waste and to eliminate toxicity. While McDonough and Braungart’s book concentrates mainly on examples from industrial / product design, there is great potential to apply the same principles to the design of buildings and products.

Biomimicry offers enormous potential to transform our buildings, products and systems. For every problem that we currently face – whether it is generating energy, finding clean water, designing out waste or manufacturing benign materials – there will be precedents within nature that we can study. All of those examples will be running on current solar income, and they will be closed loop in all their use of resources.

2011 Update! Michael teaches on a new biomimicry course: Biomimicry and Buildings: Innovation and Sustainability in Architecture, click here