A Very Merry Bioluminescent Christmas

It’s Christmas time again! A time of year wrapped in cultural traditions as well as seasonal and celestial significance. For those of us in the northern hemisphere it’s the darkest time of year, the winter solstice occurring on the 21st of December and bringing only a few hours of daylight to much of the northern parts of the world. With so much darkness in our daily lives, and in celebration of the earth beginning it’s return to longer days, the custom of the Christmas lights is one of the longest held and most cherished traditions of the season.

45,000 christmas lights on a single house in Toronto. image: Lloyd Alter.

We decorate our trees, houses and buildings with festive lights to celebrate this time of year, which also lights up the electricity generation levels across the globe. While we still have restricted choices as far as sustainable sources of energy goes, as individual consumers/designers we have a good choice of which lighting fixtures we use, which can have a significant impact on saving natural resources. Huge advances have been made recently in mainstreaming energy efficient light bulbs, phasing out traditional energy guzzling incandescent light bulbs.

LED christmas trees

LED’s used for christmas tree lights with stunning results. image from seasonchristmas.com

LED’s (light emitting diodes) are the top end of sustainable lighting  fixtures –  They have long life spans, are durable, mercury free and non-heat producing. LED’s are the most energy efficient bulbs on the market today, yet their high initial cost (even though over time is recouped due to minimal maintenance and long working life) has slowed their uptake…. Biomimicry to the rescue! Researchers have now found a way to drastically reduce the cost of LED bulbs by mimicking the internal structure of a fireflies light emitting abdomen.

firefly LED design inspiration

LED design innovation derived from studying Fireflies. image from asknature.org.

By observing the three layered structure of the fireflies lower abdomen, researchers were able to develop  a curved lens which has the same properties as the traditional (and very expensive) anti-reflectivity coating used in LED lights. This design change will greatly reduce the cost of producing LED lights, making a sustainable product even more efficient and affordable for a wide range of applications.

View of Europe from space- lit up like a christmas tree. image: unknown

Nature has found some stunning ways to create light independently from the sun that we can potentially learn from. Deep sea creatures use bioluminescence to thrive in a world of total darkness, and phosphorescent plankton lights up the shallow ocean waters regularly.

Ocean edge and deep sea bioluminescence. Maldives beach image from newscientist and ‘Moon Jellyfish’ image from noaa.com.

On land, luminescence is rarer, limited to glow worms, some types of fungi and of course fireflies, which can put on a spectacular display of “living light”. In some regions of South East Asia, entire river banks of trees light up with thousands of fireflies twinkling and flashing, sometimes in synchronicity… truly nature’s most spectacular Christmas tree.

nature's christmas tree

Tree lit by the glow of fireflies. image from blogspot



This is not Biomimicry!

The National Fisheries Development Board offices, India.
image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk

Yes, Biomimicry does literally mean the “imitation of nature”, but a literal imitation of nature is not what Biomimicry is!

Biomimicry involves drawing inspiration from nature to help find solutions to human problems. Ideally the process (as outlined by Janine Benyus) uses nature as a:

  • Model (imitating or taking inspiration from natural solutions)
  • Measure (using an ecologically sustainable standard to judge the products of innovation)
  • Mentor (valuing what we can learn from nature rather than exploiting it).

So for a design to be truly Biomimetic, the outcome should not only be physically inspired by nature but also have sustainable features and improvements.

The National Fisheries Development Board offices in India (top) is the latest addition to a dubious collection of architectural representations of nature. Some of these examples have a sense of humour in their creation, others have a more sophisticated use of design, but none of them could be classified as Biomimicry.


“Big Duck Building” Long Islan USA, 1931.
image from: http://www.wqed.org/press/buildings_images.shtml

“Nautilus” Mexico City, architect Javier Senosiain
image from: http://vintagefabrics.blogspot.ca


“Elephant Building” Thailand, architects Ong-ard Satrabhandhu.
image from: lemondrop.com

“The Lotus Temple” Baha’i House of Worship, New Delhi, architect Fariborz Sahba.
image from: http://abbotsfordbahai.org

“New Moon Building” United Arab Emirates, Varabyeu Partners Architects.
image from: http://www.trendhunter.com

“Cloud House” Australia, architects McBride Charles Ryan. image from: http://www.mcbridecharlesryan.com.au
 i love this house! but it’s still not biomimicry.


“Sky City” Lotus Towers concept project, London, designer Tsvetan Toshkov.
image from: http://dcnewhomes.com

As far as Biomimetic architecture goes, the rules of standard architecture still apply- form follows function.This is an essential rule in nature also- every part of a plant or animal performs a crucial role to that organisms survival. So if a building form mimics nature but is superfluous to its function as a building, and does not increase efficiency or other sustainability features, then it can’t be categorised as truly Biomimetic.

For example the “Sky City” project above proposes to give inhabitants an oasis in the sky, above the pollution and buzz of the city, using the metaphor of the Lotus flower which can grow into a beautiful blossom above dirty water.

The lotus shaped design (while beautiful and an inspiring contrast against the square grey buildings below) is purely a visual gesture. If those towers were simple unadorned poles and platforms, the function of this design would be unaltered, rendering the lotus shape and form as decorative only.

As for the metaphor of the flowering blossom above dirty water, there are some social and environmental aspects which just don’t sit right with me about that. Are we going to great lengths here to elevate ourselves above the problems we’ve created rather than remediating them? creating exclusive oases for small groups of people?


Architectural Biomimicry is a complex and multi-dimensional form of design, which goes beyond putting an organic shape or natural metaphor onto an inherently unsustainable building. A Biomimetic built environment should function successfully for both human and ecosystem health and happiness.

Zygote Quarterly Bio-inspiration

What better way to spend this afternoon than clicking through the pages of the newly released Zygote Quarterly 3rd Edition.

This unique e-zine is a refreshing and inspiring view into the current world of biomimicry as it develops across multiple disciplines.

With it’s beautiful graphic styling and high quality original articles, its quickly become an inspiration favourite.

The Biophilia of Biomimicry

Biomimicry gives us a strong logical reasoning for turning to nature for design solutions. The living things on this planet have gone through 3.8 billion years of research and development, refining them into the perfectly appropriate and adapted solutions we see functioning around us today. So in our quest to create a more sustainable built world, it makes perfect sense to study how nature has achieved this successfully. But for many of us there is more to the appeal of Biomimicry than logical design solutions, there is a conscious or unconscious love of nature and a desire to live in a world that is linked more closely to the natural one.

image by alex bellink

Biophilia- the “love of life or living systems” is a term that was coined by E.O Wilson in 1984 in his book “Biophilia”. Wilson is a naturalist/biologist/researcher/Harvard professor who has spent a 60 year career looking deeply into the biology, evolution and socio-biology of life on this planet and the role of human beings within it. It is thought that the close relationship humans had with nature along the course of evolution for shelter and survival, has left a kind of genetic ‘memory-mark’ within us, and we seek out nature to fulfil these instinctual longings.

“Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”. – E.O Wilson

Wilson believes strongly in the need for conservation of natural habitats to ensure the continuation of biodiversity of the planet. He suggests that not protecting our natural world is actually the unnatural behaviour.

“Perhaps the time has come to cease calling it the “environmentalist” view, as though it were a lobbying effort outside the mainstream of human activity, and to start calling it the real-world view”. -E.O Wilson

In the design world, Biophilia has been most noticeable in medical and healthcare facilities. It has been well documented that patients who have a visual link to nature and natural light in their rooms have a faster healing and recovery time than those who do not.

Healing spaces of the Jurong Hospital, Singapore, incorporate views to nature and abundant natural light.

Links to the natural environment have also been shown to increase productivity and reduce absenteeism in offices by up to 20%, as well as improve relaxation and psychological wellbeing therapeutic facilities and homes.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s classic Falling Water house and a new drool-worthy favourite of mine in Hollywood Hills by architect John Lautner epitomise the appeal of living closer to nature.

On a city scale, biophilic design is gaining presence and popularity as our suffering from a lack of nature becomes more severe. Biophiliccities.org recognises the benefits of integrating nature more deeply into our cities and promoting a biophilic love for it:

Important ties to place: there are considerable place strengthening benefits and place-commitments that derive from knowledge of local nature; from direct personal contact; enhanced knowledge and deeper connections = greater stewardship, and willingness to take personal actions on behalf of place and home;

Connections and connectedness: Caring for place and environment, essential for human wellbeing and in turn essential ingredient  for caring for eachother;

A need for wonder and awe in our lives: nature has the potential to amaze us, stimulate us, propel us forward to want to learn more and understand more fully our world; nature adds a kind of wonder value to our lives unlike almost anything else; (see the post Springtime Spontaneity)

Meaningful lives require nature: the qualities of wonder and fascination, the ability to nurture deep personal connection and involvement, visceral engagement in something larger than and outside oneself, offer the potential for meaning in life few other things can provide.

Of course Biomimicry can function successfully without a hint biophila behind the intent or execution of a design. Studying a whale’s flipper to create a more efficient turbine design does not necessarily require a love of nature, but I have a feeling it is the driving force behind much hard work that goes into these innovations.

So whether your love of nature comes from a deeply instinctual place, or happy vacation memories, an appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of nature, or fascination for the life giving functionality of it, the more this biophilia is recognised and valued as an essential part of living, the closer we can get to achieving it in our designs. Design it for the love of it.

Lessons from nature: it’s ok to be imperfect.

Recently at work while doing some run-of-the-mill materials research I came across a completely non-run-of-the-mill range of carpet tiles that utilises Biomimicry and a unique lesson from nature to achieve sustainable innovation.

Traditionally carpet tiles are required to be identical in colour, pattern, size and must be installed uniformly in the same direction. This necessity for perfection has often led to large amounts of pre-consumer product wastage. Interfaceflor teamed up with Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Guild to observe nature, taking inspiration from the forest floor and challenging these pre-existing assumptions and methodologies.

image by ((brian))

By observing the ‘organised chaos’ of the forest floor and the imperfect pattern that the different leaves and plants made, it was found that visually pleasing patterns could be made from patterns that were similar but not identical. Applying this to carpet tile design means that batches with slight imperfections, such as differing dye tones, can be harmoniously integrated into an overall flooring design where previously they would be discarded. This effectively reduces wastage at the manufacturing stage, and by introducing a new modular system that does not require carpet tiles to be identical in size, wastage is also avoided at the installation stage.

“in the industrial world, variation has traditionally been seen as imperfection. Using Biomimicry, Oakey was able to incorporate our natural admiration of variation into an industrial process that was traditionally intolerant of it”. –Interfaceflor

InterfaceFlor ‘Entropy’ carpet tile.

Of course there is more to sustainable flooring than producers reducing their wastage (and equally their financial losses). Carpeting is one of those building materials with an especially bad reputation for high embodied energy, short lifespan, high landfill presence, and a high possibility of poisoning you at your desk by VOC off-gassing.

Interfaceflor and the Biomimicry Guild attempted to tackle this problem of toxic glue reliance by studying the way Gecko’s feet adhere to surfaces. However this was leading them down a high cost path of technology research and development so they switched focus. Instead of asking the question “how does nature make glue?” they began to ask “how does nature keep a surface in place?” The answer is simply ‘gravity’, and with this new perspective on the problem the team was able to allow gravity to do its job and keep the carpet on the floor, and focus instead on the simpler task of keeping each carpet tile attached to the others in the modular. This ‘less is more’ approach found a low tech, logical solution in place of existing wastage or a potential high-tech high-cost solution.

Interfaceflor TacTiles

There are so many things we do in building and construction which are an unnecessary overkill of outdated ideas that haven’t been challenged since they started turning a profit. One of the best benefits of Biomimicry is its ability to question assumptions and radically shift perception, as was done here in the case of carpet tiles.  In particular the first two steps of the Biomimicry Design Spiral are crucial in achieving this, opening our eyes to the simple, logical solutions nature provides us with.

Check out the Interfaceflor Case Study.

Springtime Spontaneity

Blooming cherry tree structure by Vision Division

Following along the idea of lessons from nature which are broader than specific design solutions comes one of the most underutilized, I think, in the human world: spontaneity!

As the May blossoms spring into life here, and a walk through a brown defrosting park one day could a couple days later be a fresh green hive of life; Surprise, spontaneity and wonder are in the air.

Of course the seeming spontaneity of nature is actually the result of a hidden and complex natural process of germination, that I, the casual gawker, only see the end product of. Similarly with architecture- months sometimes years of thought, discussion, planning and careful design go into the germination of each project. So for the designer the process and product of architecture may not feel at all spontaneous especially with the amount of constrains and compromises often placed on a fresh idea. However for the general public and roadside passersby, not only is the sudden springing up of scaffolding sometimes a surprise, but the building design itself has the ability inject some spontaneous delight into the everyday experience of the city.

Delight is sadly an often neglected trait of architectural design. Although we are all taught early on in architecture school about Vitruvius’ founding rules of ‘firmness, commodity and delight’, delight in this context generally means a pleasing built appearance, but why not take a more literal approach? Nature reminds us of the refreshing power of delight in life, it can rekindle that childlike wonder we had before the world was dulled by routine and expectation. The built environment is capable of inspiring wonder as well, not only by large formal and structural gestures like those of Ghery, but also by small unexpected details that challenge expectations in a playful way.

Ghery’s Guggenheim Bilbao and City of Wine building create delight by contrasting the existing city vernacular and challenging expectations of what a building should look like.

Storefront for Art and Architecture NYC transformation of the building edge creates temporary public spaces, and unexpected permeability for a spontaneous city experience.

Renzo Piano (top left) among many who use colourful building facades to insert a ‘joyful vibrancy’ into the cityscape.

Creating a sense of wonder and cheer by vivid color lighting where it is needed most, Children’s Hospital Phoenix USA.

Expo pavilions blur the line between wonderous imagination and useful buildings, i wish more of these delight filled buildings would spring up in our cities for a more permanent purposes. Image by Matthew Niederhauser.

Kelli Anderson gives a great TED talk about ‘disruptive wonder’ proposing that by rejecting the normal order of everyday objects and experiences that frame our realities, we can expand what we expect from reality. She urges us to creatively mess with the complaisance of the little things that reinforce the assumptions we make about the world.


Of course the best kind of spontaneously  wonderful insertions into the built environment are the living green ones. There are so many creative people out there finding innovative, beautiful and witty ways of introducing greenery into our lives, using the element of spontaneity to wake us up to the delight of the natural world and expand what we expect from the reality of our cities.

Moss graffiti-artists include Anna Garforth and Edina Tokodi.

Pothole gardener Pete Dungey and Guerilla Gardeners transform the concrete jungle.

Architectural green walls are always a delight to stumble on, whether engineered or natural.

Adaptable Nature :: Adaptable Architecture

Adaptability- the ability to change or be changed to fit altered circumstances, is one of the master lessons we can learn from nature.

Chameleon and hermit crab- nature’s champions at adaptability and adaptable reuse.

Designing for adaptability and adaptable reuse is slowly being recognised as a crucial part of creating sustainable architecture and built environments. Buildings currently consume 32% of the world’s resources, and roughly one billion square feet of buildings are demolished and replaced each year. That is a considerable chuck of global CO2 emissions, and because of our currently dominant linear ‘product-waste’ system, most of this material becomes landfill.

Demolition by implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development, USA.

Recycling our existing buildings and “finding opportunity in our existing built assets” is an essential and natural step towards a greener future.


According to a report by Preservation Green Lab, even a new energy efficient building can take up to 80 years to overcome the environmental impact of its own construction process. So if we can preserve an existing building successfully instead of building a new one in its place, it is probably the single biggest impact for environmental sustainability architects can achieve in a building project.

Adaptive Reuse is the process of converting an existing building for a new function, usually by renovating the interior while keeping the exterior façade and structural bones of the building intact.  The most successful examples of this are when the old and new elements contrast yet co-exist with each other, so there is both a presence of age and innovation, and a layering of history that brings a social value to the building.

These are a few of my favourite examples of this hermit crab-esque adaptive reuse, where the building ‘shell’ is reoccupied with a new function:

Adaptive re-use of a 1780’s pigsty into a showroom by FNP Architekten, Germany.

Power station converted to multipurpose art/music/TED/pecha Kucha/restaurant/bar/gallery and events space, by Cox Rayner Architects, Brisbane AUS.

Original 1903 Woodwards department store converted into private and affordable housing, supermarkets, restaurants, offices and public atrium and plaza, Henriquez Partners Architects.

Shipping container to guest house conversion by Poteet Architects, USA, 2010. Images by Chris Cooper source archdaily.com

Corso Karlin- conversion of a historical factory building into office space by architect Ricardo Bofill, Prague.

Dasparkhotel Berlin and TuboHotel Mexico reusing sewer pipes. Source- dornob.com

Gasometer City, Vienna converting 1896 Gasometer towers into commercial, office and apartment spaces by architects ean Nouvel, Coop Himmelblau, Manfred Wedhorn, Wilhelm Holzbaue


Problems arise when the cost of renovating is significantly higher for the client than demolishing and building new. This can be the case with some buildings needing extensive restoration, and when there is no heritage value to the building so incentive for adaptive reuse can seem minimal.

‘Facadism’ occurs when the street façade is preserved for historic ‘character’ but the rest of the build is new, the dishonesty of which doesn’t sit well with many people.

Building Facadism, NZ.

Cheap unattractive existing building stock is also a big problem. With the rapid growth of most cities from the 1960’s onwards and the coinciding increased speed of construction due to new technologies, many buildings went up quickly with little design merit.

Asbestos is a nasty challenge for buildings from around this time that are now reaching the age of renovation, and other cheap materials which are not safe for preservation mean many of these buildings must be demolished or further measures taken to ensure safety.

There is also an element of fashion inherent in architecture, architects like to put their style stamp on their designs, occupants like their buildings to represent their image and the public like to see the old and unfashionable replaced with fresh and modern things in their cities as much as in their wardrobes. This means people would often prefer to see a new building rather than a restored one, especially if the building has no historical value or original aesthetic qualities and character.


I’m currently working on a renovation project, a 1960’s apartment building converted to a modern boutique hotel. The existing façade and character of the building are being significantly changed (which is probably for the best, as it truly is one of those aforementioned unattractive buildings) so the extent of adaptive reuse isn’t the maximum possible.

Adaptive reuse of 1960’s apartment building to a modern botique hotel (existing facade and gutted interior shown).

The major reason the client chose to go for this approach is purely the cost savings of keeping the existing concrete structure. As the original funtioning of an apartment building is similar to the proposed function of a hotel, with the changes involved it works out significantly cheaper than having it demolished then rebuilding.

The durability of the steel and concrete structure make this reuse possible, however the asbestos walls will require extra attention and sealing (but not removal). The building renewal is intended to rejuvenate the street corner it’s located on bringing new life, social value and increased safety to the area.


If there is no other choice than to design and build a new building, then principles of adaptability and longevity would ideally be implemented in the schematic design stage.

Flexibility- allowing easy changes in space planning and interior layout

Convertibility- allowing for changes in the use of the building, including expanding and shrinking of required quantity of space.

Durability- materials and systems that are good quality and require less maintenance/ repair/replacement

Disassembly- allowing elements to be easily deconstructed so parts can be reused or recycled.

Sex appeal- design a good looking building that people will love and want to keep around.


University of Tasmania Australia implements the woolly sweater approach in their warehouse to university studio adaption.

The ‘woolly sweater’ approach to design requires adaptability of expectations from occupants. Encouraging occupants to dress appropriately to the seasons and external weather ie. Put a sweater on if your cold rather than turning up the thermostat. This is a low-tech, zero cost user response which can drastically reduce heating and cooling demands, just requiring a little bit of willingness to be adaptable and not expecting the building to do all the work for you.


The opposite to this type of adaptability would involve buildings which could continuously adapt their systems and environmental controls in accordance with changing environmental conditions. An intelligent self regulation of its own systems and adaptability to weather change. This chameleon-esque adaptability would keep energy efficiencies high and wastage low.

Like the human skin helps regulate internal body temperature by opening and closing its pores, I can imagine a building whose walls could become an adaptable regulator of internal and external environments, rather than just a barrier between the two.

Big picture:

Humans as a species are amazing adaptors, proven by our existence today thriving in every corner of the planet. However the things we create, our products and buildings, are most often not, they are built for a specific foreseeable purpose and life span and without long term considerations. This short sightedness has led to culture of consumption and waste, and on the scale of the built environment it is crucial for this to change.

The real challenge now is expanding our view beyond the current project span and even our own life spans, acknowledging that change is inevitable, and evolving from reactionary adaptors into anticipatory adaptors.

Inspiring resources for adaptive reuse include :

http://adaptivereuse.info/ “finding opportunity in our vacant built assets”.


Inspired by nature: Lessons from Fossils and Photography.

Two things really captured my imagination and inspired me last week, linked by an unexpected thread. They were a piece of news about an ancient fossil forest in New York, and the Edward Burtynsky photography exhibition I checked out.

First up, the discovery of a 385 million year old forest floor, fossilized in New York state USA. The “Gilboa forest’ was originally discovered in Schoharie County in 1850, with further discoveries of the fossilised tree stumps happening in 1920, 2005 and 2010. The trees present in the Gilboa fossils were named Eospermatopteris, or “ancient seed fern” believed to resemble modern day tree ferns, and are acknowledged to be the earth’s oldest trees.

This latest discovery by New York state museum and university researchers sheds light on the complexity of the forest, having found the root systems of a variety of fossilised plant species, giving evidence of an intricate forest floor and canopy system. The fossils create a picture of the planet as vastly different from the one we live in today. The Gilboa forest area of New York would have been a tropical wetland coastal plain environment 385 million years ago when these plants existed. Scientists are now using the information from this fossil forest in relation to information about global climate patterns of that time, to further understand the links between the trees, drops in global carbon dioxide levels and climate change leading to glaciation during that period.

“The complexity of the Gilboa site can teach us a lot about the original assembly of our modern day ecosystems…. As we continue to understand the role of forests in modern global systems, and face potential climate change and deforestation on a global scale, these clues from the past may offer valuable lessons for managing our planet’s future”- Dr. William Stein (associate professor of biological sciences at Bingham University).

Gilboa tree root mounds

If it is true that “failures are fossils” and that what is living on the planet is the key to success through trial and error, as the biomimics state, we can learn a lot about survival and adaptation from these fossils. Learning from ‘failures’ is as critical as leaning from success, and learning about adaptability is probably the biggest take home lesson here. In fact I think it is one of the most fundamental lessons that we can learn and emulate from the natural world: Nature is adaptable.

Implementing adaptability in design is crucial for survival in rapidly changing times like now. Adaptability not only in our physical structures, architecture and products, but also adaptability of systems, policies and technologies. Stagnant political and commercial sectors rigorously cling to old damaging ways of doing things,  reliance on fossil fuels,  meaning that we continue destroying the natural environment and inevitably ourselves. If our human systems were quicker to adapt and change to suit the current reality of our environmental situation, we would be in a much better position now to avoid ending up as a fossilised civilization ourselves.

Marine reptile fossil

There is an irony here, the very fossils we can learn so much about global sustainability from are what makes the crude oil we are so dependent on,  and that it’s often the mining of land which leads to these discoveries. The Gilboa site was discovered from the excavation and building of the Gilboa dam in  the 1920’s; a couple of weeks back a 300 million year old fossilized forest was found below a coal mine in China; and a few days ago an employee at an ammolite mine (only an hour drive from where I live) found a 75 million year old marine reptile fossil. It makes me very uneasy that this ancient biological database being in the hands of mining companies. The preservation or destruction of the fossils relies on one employee’s ability to notice an archaeological gem from the regular dirt and rock they are paid to excavate. What have we lost already that we didn’t even know we had?

This brings me in sideways to my second piece of inspiration for the week, the photography of Edward Burtynsky that was on exhibition here at the Glenbow Museum. Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who focuses on altered landscapes and  industrial intrusions into nature, which remain beautiful while revealing some confronting environmental realities.

I hadn’t seen his work before this exhibition, and it had an unexpected jaw-dropping-eyes-widening affect on me. The abstract beauty of the colour and composition of his pieces, and the realisation that occurs about the scale and destruction that is being shown was transfixing.

Edward Burtynsky - Silver Lake Australia

Edward Burtynsky Iberia Quarrie

“These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times”. – Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky gulf of mexico oil spill

Burtynsky doesn’t politicize his images, although they could obviously be used for environmental protection campaigns etc. Instead he lets you ponder the images and really absorb them in a different way, from the perspective of art and beauty first with the slow realisation for what is really going on in the picture. This angle might reach people who otherwise would shut off if confronted with the environmental protests behind it, especially here in Alberta, oil and resource extraction capital of North America (and proud of it).

In his documentary ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ Burtynsky talks a little bit about this approach, and how he doesn’t want to label things as right and wrong and try to punish the wrong doer, but rather make us all realise that most parts of our daily lives are reliant on these resources industries, we are all accountable, and we need an entirely new way of doing things. I really respect this approach and agree we are all currently dependent on these industries and a complete paradigm shift is needed. However I still believe there is a place for naming and shaming companies who spend millions of dollars on political lobbying to prevent change and block new innovation (who really killed the electric car? and why are solar technologies moving at snails pace?) just to ensure the continuation of demand for their industry, regardless of the environmental cost.

Photography can be an extremely influential tool for raising environmental awareness, it can change your perspective and understanding of a topic in a very powerful, non-verbal and emotional way.  I came across Garth Lenz’s work and Blue Earth Alliance while I was exploring Burtynsky and was also very moved by his images. Lenz captures industrial destruction from landscape and human perspective. They are beautiful visual pieces like Burtynsky’s but with loud environmental protests clearly attached. Lenz’s TED talk was an impassioned plea to be aware of, and to end, the destruction caused by the tar sands mining operations in Canada. I hope that his exhibition “The True Cost of Oil” also makes it here to Alberta, the scene of so much crime, and home to the most “collossal fossils” on the planet.

Is Biomimicry actually sustainable?

Sounds like a silly question for a technique that uses nature as it’s “Model, Measure and Mentor”, but sustainable outcomes cannot be guaranteed from even the best intentioned methods, and it can all depend on what your definition of ‘sustainable’ is.

Biomimicry had a slightly dubious reputation among my lecturers at uni. I think the main reason for this being one too many students coming up with building designs that have some vague (or literal) resemblance of a plant etc, calling it Biomimicry and expecting automatic sustainability points. Also the success of Biomimicry coming from producing more efficient marketable items seems to cause some distaste from a group dedicated to knowledge without the financial rewards of the commercial world. All this leading to a general suspicion about the sustainability legitimacy behind Biomimicry.


The greenwashing of products to make them appear more sustainable or eco friendly than they actually are is a big problem today. It not only allows products to continue damaging the environment while fooling consumers into thinking they might be helping, when the truth is exposed it damages public trust and belief in green solutions.

There are some pretty obvious examples of greenwashing out there, products that slap a picture of nature on their bottle, increase the amount of the colour green they use in branding, and start including vague phrases like “environmentally sensitive” in their advertising  with no real sustainability science or product changes to back it up. It happens in architecture too, put a livingwall on a buildings street facade, call it sustainable and see how much publicity you can get. Then there are more insidious examples of greenwashing, like oil companies that make big public performances about how environmentally responsible they are, then destroy anti-pollution laws in secret.

Why pretend to be green when they are not? The power of people voting with their wallets about how they want to see a greener and cleaner world has made sustainability profitable, which some scumbag companies want to exploit. There are numerous blogs and up to date lists of greenwashing exposed out there, add even more power to your consumer choices by finding out which companies are doing the wrong thing and try to avoid them.

Green colour background- check. Out of context use of the word 'eco'- check. Pretending that making their bottles lighter is for the environment rather than to save them money- check. Greenwasharama.

Where Biomimicry could possibly step over the line into the realm of greenwashing is a little more complicated. In her book Positive Development: From Vicious Cycles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design (2008) one of my lecturers Janis Birkeland discusses the danger of using natural metaphors to make mechanical systems appear greener than they actually are, and for symbolism to substitute content. She goes on to say that in the context of market capitalism, Biomimicry applied to building technology “could perpetuate the current tendency to substitute nature with resource intensive and often unnecessary production lieu of passive solutions”.

An example of this would be instead of designing a space that allows for natural ventilation with thoughtful placement of windows and vents, but rather adding a fan based on a efficient natural design to ventilate a space. Even if it is more efficient than a normal fan, it is unnecessary if smart free passive design is possible.

Effieciency Vs Ecologically Restorative

Birkeland’s criticisms go deeper than greenwashing however, to essence of her view of sustainability (and my own educational foundation) that ‘doing less harm’ to the environment is not good enough, our designs need to make positive impacts on restoring ecologies. This sentiment is embraced by other sustainability and green design experts such as Ken Yeang and William McDonough. It is based on the realisation that eco-efficiency does not halt the depletion and destruction of the natural environment, it only slows the process. They believe the ultimate failure of the ‘less bad’ approach is a failure of the imagination, to believe that poorly designed and destructive systems are the best that humans can do.

The 1987 definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely accepted as the global standard for sustainability:

“development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for  future generations to meet their own needs”.

But this vision doesn’t take into account the enormous damage already done to the natural world by human development, and the critical need for immediate restoration to prevent ecosystem collapse. Sustainability experts recognise this and are looking far beyond more efficient and less damaging designs, to a whole new level of restorative, eco nurturing design.

McDonough’s goal is to ‘close the loop’ of development so that materials and resources are recycled and regenerated in a ‘cradle to cradle’ cycle like in nature, rather than in the linear extraction-consumption-waste system currently prevalent. Like Biomimicry, his approach “recognize(s) the natural world as the unrivaled model for human designs” .


Ken Yeang uses the term ‘ecomimicry’ to describe architectural systems that emulate the properties, structure, functions and processes of in nature, and enhance the ‘bio-integration’ of man made and natural environment. His ecoarchitecture goes beyond the current LEED and BREEAM standards of sustainability, utilizing passive design techniques as well as exploring a new eco aesthetic.

Birkeland presents the theory of ‘positive development’, suggesting that the built environment “could generate healthy ecological conditions, increase the life support services, reverse the impacts of current systems of development and improve life quality for everyone”.


There is also a general confusion over the term ‘biomimicry’ and other similar fields such as ‘bionics’ and ‘biomorphic design’ which perhaps have edges that overlap with Biomimicry, but are distinct areas. Biomorphic Architecture (sometimes called biomimetic architecture) uses natural algorithms to develop forms and structures that certainly can look organic and ecological (and sometimes fantastically beautiful), but they don’t actually achieve sustainable outcomes. Sustainability is not generally the intent of this specific line of study and design, and it doesn’t usually propose or pretend to be sustainable, it’s purely focused on the exploration of form.  But the linguistic similarity and the use of nature as the basis of design can cause confusion about the true sentiment behind Biomimicry, and give the impression that it is only about a visual replication of natural form.

Benyus’ Biomimicry

Biomimicry as put forward by Janine Benyus has much deeper links to whole systems sustainability. She acknowledges the superior model of  nature and “the intricate interliving that characterises whole systems” which are able to maintain dynamic stability while continuously juggle resources without waste. She envisions this application of Biomimicry is what is required to achieve the complexity of sustainable solutions in the future. The Biomimicry Design Spiral created by the Biomimicry Institute helps innovators in a practical way to follow the biomimicry process, while ensuring a deep consideration for biological problem solving, rather than a superficial replication of nature.

So for Biomimicry to be considered a legitimate sustainability process to the academics out there, it needs to go beyond increasing efficiencies of products, to improving ecosystem health through design. I think that with Benyus’ theoretical roots, and a designers intent for positively contributing to ecologies, Biomimicry has the highest of all potentials for achieving genuine sustainability through design.