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.

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”.