HOK’s Architectural Biomimicry.

I just came across this talk and was really excited to get some insight into the current Biomimicry workings at HOK, arguably the most progressive architectural design firm when it comes to integrating Biomimicry into architecture. Unfortunately no insights were given here, just a brief and basic introduction to the general concept of biomimicry. But the title makes me smile so I think it’s still worth sharing.

Biomimefragilisticexpialidocious!

HOK started collaborating with the Biomimicry Institute in 2008, and I remember being so excited for the future of architecture when this happened. Being the global, innovative and trend-setting firm that HOK is, their alliance with the Biomimicry Guild meant all good things for spreading the wisdom of biomimcry within the architectural industry as well as the wider community.

The flagship project that kicked off the alliance was the Lavasa Hill City Project, a massive masterplanning exercise involving the design and construction of three new villages within a hilltop ecosystem in southern India. The approach was a mixture of basic sustainability and restorative design principles, attention to traditional Indian vernacular style, and an especially close examination of the existing ‘genius loci’ of the environment. By studying the unique ecosystem and local biome, the designers attempted to extract solutions to design challenges at an architectural and urban scale.

Sketches of the biomimicry design idea’s for Lavasa by HOK. Image from hok.com

By understanding the intricacies of the site ecosystem, the designers could identify important ecosystem services that must remain undisturbed to continue the ecological functioning of the area. These were:

  • Water collection and storage
  • Solar gain and reflection
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Water filtration
  • Evapo-transpiration
  • Nitrogen and phosphorous cycling

“Design strategies include roof lines that create the wind turbulence that aids the evaporation, green roofs that prevent soil erosion, and a polymer product that stiffens soil to create the same stabilising effect as a cliff swallow mixing saliva with mud to create a mortar that adheres their nests to buildings”. hok.com

Initial conceptual renderings of the Lavasa Hill City Project and current photograph of the site. Image from hok.com

Today, four years after the initialisation of this project and eight years before it’s proposed completion, phase one is almost complete with some apparent successes and failures. Construction was halted in 2011 after a report from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests identified negative impacts on the environment by the development, and some controversy about methods of obtaining the land was encountered.

What I’m looking forward to and hoping to see one day soon is the sharing of knowledge gained from this project about real world applications of Biomimicry into architectural and urban design; what worked, what failed, what could be done differently. Things have been a little quiet as far as new architectual Biomimicry projects starting up since this one made headlines, and the rapid spread of Biomimicry hasn’t quite occurred how I thought maybe it would (outside of architectural schools). It’s proven to be a tricky concept/method to convert from theoretical to practical, so the Lavasa Hill City is a vital case study for so many designers unsure about how to successfully introduce Biomimicry into a project. The sharing of this knowledge is something that would surely progress the entire field of sustainable architectural biomimicry.

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Biomimicry Basics

What is Biomimicry? The word it’s self comes from the greek words ‘bios’ meaning life, and ‘mimesis’ meaning to imitate, and basically it means design or invention inspired by nature. It’s a concept with a very long history in human inspiration and invention (although not directly known by this term) Leonardo DaVinci was one of the first ‘biomimics’ inspired by the flight of birds when developing his flying machine prototypes, acknowledging that:

“the genius of man may make various inventions…. But it will never discover a more beautiful, more economical, or more direct one than natures”¹

- photo by nhanusek

The studies of the Wright Brothers are also famous examples of early Biomimicry, they observed the flight of vultures and pigeons to learn the nuances of drag and lift, which helped produce the first flight of modern aircraft in 1903. As scientific knowledge and technology have developed rapidly over the past 100 years, so has the ability to see,  understand and learn from the natural world in a deeper way.

Biomimicry has been most recently coined and popularised by the biologist Janine Benyus, who wrote the book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” (1997). The essence of her perspective is that nature has spent 3.8 billion years testing and refining it’s designs to become the most efficient and environmentally compatible designs possible for their functions. Failures are fossils, so we can learn from this intelligence and apply it to human designs and innovation.  In her book, Benyus describes Biomimicry being achieved by using nature in 3 ways:

  • Nature as a Model- imitating or taking inspiration from nature’s models to solve human problems
  • Nature as a Measure using an ecological standard to judge the ‘rightness’ of innovations as nature knows what works, what is appropriate and what lasts
  • Nature as a Mentor- valuing nature and what we can learn from it rather than what we can extract from it.

Biomimicry has so far been most successful in industrial design applications, where new innovation has been driven by relatable natural metaphors. By comparing an existing human built object to a similar or contrastable natural object, a clearer understanding of the usually inefficient human-built system is achieved, and insight into how to improve it is gained. For example: a solar cell inspired by leaf photosynthesis, friction free fans inspired by nautilus, and aerodynamics of the bullet train inspired by the beak of a kingfisher bird, are all successful biomimicry examples.

image from the biomimicry institute

Benyus is generally recognised as the founder and pioneer of Biomimicry, so it’s worth listening to her speak about it first hand:

Janine Benyus: 12 sustainable design ideas from nature (2007)

Janine Benyus: Biomimicry in Action (2009)

Janine Benyus speaks at Bioneers (2010)

A multitude of inspiring examples of Biomimicry in action can be found at Ask Nature which is a free online, open-source database of over 1400 biomimetic strategies. This idea was developed by Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute (which she co-founded in 2006) and is a non-profit organisation promoting biomimicry applications globally. The Biomimicry Guild (also co-founded by Benyus in 1998) on the other hand is an innovation consulting firm which works with clients in various industries to guide biomimetic innovation. Biomimicry 3.8 is currently germinating as the next step in the evolution of the Biomimicry Institute/Guild line, claiming to have adapted to the recent widespread growth of interest in Biomimicry… I’m looking forward to seeing what sprouts!

¹ Marshall, S. (2009) Cities, Design and Evolution. Routledge, London.