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.

buildings_duck

“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-tower

“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-1

“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?

Sky-City-2-550x309

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.

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.

A tool for innovation- the biomimicry design spiral

Biomimicry design spiral developed by the Biomimicry Institute

The Biomimicry Institute has provided a tool aiding innovative design using the Biomimicry process -The Biomimicry Design Spiral provides a clear process to follow in order to produce a design inspired by nature which utilizes solutions found in nature to solve problems in innovative ways. The seven step guide helps to ensure a deep consideration for biological problem solving, rather than a superficial replication of nature.

Step 1: Identify. Find the core of the problem and the design specification by asking “what do you want your design to do?” rather than “what do you want to design?”

This step involves developing a design brief that clarifies the specific problem to be solved. This is done by identifying the core function that the design is intended to accomplish (asking “what do you want your design to do”), rather than immediately implying a design solution (“what do you want to design”). This is attempting to avoid the traditional ‘top down’ approach which enforces a preconceived concept of a solution (a design) onto the problem.

Step 2: Interpret– Biologize the question, as “how does nature do this function or solve this problem?” and “how does nature NOT do this function?” Define the habitat/location more specifically.

This step involves ‘biologizing’ the question, the most distinctive feature of this problem solving tool. It requires the designer to look at the various outcomes of 3.8 billion years of environmental research and development which has occurred in nature to produce complex sustainable systems, to reconceive the problem from this basis.

By defining the specific conditions under which the function is achieved in nature, such as the climate, nutrient, social and temporal conditions, the focus will become more specialised and reduce the quantity of possibilities. This biologising of the question instils a greater chance for the outcome to be ecologically sustainable.

Step 3: Discover- Find the best natural models to answer/solve your challenges, find champion adapter by asking “whose survival depends on this?” consider literal and metaphorical models.

This step involves finding specific examples and models of solutions to the biologized problem as established in the previous step. Seeking in particular organisms who are champions in this area and those whose survival depends on their means to solve this design challenge. Collaboration with a biologist is recommended at this stage to provide in depth biological knowledge.

Step 4: Abstract– Find the repeating patterns and processes within nature that achieve success.

This step involves the process of abstraction, which can clarify the essence of the subject without forfeiting its complexity. It allows concepts and solutions to be communicated without specific details which may convolute them and therefore be transferred multi-disciplinarily.

Step 5: Emulate- develop solutions that apply these lessons from nature as deeply as possible in your design, mimicking form, mimicking function, mimicking ecosystem.

This step involves developing practical solutions to the design challenge based on the natural models identified in the previous step. This is where the scale of the solution must be carefully considered and it’s interconnectedness with the surrounding environment analysed to ensure ecological sustainable outcomes.

Step 6: Evaluate- how do your ideas compare to life’s principles (sustainability imperative imbued).

This step involves evaluating the product of the process so far against ‘Life’s Principles’ by asking questions such as whether it produces ‘conditions conducive to life?’, ‘can the design adapt and evolve?’ or ‘is it closed loop’? This is the point at which to critically review the solution to ensure the outcome is sustainable.

Step 7: Identify- develop and refine design briefs based on lessons learned from the evaluation section, repeat the process.

This additional step is the point at which the process begins again from the beginning ‘identify’ step and repeating all the stages of the process with a now deeper understanding of the problem and considering the issues identified in the previous ‘evaluate’ step. This aspect of the tool is what makes it an iterative process, cycling continuously through the stages, but also spiralling down to a more specific and refined outcome. This process is itself mimicking nature and the process of learning and adaption which occurs through small reiterative feedback loops.

I really enjoy this process as a design and problem solving technique. I find that it really helps to align my thinking with biological processes, and pushes me to explore and learn from successful natural designs. Importantly it sets a new biological standard of sustainability to aim for.

“No problem can ever be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – Albert Einstein.

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.

Where to start?

If in doubt mind map! that was my motto going through university, and in particular when writing my master’s thesis on ‘biomimicry in architecture’ a deceptively broad topic that ended up producing a 12,400 word monster of a paper. This piece of butterpaper you see here with my scribblings all over it was in fact a somewhat refined visualisation of what I wanted to research earlier on in my process. “What a fascinating mess” is what I interpreted my supervisors response to it to mean (the word fascinating may or may not have been used by her) but fascinating it all was to me, and still is, this interconnected web of architecture, nature and the critical need for global sustainability and ecosystem regeneration which has created the possibility for a new species of built environment that behaves like the natural environment.

The title of my thesis ended up being “Evaluating the Biomimicry Design Spiral as a tool for complex problem solving in Ecological Architecture”, a chunky mouthful which awkwardly covers the main topics I wrote about- Biomimicry, the Biomimicry design spiral as developed by the Biomimicry institute, complexity in design, complex problem solving tools, ecological architecture, the historical relationship between humans and the natural environment and the current environmental sustainability crisis. All of these things, as well as some of the others on that mind map that couldn’t be jammed sideways into my thesis, I would like to cover in more bite sized pieces in this blog. My aim is to keep my personal knowledge fresh, current and organised, but also to share what I have found and hopefully spark some discussion on the topic.