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.

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.

Greenwashing

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” .

http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough

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”.

Bioconfusion

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.

Uuuuuuuh climate change…. sigh.

Uuuuuuuuuh climate change…. Will we ever reach a consensus on you? So many talks, so many conferences (including the recent UN Climate talks in Durben) and still no decisive actions to be taken. Frustration is an understatement.

Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” really got the ball rolling on this topic for a lot of people, sparking renewed and intensified public concern about the state of the environment and our future in it. Frightening predictions are made about the impacts of current human behaviour, warning that coupled with exponential population growth we are looking at a high potential for ecological disaster and mass species extinctions, maybe including our own.

It’s fair to say that in the 6 years since then a lot of green initiatives have been set off, and a pretty widespread moral shift has happened regarding our role in ruining the planet. The architecture industry has followed the public demand for sustainable buildings, as inhabitants start demanding healthier environments, tenants see the economy of passive design features and developers see profit in the green building market. Green building councils have been set up and green design rating systems implemented to assure that progress in this area is recognised and encouraged and standardised.

“There is enough peer pressure within the culture of architecture now for architects to be uncomfortable with, if not ashamed of, being associated with the more obvious examples of energy profligacy or material waste”.

But the total inability of the global political community to take decisive action on environmental and climate change issues is so disappointing, and my frustrations are running high at our supposed ‘leaders’. From what I can figure, there seems to be three main reasons why they are still in stalemate…1) Inability for global political collaboration and compromise, 2) underlying fear of economic loss from changing the status quo, and 3) the complexity of the science behind climate change.

Al Gore put forward a lot of persuasive graphs and charts illustrating the scientific evidence that human actions are thickening the layer of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, enhancing the ‘greenhouse effect’ and leading to global warming and the variety of natural disasters this would cause.  Since then there has also been a huge amount of information  put out that contradicts this ‘science of global warming’. Whether this is legitimate data and scientific discussion or oil company propaganda is pretty unclear to non-scientists, and this confusion has made it very easy for change makers to put off making change until it is clear.

This  infographic from the marvellous informationisbeautiful.net, attempts to clarify both sides of the argument.This is a fascinating video that solves the whole issue for us as an exercise in logical reasoning and risk management. Greg Craven asks the question ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’: The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See – YouTube. Would you rather global economic collapse or global environmental collapse? Well it’s not really that simple, holes have been found in his theory since the time this video was made (which Craven explores on his website).

My personal view on this topic actually has very little to do with the science and politics of it all.1) I love and treasure the beauty and function of the natural environment, 2) I feel the direct effects of breathing smog and pollution everyday on my health and I don’t like it, 3) As a designer, I believe if that if there is a better cleaner way of doing things that supersedes old damaging patterns, then bloody do it! For a civilization that loves progress it’s incredible how unwilling some sectors are to change to the new and improved methods.

Anyway, now that I’ve vented some of my big picture frustrations, and before i get totally dis-heartened by the scale of it all, I’ll remember my mantra ‘small flowers crack concrete’ and get back to work.

¹ Bennetts, H., Radford, A., and Williamson, T. Understanding Sustainable Architecture.

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.