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Biomimicry: When architecture imitates life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2011 - Envisioning a new ventilation system from prairie dog holes or conceiving a new elevator arrangement in the structure of frog legs may not sound like architecture as we traditionally understand it. But then having a biologist like Taryn Mead sitting at design table is a bit of a culture shift, too.

A senior biologist at the Montana-based Biomimicry Guild, Mead is a specialist in biomimicry, a fast-growing science in which art really is imitating life -- in the true biological sense of the term.

The local chapter of the United States Green Building Council has taken an interest in the subject because sustainability has become the watchword for new construction. Increasingly, architects are turning to nature to draw inspiration for blueprints that work in harmony with the environment, often by emulating forms of life that already have developed successful methodologies for survival.

"Biological organisms have, for the past 3.8 million years, had the time to perfect their systems to work interdependently," said Tim Gaidis, sustainable design practice leader at St. Louis-based HOK, a worldwide architectural design firm. "We can look at those systems, see how they've been optimized and then look at human-created systems."

Gaidis' organization has formed a partnership with the Biomimicry Guild to work on sustainable architectural ideas and the results have been intriguing. Gaidis tells of a tower's structure being based on the skeleton of a cactus.

"They are very tall and thin yet they are fairly stable," he said of cacti. "What they have inside their accordion-like skin is a very pithy web that looks like a fishnet stocking. This element is actually very optimized in terms of material usage."

In Korea, a building is being designed using floor plates that are rotated and twist like spinal vertebrae. In Denver, a ventilation system for common areas and utility tunnels on a corporate campus are being based on the holes of local prairie dogs, which suck air in very efficiently from prevailing winds. Meanwhile the shape of window openings in one structure are inspired by the nest-building habits of the red-rumped swallow for more effective runoff systems that require less sealant.

Consulting The Local Geniuses

The prairie dog example is particularly instructive as it relies heavily on local animal life. The technology is, in a sense, pretested.

"One of the things that we do with the Biomimicry Guild is what's called a 'genius of place' analysis," said Gaidis. "That's where you go specifically to the area that you are going to build or develop and look at what the local organisms are doing to leverage their environment."

Mead said that biomimicry has existed for hundreds of years and the term has been in use since the 1950s. But it was the 1997 release of Janine Benyus' "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," which Mead said put the field in a new context. Benyus would go on to co-found the Biomimicry Guild.

For Mead biomimicry has been a way to put her environmental views into pragmatic, sustainable development.

"This is what I was looking for," she said. "I was tired of saying 'no' and the environmental movement saying 'no'. I moved to biomimicry for that reason because it's a place of hope and vision for the future."

"It's something you can point at and say, 'That ecosystem is functioning this way so we know that it's possible for humans to live sustainably if we understand that," she added.

Mead said that other ideas about sustainable architecture, such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program of the green building council, are also useful concepts but differ from biomimicry where the inspiration draws directly from local plants and animals.

"LEED is a generic tool that can be used in any ecosystem," she said.

Nature As Model And Mentor

HOK isn't the only St. Louis connection to biomimicry. Catalina Freixas, a senior lecturer in architecture at Washington University, became interested in the topic several years ago.

"I was always thinking that if we were going to design a building, why not think about nature as a model and mentor," she said.

A fourth-generation architect, Freixas found herself frustrated with design ideas that seemed focused on ways to defeat rather than co-exist with the environment.

"We were always trying to catch up with nature," she said. "The moment that we were able to control nature, nature was showing us that we couldn't. So then we'd have to go back and review what we were doing to catch up and control nature again."

It led to a new outlook for Freixas.

"Instead of fighting nature and thinking we should control it, my point of view shifted," she said. "Nature behaves in a certain way and organisms adapt to nature. We could adapt to nature and be flexible enough to absorb shifts."

Now she teaches her class about frog legs. The interesting thing, she says is that the frog releases its energy while leaping and stores the energy while coiled, as opposed to humans who are at rest in a sitting position and have to exert force to jump. Such thoughts may have applications for how elevators can use gravity more effectively and reduce electricity consumption.

Water conservation in cacti could influence the best way to save water in buildings. The ability of a snake to move its body over hot ground without burning itself could have implications for how building envelopes conserve heat. So might penguin feathers, which puff up or tighten against the body in an effort to insulate the arctic bird. Paints can even be textured like the lotus leaf to repel dust and reduce the need for cleaning.

All of it involves something of a shift in thinking, however. Building envelopes are a good example. When trying to control the ebb and flow of heat, designers often consider putting extra layers onto the structure.

"Right now, through the sustainable approach, people are thinking about double or triple skins," Freixas said. "Nature doesn't do double or triple skins. It's one skin that performs in a very wise way to solve the problem."

It's all a matter of being inspired by the natural world, something humans were doing long before sustainability came to the fore. Freixas points out that even some cathedrals were inspired by trees.

"I think biomimicry is the future," she said noting much work remains to be done. "We are still patching, not looking at a holistic approach."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.