by Lisa Bonanate
Buildings designed like termite dens. Insulation made from mushrooms. Panes of glass structured like spider webs.
Mother Nature is the ultimate architect – one with a few billion years of experience. Her designs are efficient, innovative and conducive to sustaining life. Increasingly, mankind is looking to these time-tested engineering strategies to answer the sustainability issues we’re facing.
Biomimicry, meaning “to imitate life”, is a design discipline that looks to solve man-made sustainability challenges by emulating the most effective patterns and systems found in nature. Bio-inspired design is nothing new. As far back as the 15th century, Leonardo DaVinci based his flying machine on the anatomy of birds. But modern applications are reflecting exciting new innovations.
According to architect and sustainable building advisor Janus Welton, when mankind began to industrialize, the Industrial Revolution “didn’t show much relation to how nature would do it”. Welton is field director of the NYC / SBA Sustainable Building Advisor Program, which offers education, networking and field project mentoring for emerging professionals. She’s also a founding member of Biomimicry NYC, part of a worldwide network of organizations dedicated to inspiring sustainable innovations. “The core idea of biomimicry,” she said, “is that nature has already solved our sustainability problems.”
Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of biomimicry in building design is Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe. It may seem incredible that a termite nest could inspire the design of a shopping and office complex, but as it turns out, termites are crafty engineers. They naturally regulate the internal temperature of their dens by building vertical chimneys to remove heat and gas.
Eastgate Center operates in much the same way, with vertical atriums that pull heat up and out. At night, cool air is pulled in through intake fans, cooling the concrete slabs of the building. At 333,000 square-feet, Eastgate Center uses 90 percent less energy to heat and cool. The building doesn’t have a conventional air conditioning or heating system – only a ventilation system that cost about one-tenth the price of an air conditioning system in a comparable sized building.
While biomimicry can be applied to whole building design, Welton says it’s most often applied to products, by copying a biological process or by mimicking forms and structures found in nature. For example, the lotus plant has been an unlikely source of inspiration for paint and textiles. Despite living in a muddy environment, the lotus stays remarkably clean, thanks to tiny raised bumps on its leaves that cause water to bead on the surface and roll off, collecting dirt in the process. By incorporating this micro-structure principle into paints and textiles, manufacturers can create products that repel water and dirt – even mold and mildew – ultimately lowering maintenance costs on their products.
“Biomimicry’s systems-based approach leads to thinking about design within the framework of other systems in which the product or solution will operate,” said Lisa Welch-Schon, Marketing and Sales representative for Arnold Glass. For the German glass manufacturer, the gossamer strands of spider webs sparked an idea for mitigating a man-made cause of bird deaths.
Glass buildings cause hundreds of millions of bird deaths per year – an estimated 90,000 in New York City alone. The reason is that windows either appear invisible to birds or reflect trees and sky, causing birds to fly into them. That’s where the spider comes in.
Some species of spiders weave their webs with strands of silk that are UV reflective. Birds can see the ultraviolet spectrum, recognize an obstacle and avoid flying into the web. With its patterned UV coating, Ornilux Glass mimics the spider web design but remains transparent to the human eye. As an added bonus, Ornilux is available as double-glazed insulated glass with either a low-E or solar protective coating. It can be found in buildings across Canada and the U.S., including The Bronx Zoo’s Center for Global Conservation and a renovation in progress at the Great Neck Library.
Here in New York State, Ecovative Design is engineering mushrooms into biodegradable products to replace foam, plastic and composite furniture materials. Fungal mycelium is mixed with agricultural waste like leaves and corn stalks. The mycelium grows around the waste, forming a solid mass that can be molded into custom shapes. The company manufactures mushroom packaging to replace plastics and styrofoam and Myco board, a replacement for faux wood products typically manufactured with formaldehyde. Home insulation materials are currently under development.
The challenge for bringing biomimetic products into the mainstream of architecture and design is similar to bringing any new idea to market. “We faced the typical challenges of introducing an innovation to a market that really did not exist,” noted Schon. “Much of our early and continuing efforts have been around supporting and partnering with advocacy groups, like American Bird Conservancy and New York City Audubon, which work tirelessly to create awareness of and education about the collisions issue. This has been critical to developing a market for bird-friendly glass.”
The need for education was echoed by Welton, who also believes more money is needed for research and development. “Biomimicry is a game-changer in how companies approach making products,” Welton said. But it has to come from a revolution in thought by companies investing money into R&D.
And that might spark another Industrial Revolution, but this time, one that springs directly from nature.