Michael Pawlyn looks to biomimicry for its vast and untapped resource of solutions that are not only effective, but resource-efficient and clean, rather than our current wasteful and polluting manner.
Nature includes an immense catalogue of forms, systems and processes that are efficient, require few resources to create and don’t produce waste or pollution. This catalogue of solutions has benefited, effectively, from a 3.8-billion-year research and development period – given that level of investment, it makes sense to exploit it. The rapidly developing discipline of biomimicry seeks to do just that, finding inspiration in the startling solutions that natural organisms have evolved over many millennia.
An example is the spinneret glands on the abdomen of a spider, which produce silk tougher than any fibre humans have ever made. The closest we have come is aramid fibre, which can only be produced at extreme temperature and pressure and creates large amounts of toxic waste. The spider, meanwhile, manages to make a stronger fibre in ambient conditions using raw materials of dead flies and water.
Similarly, the Canadian jewel beetle can detect forest fires, even in their very early stages, from up to 80 kilometres away – roughly 10,000 times the range of a man-made fire detector. This living fire alarm doesn’t need to be powered, and nor do its receptors create pollution.
These examples give a sense of what nature can do. Biomimicry, then, involves emulating natural forms, systems and processes that are effective, resource-efficient and clean and operate in closed loops rather than in our current linear, wasteful and polluting manner. If future generations are to enjoy a reasonable quality of life, then we urgently need to redesign the way we live now; biomimicry offers a vast and largely untapped resource of solutions to help us do so.
The Eden Project, a botanical enclosure in Cornwall designed by Grimshaw Architects, is an example of gaining inspiration from natural forms to create a resource-efficient structure. I was lucky enough to be on the design team, and we studied a range of natural forms, including soap bubbles, Buckminsterfullerene molecules and pollen grains to help devise the hexagonal tiles of the covered biomes. Instead of glass to fit each hexagon, as glass is limiting in terms of unit size, we used ETFE, a high-strength polymer which we assembled in three layers, welded around the edges and then inflated to create ‘pillows’ capable of spanning large areas.
The tiles we created were roughly seven times the size of what would have been possible using glass and 99-per-cent lighter than double-glazing. As a result, we were able to use much less steel to hold up the biomes’ shells, allowing more sunshine to penetrate the structures and saving on heating costs during winter. And as the overall weight of the superstructure was less, we could also save on the foundations. (Incredibly, at the end of the project we calculated that the superstructures actually weigh less than the air inside them.)
Thus, the Eden Project biomes are vastly more resource-efficient, both in their construction and operation, than conventionally designed buildings. Other projects are looking at super-efficient roof structures based on giant Amazon water lilies, abalone shells and plant cells – in addition to efficiency gains, there is a world of beauty to explore by using nature as a design tool.
One can also look to natural systems for ways in which man-made systems and products can be rethought to yield much greater efficiencies. Typically, man-made systems and products exploit resources in linear ways, refining them by high energy intensive methods, using them inefficiently and ultimately disposing of them as waste. In ecosystems, by contrast, one organism’s waste becomes another’s nourishment. This is known as a closed-loop system, and it allows for significant increases in resource-efficiency to be achieved.
Take the ABLE Project (formerly the ‘Cardboard to Caviar’ scheme), for instance. Developed by the Green Business Network in Kirklees and Calderdale, it manages to transform a low-value material into a high-value product and generate money at each stage of the process. The project involves collecting cardboard waste from local shops and restaurants which is then shredded and sold as horse bedding; once soiled, the cardboard is collected and put in a worm composting system. Worms sustained on this diet are harvested and fed to Siberian sturgeon, and finally the caviar produced by the sturgeon is sold back to stores and restaurants. Thus a linear process, by which the cardboard would have ended up as landfill, is transformed into part of a closed loop system, at once conserving resources and earning revenue.
Now consider the potential of natural processes. The Namibian fog-basking beetle lives in a desert environment, and so in order to survive it literally taps the sea fog that occasionally descends by letting moisture condense on its back. This particular beetle has inspired a multitude of innovations in a number of fields of design, including architecture. For example, the Sahara Forest Project proposes to restore large areas of desert to agricultural use while producing large quantities of fresh water and clean energy. A major element of the proposal is the Seawater Greenhouse: an ingenious technology that creates a cool growing environment in hot parts of the world and distils pure water from seawater, essentially mimicking the hydrological cycle in miniature. Seawater is evaporated from cardboard grilles at the front of the greenhouse – thereby creating cool, humid conditions within the greenhouse – and then condensed as distilled water at the back. Furthermore, these greenhouses can produce quantities of fresh water surplus to the requirements of the plants inside. The second key component of the project is concentrated solar power (CSP), which involves concentrating the heat of the sun to create steam which can be used to drive conventional turbines, thus producing ‘zero-carbon’ electricity.
The Sahara Forest project is proposed as a large-scale element of infrastructure that would produce renewable electrical energy from CSP and food from seawater greenhouses. Surplus distilled water from the greenhouses would be used to grow drought-tolerant external crops such as Jatropha, a source of biodiesel fuel, while minerals from the seawater would be used to fertilise the desert soil. The salts from the evaporation of seawater can be turned into a number of useful products, including building blocks from calcium carbonate and sodium chloride and desiccant compounds for low-energy cooling systems. It should also be possible to extract valuable elements such as lithium – a key ingredient in high-performance batteries, among its many other applications – from seawater.
Nature generally makes materials with a minimum of resource input, at ambient pressure and close to ambient temperature, and moreover does so in a way that enhances the environment rather than pollutes it. Abalone shells (sea snails whose shells are a colourful source of mother of pearl) are a great example of a natural manufacturing process that produces a material twice as tough as high-tech ceramics and highly resistant to crack propagation. The shells are a composite made from tough discs of calcium carbonate glued together with a flexible polymer mortar. The combination of hard and elastic layers stops cracks from propagating and the shell behaves like a metal, deforming elastically under load. Research into abalone shells may well lead to stronger and lighter car bodies, plane fuselages and indeed anything else that needs to be lightweight but fracture-resistant.
To conclude, though we are faced with some enormous challenges in the world today, I believe that studying the way nature solves its problems will provide positive and exciting solutions to those of our own making. For every problem that we currently face – whether it be generating energy, finding clean water, disposing of waste or manufacturing benign materials – there will be precedents within nature that we can study. Using biomimicry, the opportunity exists for architects to learn from a vast resource of design solutions, many of which will have evolved in response to resource-constrained environments. If we could learn to make and do things the way nature does, then we could achieve huge, unprecedented savings in resource and energy use. Within nature, one can find examples of incredible efficiency that can point the way to more sustainable solutions; I have mentioned just a few in this article, but there are many more innovative ideas and technologies currently being developed. A great deal can be gained by treating nature as a mentor when addressing the challenges we face in the years to come.