news, october 2019
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature
This newer science shows tremendous potential for developing sustainable design and building solutions.
By George McClure
Photo courtesy of DP Architects
The term biomimicry was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Biomimicry is defined in her book as a “new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” According to the Biomimicry Institute, of which she is now president, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature's time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies — new ways of living — that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”
Humans have, of course, always been inspired by nature. For example, Leonardo da Vinci avidly observed the anatomy and flight of birds, making copious notes and drawings of them as well as sketches of various “flying machines.” The Wright Brothers also derived inspiration for their airplane from observations of pigeons in flight.
Today, the concept and application of biomimicry (also known as biomimetics) has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach sustainable design and construction. A recent story from the arch20 website, excerpted here, describes several examples of biomimicry, including the one shown at the top of this page.
Yes, the concept of the responsive facade is biomimetic too. It stems from the concept of spiky or fibrous husks that protect the fruit or the seeds inside. The facade of Esplanade Theatre, for example, mimics the semi-rigid skin of the durian plant which is covered in thorns to protect its inner content. The building’s exterior adjusts throughout the day to allow sunlight in without overheating the space.
This article by Stephanie Vierra, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, gives several examples of biomimicry in action.
Recent success stories exist in terms of how biomimicry can be applied to building design. While buildings serve to protect us from nature's extremes, this does not mean that they do not have anything to learn from the biological world. In fact, nature regularly builds structures with functionality that human-built structures could usefully emulate. Biomimetic research, science, and applications continue to grow and are already influencing the next generation of building products and systems as well as whole building designs.
For example, photovoltaic systems, which harvest solar energy, are a first step at mimicking the way a leaf harvests energy. Research is underway to create solar cells that more closely resemble nature. These cells are water-gel-based — essentially artificial leaves —that couple plant chlorophyll with carbon materials, ultimately resulting in a more flexible and cost-effective solar cell.
The bumpy surface of a lotus leaf acts as a self-cleaning mechanism allowing dirt to be cleansed off the surface naturally by water, for instance, during a rain shower. Even the smallest of breezes on the plant causes a subtle shift in the angle of the plant allowing gravity to remove the dirt without the plant having to expend any energy. This same idea has been applied to the design of new building materials such as paints, tiles, textiles, and glass that reduce the need for detergents and labor and also reduces maintenance and material replacement costs.
Keep watching Technology Designer magazine and website for more on this fascinating new field.