Inviting Nature In

July 20, 2009
Biomimicry can lead us to more innovative, sustainable interior spaces

The emerging science of biomimicry has captivated the design professions. Conferences are buzzing about it, magazines are craving it, and the next generation of designers can’t get enough of it.

Established by biologist Janine Benyus in the 1990s, biomimicry looks to the natural world for ideas and inspiration for all kinds of design opportunities. The goal is to create sustainable products, processes and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on Earth and able to endure, regardless of the challenges.

In its brief evolution, biomimicry has led to some amazing innovations—from self-cleaning surfaces inspired by the lotus leaf, to Olympic swimsuits that emulate the skin of a shark. There’s even a new sunscreen under development that mimics the UV protection properties of hippo secretions.

Within the built environment, however, the discipline is still in its infancy. While a growing number of bio-inspired products are expanding the sustainable options available to designers, projects that incorporate biomimicry at the macro scale are few and far between.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the small number of building projects that have been completed around the world, including the Eastgate Centre shopping mall and office building in Harare, Zimbabwe. Inspired by thermal control found in termite mounds, architect Mick Pearce worked with Arup to design the structure, which is passively cooled and doesn’t even require a fuel-based air conditioning system.

Although these innovative projects are exciting showcases of biomimicry in action, the fact that they are so rare reveals the need to advance bio-inspired design within the built environment—to bring biomimicry to the masses.

Since forging a formal alliance with the Biomimicry Guild in 2008, HOK has been working to expand biomimicry into tangible, real-world design solutions for our clients. We believe biomimicry will not only help us significantly reduce the environmental impact of our projects, but will also help define a whole new sustainable standard for our profession.

Because biomimicry addresses critical environmental issues at the habitat scale, it gives us lessons on how to achieve increasingly more significant sustainable outcomes. We’re pursuing solutions that reach far beyond the realm of LEED® Platinum, net zero carbon and regenerative projects.

“Integrating biomimicry within interior environments is about much more than specifying bio-inspired products. It requires introducing the concept as early as possible in the design process—ideally before any initial ideas have even been formulated.”

Integrating biomimicry within interior environments is about much more than specifying bio-inspired products. It requires introducing the concept as early as possible in the design process—ideally before any initial ideas have even been formulated. It also involves inviting a biologist to the design table as a full team member, not as an add-on specialty consultant or afterthought.

Rather than primarily looking to previous projects for ideas to solve a particular design challenge, our teams need to ask how nature would solve it. With 30 million species and 3.85 billion years of R&D experience, it’s a pretty safe bet that nature has encountered—and tackled—the same challenge before, and we could probably learn something from those natural systems strategies.

Bio-inspired solutions frequently have far-reaching sustainable implications, reflecting the interdependence of a project’s systems.

As an example, the ability to effectively bring natural light into a space that has limited access to it reduces the need for artificial lighting. Because less heat is generated, less cooling is necessary, which could reduce the size of cooling equipment (a capital cost). Overall energy use is reduced (an operational cost), and fossil fuel dependence is lessened (an environmental cost). And we’re not even considering the significant aesthetic and human benefits that natural light offers.

In the natural world, the most innovative lighting strategies might emerge from studying begonias, which maximize photosynthesis in low-light conditions by using clear surface cells to focus light. Or perhaps the ideal approach is to mimic emperor penguins, whose beaks reflect UV light via a multilayer reflector photonic microstructure. These time-tested strategies are accessible through a new database called Ask Nature. A project of the Biomimicry Institute, this free resource enables designers to search for and study nature’s solutions to design challenges—e.g., how organisms filter air and water, gather solar energy, and create non-toxic dyes and glues.

In fact, studying nature will help us uncover effective and sustainable solutions to the most significant issues in our interior environments: thermal comfort, indoor air quality, acoustical privacy, flexibility, and productivity.

Biomimicry opens up a whole new palette of design inspiration, ideas and opportunities. But it also demands a certain humility in admitting to ourselves that we humans don’t have all the answers—or even, necessarily, the best ones.

The Biomimicry Guild has developed a phrase, “quieting our cleverness,” to remind us of the need to step back and be open to “genius” from unexpected sources. For designers, this notion can be a challenging one to consider; but it is a vital component of unleashing the most profound, transformative ideas and solutions.

As we introduce biomimicry to our clients, we’re finding that those who are most receptive to the concepts are the ones who are eager to pioneer a cutting-edge, showcase project. They’re also more likely to have an overall appreciation for nature. One of the most revealing questions we can ask clients is how they spend their free time. If they like to fish, hunt or hike, they’re much more likely to be open to biomimicry than if they spend their weekends watching TV or fixing cars.

And another great aspect of biomimicry is that it isn’t limited to projects of a certain size, market sector or geographic region. Potential ideas and applications are as diverse as nature itself.

The built environment is the most fertile ground for biomimicry. Buildings account for about 50 percent of total energy use in the Unites States, and it’s estimated that 75 percent of buildings in the year 2030 will be new or renovated. Consulting with nature will help us to effectively address the environmental and climate crisis by leapfrogging incremental sustainable improvements in order to develop profession-transforming solutions.

I truly believe biomimicry can help create a new environmental standard for spaces, buildings, communities and cities worldwide. For designers and other design professionals, it opens up a whole new universe of inspirational ideas for transforming our interior spaces, while optimizing human and social well-being. And beyond the projects themselves, the principles of biomimicry will help our people and teams work smarter, design smarter, and truly connect our work with the natural environment.

 Mary Ann Lazarus, AIA, LEED AP, is global director of sustainable design at HOK, a global design and services firm.

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