Did you ever wonder what pulsed jet propulsion and jellyfish have in common? For that matter, lithium batteries and pomegranate seeds? While most of us haven’t sat around contemplating those connections with nature, there’s a trove of new designers and entrepreneurs who are doing just that, and their research could transform the way we design our future world.
Over the past few billion years, nature has been perfecting efficient systems and designs that optimise, regenerate and restore balance to organisms and their habitations. Whether it be the termite mound that operates like a subterranean thermal lung, the hanging high rise of the social weaver, or the complex, waterproof home of the paper wasp, the animal kingdom has proven the most ingenious of architects over millennia .
Biomimicry is learning how to adopt this genius into our own design forms in order to create something metamorphic and sustainable. Biomimicry is not a new idea but the way we understand and apply nature’s insights is changing. The Wright Brothers’ understanding of the aerofoil design of bird’s wings heralded the modern aviation industry we have today, which is also becoming one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. But nature works differently and creates the conditions for life to flourish. Ecomimicry embraces the health of the larger system of life and is regenerative. This new thinking is opening up a plethora of ideas about how we can rethink the way we design, build and live.
And now we stand on the cusp of the extraordinary, adopting revolutionary yet ancient concepts as the driving force to shape our future designs. Will our homes someday operate as sustainable closed loop systems? Will waste become the fuel to power our ovens in the future? What if we do eventually crack the code on truly living architecture and homes are grown, not built with brick and mortar?
Learning from Mother Nature
Biology has long offered inspiration to make our built environments wonderfully adaptable and selective. Living root bridges have been around since at least the 19th century and are a prime example of living and growing infrastructure. Made from growing tree roots in the wettest rainforests of India, root bridges can last for hundreds of years under ideal conditions and naturally self-renew and become stronger as the roots grow thicker. We have much to learn from the many indigenous cultures that have accumulated a deep wisdom on how to live symbiotically with natural systems. Organic architecture was a predominant discipline until the early twentieth centuries, grafting nature-inspired aesthetics into traditional buildings. Biophilic design also emerged as a way of incorporating elements like natural light, vegetation, fresh air and raw materials into modern structures in order to promote health, wellness and productivity.
Biomimetics further advanced the built environment with examples such as the carnivorous pitcher plant’s biofilm helping us develop material to keep rooftop and airplane wings ice- and liquid-free. The pattern of skin denticles on the Galapagos shark resulted in creating hybrid material to deter the growth of bacteria on hospital walls. And the meteorosensitive qualities of wood fibres offered insight into how we can build structures which biologically respond to climatic change.
Yet thanks to technological advancements, we are moving in the direction of what Harvard bioengineer Joanna Aizenberg calls ‘extreme biomimetics,’ where the ‘simply extraordinaries’ in nature are unearthed, unpacked and applied to human design solutions.
Engineering metabolic life
The natural evolution of this train of thought is to go beyond copying nature’s ideas with manufactured materials, and instead incorporate actual biological life into our buildings. At the cutting edge of this movement, there are examples integrating biological responses to promote a self-sustaining, closed loop natural ecosystem. Hamburg’s BIQ is one such example. The facade of this zero carbon apartment complex is filled with millions of microscopic algae plants that feed and grow off nutrients and oxygen, generating heat from sunlight, which is harvested and stored for use in the building. It’s the first of its kind, and stands to prove that microalgae biofacades can be “a viable new source of sustainable energy production to transform the urban environment”.
Bricks are even becoming ‘smart’ these days, thanks to embedded microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that break down organic waste and generate electricity. Essentially these walls will act as ‘living engines’ that read and adapt to both the environment outside and the humans inside it. Each brick acts like an electrical analogous computer that can be ‘programmed’ to take in inputs such as grey water, carbon dioxide, sunlight, algae, bacteria and nutrients, and then produce ‘polished’ outputs such as water, oxygen, electricity, heat, biodegradable detergents, biomass and biofluorescence. It’s another solid step in the direction of producing responsive, living architecture that cooperates and co-lives with human activity.
The genius of this living system approach is a shift from objects in isolation to ecological relationships of mutual reciprocity and interdependence. This kind of ecomimicry is based on a ‘fit for purpose’ approach that enables all living systems to renew, evolve and thrive. Buildings of the future can contribute positively to the health and vitality of their local ecological systems.
Pushing biomimetic boundaries
From smog-eating facades to radiant soil that stimulates regrowth and captures carbon, biomimetic design today is rapidly rising to meet new challenges with natural solutions. The horizon continues to push back thanks to digital technology and innovative thinkers like research lab Terreform One.
Pursuing the arbortecture movement, they are looking at how we can grow homes from the root up. Through an ancient gardening methodology known as pleaching, the trunks of self-grafting trees can provide the structure for an earth ecosystem, with a supporting lattice system of branches and supporting vines. Drawing from the organism’s perfect pulmonary system, essential elements such as water circulation, ventilation, solar heating and energy consumption are kept in balance, promising leafy liveability for the long haul. Meat cells, of all things, are also under the microscope to look at ways to infuse living tissue into buildings and get them literally breathing.
But how far can we take this idea in the future – could we one day reach the point where we no longer construct our buildings, but grow them instead? Is it possible that our descendants could live in fully organic and self-sustaining homes? Could our built environment eventually match Mother Nature for being regenerative, adaptable, restorative, and in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem? It may sound far-fetched, but it’s a tantalising possibility.
Bringing these concepts to sufficient scale will take unprecedented imagination and collaboration. Biologists and bioengineers will need to see their scientific framework and knowledge as invaluable, with significant advancement in research and translation into practical applications required. Engineers and architects will need to work alongside them, applying their big picture thinking and knowledge of how to design people-centred environments.
Government and business will require tight partnership and aligned investments; land acquisition and planning will also have to transform their approach. As for builders, we would need to go back to the drawing board on what their role would be. It’s a level of accountability and cross-disciplinary collaboration that would mark a paradigm shift of epic proportions.
Biomimicist Janine Benyus once said: “The truth is, natural organisms have managed to do everything we want to do without guzzling fossil fuels, polluting the planet or mortgaging the future.” Maybe the smartest thing we’ll ever do is stop, look and listen to a world that has been trying to get our attention , and then build systems that leave no footprint at all.