Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lessons in Biomimicry

by Leonora Oppenheim

Lessons in Biomimicry - Part 1 Natural Forms

Exploration river douglas bridge 

This week I am reporting from Schumacher College in south west England. Here, I am taking part in a course called Biomimicry: New Directions in Sustainable Design lead by the architect Michael Pawlyn, he of the incredible Sahara Forest Project. This is my introduction to Biomimicry and in the excitement of learning something radically new I thought I should share the experience with you all. 

Biomimicry is the study of natural forms, systems and processes in nature in order to find more effective and sustainable ways to design and engineer products, buildings and service systems. The first thing I learned yesterday was that Biomimicry is definitely not the same thing as Biomorphism...

Biomorphism is the imitation of nature's shapes in design, which often develops beautiful outcomes, but lacks the analytical approach that can help revolutionize the way we think about design.

The River Douglas Bridge

The project pictured above is a proposal by Pawlyn's studio Exploration Architecture, for a bridge crossing the River Douglas in Lancashire. The design takes its inspiration from the internal pressures seen in nature which create self supporting structures. For example the osmotic potential in leaves where the water in the cells creates a stiffness which allows the leaf to hold itself up. 

Dematerialised Structures

Using inflated Tensairity airbeams, created by the Swiss company Airlight, Exploration designed a bridge that was supported mostly by pressurised air contained in a thin membrane. This resulted in a dramatic dematerialisation of the traditional bridge structure. An added design delight was the 'maximum infestation clause' inserted by Pawlyn with the planted biodivirsity corridor along the bridge created to link up the two sides of the river and combat the habitat fragmentation that is normally seen in this situation.

schumacher college opening circle photo
The Opening Circle of the Biomimicry course

The Eden Project

Another example used was the iconic Eden Project on which Pawlyn was a lead architect for Grimshaw. The forms of the biomes were inspired by soap bubbles and the hexagonal frames by cellular structures. Through the use of inflated ETFE membrane panels, which are 1% of the weight of double glazing, other benefits were seen such s lighter steel frame, letting in more sunlight and adding solar gain. Finally, the air contained in the large tropical biome weighs more that the envelope enclosing it. 

eden project biomes photo

Cradle to Cradle

Michael Pawlyn started by referencing McDonough and Braungart's statement from Cradle to Cradle "Being less bad is not the same as being good." Should we adapt systems and improve them? Or should we start from the beginning and create a new paradigm? I think you can see from just these two projects that Exploration Architecture, through the use of biomimicry, is achieving the latter. 

Schumacher College baked bread photo
Schumacher College creates holistic learning by asking all students and staff to take part in group work sessions everyday, including cooking, cleaning and gardening.

Lessons in Biomimicry - Part 2 Natural Systems

 Biomimicry Coasteering 
Image courtesy of Paul Villecourt -
Last week I reported direct from Schumacher College in Devon, where I was attending a course entitled Biomimicry: New Directions in Sustainable Design. The first part of the programme discussed natural forms using examples such as the Eden Project. Today I continue with part 2 of Michael Pawlyn's course examining natural systems and tomorrow you can read the final part in this series which looks at natural processes.
Biomimicry as the study of natural systems can help design and architecture work more effectively, but it can also work on social development and business structures. The image above was taken on a coasteering holiday run by TYF in Wales. The founder of TYF, Andy Middleton, explained why it was fundamental to engage people in nature in order to help them connect with the environment. He also described his intriguing theory of 'winkle thinking'...
Winkle Thinking

Middelton uses biomimicry in his safety instructions for participants on his coastal aventures. This behavioural instruction is called 'winkle thinking' because instead of warning people of all the dangers, he just asks people to imitate certain sea life when in the water to keep safe. So when in rushing water act like kelp or seaweed, stay floppy so you don't injure yourself. When in crashing waves cling to the rocks like a winkle does. When in open water behave like a fish, smooth and streamlined, to make the most of your energy.
Desirable Messages

As an expert facilitator Middleton managed our group throughout the week with a natural, effortless ease. He demonstrated the importance and value of communication and asked us to look at how nature sends messages. His great example was the blackbird plucking the reward of the ripe blackberry, the seed automatically goes along for the ride eventually being processed and disseminated, therefore achieving the plant's aim of reproduction. This simple illustration shows how crucial it is for environmentalists to create messages that are desirable, fresh and convenient and therefore accessible to a wide audience.
Flow chart of Able project image

From Cardboard to Caviar

Michael Pawlyn in his presentation related natural systems to business structures and used the fascinating example of the Able Project in the UK. Nicknamed 'From Cardboard to Caviar' this project was started by Graham Wiles in Yorkshire as a work rehabilitation project for recovering heroine addicts, engaging them in natural systems. The flow chart above shows how an amazing production chain has been set up starting with recycling cardboard and ending up with producing caviar - talk about upcycling!
Waste as Nutrient

The project takes cardboard from restaurants and shops, shreds it and sells is as horse bedding. When the horse bedding needs replacing it is picked up and composted in a worm farm. The compost goes onto plant beds and the extra worms are fed to the fish farm where sturgeon are bred and caviar is produced. The caviar is then sold back to the restaurants where the cardboard was collected in the first place. This is an incredible example of how waste can be used as food, just as waste in nature is always a nutrient and ends up in a cradle to cradle cycle.
Social and Economic Rehabilitation

The ingenious biomimetic thinking of Graham Wiles and the Green Business Network has created an amazing business and social rehabilitation venture. At every turn and at every challenge they looked at what nature would do and found a way to close the loop. In addition to this they provided employment and skills training for disadvantaged people in a poor area of the country and created valuable products which could be used by many different industries.
Raking leaves at Schumacher College photo
Doing the gardening at Schumacher College involved raking fallen autumn leaves and putting them on the compost pile, turning nature's waste into nutrients.

Caddisfly cases photo

Natural processes was the third theme of the Biomimicry in Design course at Schumacher College last week. This built on Part 1 - Natural Forms and Part 2 - Natural Systems by taking us deep into the biological processes which can help us re-evaluate traditional engineering methods.
Professor Julian Vincent, an expert in biomimetics at Bath University, calls human engineering the "heat, beat and treat" method, where we "destroy the information in materials by homogenizing them through the application of energy, then use even more energy to impose a new structure". He believes that by studying biological processes we can challenge the status quo in engineering and design. In order to explain his ideas further Professor Vincent took our group out for a walk on Dartmoor and down to the river where we found out how the caddisfly (pictured above) builds its case.

Caddisfly Cases

At the edge of the fast flowing River Dart Professor Vincent took his fishing net and gathered up some caddisfly larvae from the sandy river bed. Known as underwater architects, the caddisfly build their own shell cases from the silt and small pebbles that they find around them. They use their own larvae silk to bind the pieces together into a strong portable shelter that will protect them through their larval life. 


The principle of abundance

One of the main themes of biomimicry is abundance and we can see from the caddisfly's process that they use whatever they have in abundance around them, silt and pebbles, to construct their cases and bind them together with their own silk. Architecture and construction in nature is quite an extraordinary thing. Did you know that biology uses no more than 5% energy to realise natural structures which means that 95% is structural information, i.e. the silt and silk. Conversely human technology uses about 70% energy versus 30% information to solve problems, hence the "heat, beat and treat" phrase. 

Sahara Forest Project

Michael Pawlyn in his last presentation of the course took us back to his incredible Sahara Forest Project, which has received so much attention after being published here on TreeHugger. Part of the inspiration for this project came from the Namibian Fog Beetle which uses an amazing natural process to gather its drinking water. 

Image via flickr: Andrea Sosio

Collecting Drinking Water
During the night in the desert the beetle's shell is the coolest surface around, so this is where water condenses into tight droplets thanks to ridges on the surface. In the morning the beetle tips up it's shell and the water runs down to its mouth for a nice refreshing drink. Again, this is an example of high information and low energy in nature. The structural information of the shell does all the work, leaving very little for the beetle to do in terms of energy use. It probably takes less than 5% energy of the whole process for the beetle to tip up its shell and drink the water.

sahara forest project flow diagram image

Sea Water to Fresh Water to Renewable Energy
The Sahara Forest Project mimics the namibian fog beetle's ingenious way of collecting water in the desert through the use of seawater greenhouses and a condensation process that allows seawater to be desalinated into fresh water to be used for irrigating crops and in the Concentrated Solar Power system. Above you can see the flow diagram above which illustrates the various processes that the Sahara Forest Project uses to achieve an abundance of fresh water and carbon neutral energy in the desert. 

Many hands make light work

The week of biomimicry at Schumacher College was amazing in so many ways - we engaged our minds, bodies and hearts in all our learning - whether it was in the classroom, cooking in the kitchen or walking on Dartmoor. There was a wealth of expertise in the group, which meant that all participants were teachers and all the teachers were participants. The community spirit of Schumacher College allowed us all to join in and contribute. This was demonstrated perfectly at the end of the course where each person gave one word or phrase that summed up the week for them. These words gathered together gave us tools to go home with, which we can now begin to use in our daily lives. The list is below.
Making shortbread in the Schumacher College kitchen

Key words from Biomimicry course
nutrients, imagining the impossible, future visioning, collaboration, stickiness, closing loops, threads, to be in touch with yourself, toolbox, balance, simplicity, speaking a common language, storytelling, adaptability versus change, make waste history, personal connnection, health, master builder, embrace the unexpected, be open to new things, prototypes, interconnectivity, high information low energy, elegance, hierarchy, system sub-system super-system, abundance.



TreeHugger has long been a big proponent of biomimicry, so were justifiably excited to see this. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has released a guidebook aimed at further promoting and building biomimicry into design-for-the-environment products. The guidebook, Better by Design: An Innovation Guide,” [pdf] presents design for environment and biomimicry principles and product case studies that read like a "Best of TH" laundry list: Steelcase's Think chair, Interface Carpets, DesignTex textiles, ENV bike and Biota water, just to name a few. The guide also includes a sample product attribute flow chart, a method for evaluating human health, ecosystem and resource impacts of materials and processes, and a six page checklist of questions to help focus design groups. Very handy for anyone interested in lifecycle analysis, environmental product design and the like. ::Better By Design via ::Sustainable Practices