As humanity has progressed through the centuries, it seems that we’ve been drawing further and further into man-made civilizations. Today, the growing emphasis on sustainability presents a new development: innovators are now looking to bring us closer to the natural world to improve our quality of life. One example of this phenomenon in architecture is biomimicry—a process that imitates natural systems to solve complex human problems.
As remarked by countless architects, most human-designed solutions tend to be crude and additive. The result of more materials and more construction used? More energy and more money spent. Structures found in the natural world, by contrast, have gone through 3.8 billion years of, essentially, R&D to become what they are today.
By using very little materials in just the right places or by recycling waste into food, nature epitomizes the idea of being “lazy and intelligent,” as worded by Adriaenssens. After years of trial and error, she came to realize that the most elegant solutions to structural problems resembled natural objects. Presently, she specializes in biomimicry as a way to lend efficiency and sustainability to modern engineering. To do this, biomimicry generally takes two main avenues: the simulation of biological processes, and the co-option of living materials. In the former category, man-made elements are designed to emulate forms seen in the natural world, like synthetic fibers modeled after spider silks and turbine blades shaped like whale fins.
By simulating biological processes, the resulting designs are more functional and elegantly organic. In Beijing, for example, the “Watercube” with its globular surface was built for the 2008 Olympics. On the outside, it emulates a cluster of plastic bubbles; on the inside, each bubble captures air warmed by the sun and transfers the heat into the pool. In this way, the unorthodox structure doubles to provide unseen, energy-efficient functionalities.
A more complex example of bio-simulation can be seen in the work of B+U Architecture. With their “Apertures” installation, they present a cohesive structure that interacts with visitors as if it were a living organism. Rising from the ground like a shining white beanstalk, the installation uses heat sensors to detect the presence of visitors near its various green “windows.” These apertures then feed the data into an algorithm, stimulating blood circulation and neurological activity, to create different levels of sound based on how many people are inside. When it detects a small number of people, the structure gives off a low hum. Then, as more people gather, the sounds intensify.
“It’s basically [measuring] the level of excitement,” explains Herwig Baumgartner of B+U Architecture. “Only over time, and with more people inside interacting with the piece, the sound increases and becomes more and more intense It’s sort of a feedback loop.” As strange as it may seem to have a building coo or shriek at you, the technology used in “Apertures” could bear many innovations in the future. Imagine a house adjusts its temperature according to the number of inhabitants, or a hospital that closes off rooms when it detects harmful air particles. By taking a more dynamic perspective when designing buildings, today’s architects can thus transform the lifeless structures we normally frequent into interactive and adaptable ecosystems.
Whereas bio-simulation simply imitates the natural world, the second category of biomimicry incorporates live matter into its very structure. This is called bio-utilization, or the co-option of living materials. In terms of sustainable materials, the biotic matter is superior to the abiotic matter as for its compostability and ability to turn waste byproducts into fuel—a fundamental process heretofore ignored by most architects. By foregoing substances that will inevitably deteriorate, need replacement, or require additive reinforcement, the application of biotic matter can reduce the amount of waste produced by future buildings.
One example of bio-utilization is ecoLogicStudio’s algae curtains. Designed to rest over building facades, this bioplastic curtain leverages photosynthesizing algae to curb air pollution. Here’s how it works: unfiltered air enters the bottom of the curtain, moves through the embedded serpentine tubes, has its CO2 captured by the micro-algae within, and is released from the top of the unit as clean oxygen.
Over the course of a day, the curtain filters out 1kg of CO2 from the surrounding air, or the equivalent of 20 large trees! In addition to this already-sustainable function, the curtain also shades the building, reducing heating costs, and produces biomass that can be burned for energy or recycled into bioplastics like the ones used to make it.
By co-opting living organisms into its design, the curtain thus provides three sustainable functions while also being recyclable. On their website, ecoLogicStudio explains their philosophy on designing structures like the algae curtain: “We are not satisfied with the current level of engagement of the discipline of architecture towards the global ecological crisis. We believe that a critical, as well as an active role for architecture, is necessary in order for the discipline to have an impact.”
Although these rising “innovations” are billions of years old, the exciting thing about biomimicry is the endless possibilities laden in its application. Right now, engineers like Haresh Lavlani are working to produce buildings that assemble and repair themselves through generative geometry. By perforating metal sheets with computer-controlled lasers, the resulting patterns allow the plane to be stretched by gravity into a three-dimensional object. In the short-term, this could be extremely helpful as rapidly-deployable disaster housing. In the longer-term, Lavlani imagines structures that will be able to grow from the ground-up like a tree.
To reach this point, however, he and other experts emphasize that “architecture alone won’t cut it.” To truly maximize the potentiality of biomimicry, we’ll require biologists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers, computer scientists, material scientists, artists, and architects working in tandem. Like many other examples of innovation, the betterment of sustainable architecture relies on multidisciplinary collaboration.