Nature Does It Better: Biomimicry in Architecture and Engineering

by Zach Mortice
- Jul 11 2016 - 6 min read
Polythread Pavilion - example of biomimicry in architecture - from Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
PolyThread Pavilion, 2016, by Jenny Sabin Studio. Commissioned by Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum for “Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial."

The most important convergence of design and biological sciences today relies on “innovation” that’s millions, if not billions, of years old.

Biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems; biomimicry in architecture and manufacturing is the practice of designing buildings and products that simulate or co-opt processes that occur in nature. There are ultrastrong synthetic spider silks, adhesives modeled after gecko feet, and wind-turbine blades that mimic whale fins.

“The way biological systems solve problems is pretty different from the way engineered systems solve problems,” says Peter Niewiarowski, biologist at the University of Akron and its Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center.

Human-designed solutions, he says, are crude and additive. They rely on using more materials or energy to accelerate reactions—both costly expenditures. Natural processes rely on unique geometry and material properties.

The adhesive abilities of the gecko feet Niewiarowski studies are an example. To simulate the wall-scaling abilities of a gecko, you might strap a battery to your back and run electricity through electromagnets that only adhere to metal. But in fact, geckos’ feet are dense with tiny hairs that each exert a minuscule molecular attraction, allowing the gecko to stick.

biomimicry in architecture
myThread Pavilion, 2012, by Jenny Sabin Studio. Commissioned by Nike Inc. for Nike FlyKnit Collective.

Nature is “lazy and intelligent,” says Sigrid Adriaenssens, an engineering professor at Princeton who researches biomimicry. Nature is exceptional at turning waste into food—a fundamental tool for balancing ecosystems that architecture has ignored for the vast majority of its history.

But for designers, biology offers lessons in hyperefficient resource stewardship and circular economies. Nature also practices a kind of “critical regionalism,” the belief that architecture should reflect the geography and culture of its setting. For example, there are parasites so specifically evolved they can live with only one type of host.

These bespoke qualities of nature took a long time to slot into place: “3.8 billion years of R&D,” says Jamie Dwyer of the biomimicry consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8. “That’s how long life has been evolving.”

The organization was founded by Janine Benyus, whose 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, made her biomimicry’s most visible evangelist. “If you look at all the creations that have gone extinct versus all that are still alive today, it’s a tenth of one percent,” Dwyer says. Biological solutions are the result of millions of failed prototypes.

At Princeton, Adriaenssens came to biomimicry not by looking for ways nature could solve engineering problems, but through discovering that the most efficient solutions resembled natural objects. Nature, she says, “uses very little material and places it in the right place.”

Lucia Sabin eSkin showing application of biomimicry for architecture and engineering
eSkin, 2010–2014, by Sabin, Lucia (architecture), Cornell University; Yang (materials science), Van der Spiegel & Engheta (electrical and systems engineering), Ihida-Stansbury (cell biology), University of Pennsylvania. Project funded by the National Science Foundation. Image courtesy Sabin Design Lab.

Adriaenssens cites the organic curves of seashells as an example. “It’s not rigid because there’s a lot of material,” she says. “It’s done through form.”

As an engineer, Adriaenssens is working on building screen systems that use elasticity, geometry, and thermobimetal to open and close in response to sunlight—like a flower. Biomimicry tends to be referenced more by architects than engineers, but there’s reason to believe that the latter field has more in common with the practice. Though often beautiful, biology doesn’t worry about aesthetic choices the way architects do. Like engineers, nature relentlessly pursues raw utility, with graceful symmetry as a byproduct.

Jenny Sabin, an architecture professor and director of Sabin Design Lab at Cornell, has focused on knitting as an analogic bio-inspired device, producing photoluminescent webs with unmistakably cellular structures. Knitting emulates cellular networking behavior and the way cells are bound together to become tissue. “The whole morphology is based on fibrous strand systems,” she says. “Knitting is the first example of 3D printing. You’re additively laying down one link to the next, row by row.”

Her eSkin project (funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with material scientist Shu Yang, mechanical engineers Jan Van der Spiegel and Nader Engheta, and cell biologist Kaori Ihida-Stansbury) incorporates structural color to change a material’s opacity and color in response to sunlight levels.

Aperatures installation highlighting potential of biomimicry in architecture
Apertures. Courtesy Baumgartner + Uriu Architecture.

Examples of structural color found in nature include the wings of the Blue Morpho butterfly or the feathers of hummingbirds. Inspired by this unique cellular behavior, the eSkin team is interested in harnessing these material features and effects for biomimicry in architecture, translating them into scalable building skins that use responsive materials and feedback loops provided by sensors to adapt to environmental cues.

The “Apertures” installation by B+U Architecture is similarly focused on feedback loops, but it posits an entire building as an organism. Made of white thermoformed plastic polymers that look like Storm Trooper armor with green barnacle-shaped portholes, the installation’s organic geometry calls to mind Jack’s beanstalk if it were cast in a sci-fi epic.

The installation features heat sensors that detect the presence of visitors when they’re near porthole apertures. The sensors feed these heat readings into an algorithm (using them as a proxy for blood circulation and neurological activity) and then translate that information into sound. It’s a low hum when just a few people are in the installation, but it grows louder as more people are attracted.

Apertures biomimicry architecture projects
Apertures. Courtesy Baumgartner + Uriu Architecture.

“It’s basically [measuring] the level of excitement,” says Herwig Baumgartner, partner at B+U. “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.” That’s because visitors are drawn to the cooing hum, repelled when it gets louder, and then attracted again once the shriek dies down.

It’s an inhospitable way to demonstrate biomimicry, so it’s not surprising when Baumgartner says, “I don’t have a romantic relationship to nature.” The kind of nature Baumgartner and his firm are interested in are mechanical simulations. “It appears natural but is actually superartificial,” he says.

But what if the components designers are using are actually alive? Biomimicry is a new field with loosely defined borders, but broadly speaking, there are two approaches: simulation of biological processes and the co-option of living material, called bio-utilization.

Aiming to reduce carbon emissions in masonry manufacturing, bioMASON grows brick in its North Carolina factory in kiln-free, greenhouse-like conditions. “What we’re creating is biological cement,” says founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier.

biomimicry in architecture bioMASON brick
bioMASON brick from day to night. Courtesy bioMASON.

The company’s process uses bacteria that alters the pH balance of the surrounding aggregate material, allowing calcium carbonate to grow and bind the material together with little to no carbon emissions. “It’s similar to what microrganisms do [to make] coral reefs,” Krieg Dosier says. And bioMASON bricks are near the cost of regular bricks but are much better for the environment. (The manufacturing of building materials, including brick, adds up to about 12 percent of all carbon emissions.)

It may seem strange that copying the way the natural world works is just now coming to the fore, but worldwide emphasis on sustainability is forcing people to look at efficient systems of all types. And until recently, engineers didn’t have tools to simulate natural processes.

So what can architecture and engineering learn and emulate from nature? The answer is much more, as long as there’s a rise in multidisciplinary collaboration. The more biologists, architects, mechanical engineers, and materials scientists collaborate, the more likely it is that hybrid fields like biomimicry in architecture can take root.

“If you trap biomimicry in design or engineering as though any one field owns it,” says Niewiarowski, “you poison its potential.”

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