Biomimicry in Construction

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Image Credit: Bullitt Center Flickr Photostream

The term biomimicry was coined in 1982 and comes from the Greek words bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. So biomimicry simply means to imitate life but more specifically it involves taking the forms and functions observed in nature and developing them into solutions for human problems. The concept focuses on taking the 3.8 billion years of research and development that nature has been performing through evolution and adapting and applying it to real world problems. One of those real world problems is finding ways to build green and sustainable buildings. In construction, biomimicry is being used to inspire design elements in architecture, engineering better building systems and developing building materials that are stronger and more eco-friendly.

One of the best known examples of biomimicry in construction is the Eastgate Centre located in Harare, Zimbabwe. The building was constructed without a conventional air conditioning or heating system installed. Instead it utilizes a ventilation system whose design was inspired by the mud mounds of a South African species of termite. In these mounds termites regulate temperature by opening and closing a series of heating and cooling vents throughout the day. The Eastgate Centre draws outside inside using fans located on the first floor to and up into a centrally located duct system. The building mass will then heat or cool the incoming air depending on which is hotter, the building concrete or the incoming air. The air is circulated through vents in the ceiling and eventually drawn out through the exhaust system. The building has saved millions of dollars in heating and cooling costs and consumes only 10 percent of the energy that a conventional building of its size would use.

A more recent example of biomimicry in construction drew inspiration for its design from a forest of Douglas fir trees. Construction on the Bullitt Center in Seattle was completed this summer and bills itself as “The Greenest Commercial Building in the World.” The 600 panel solar array atop the building is arranged in such a way as to mimic a forest canopy by allowing light to pass through in areas to the ground below. The solar panels are intended to generate all the energy the building will use in a year. Rainwater will be collected on the roof and stored in a 56,000 gallon cistern located under the building is expected to supply all of the water needs for the building. The building will also feature a composting toilet system and all wastewater from sinks, showers and drains will be filtered by the rain garden. The building is constructed mostly of wood which was sourced from local sustainably harvested forests.

In addition to learning from nature to inspire design and engineer better building systems, researchers are turning to nature to help develop improvements to building materials. Researchers at Harvard have developed a liquid repellent based on the slick coating found inside a pitcher plant. While a pitcher plant uses its slick coating to trap bugs to eat, the liquid repellent it inspired could be used to create self-cleaning windows or used to coat the inside of plumbing  pipes. The Slippery Liquid-Infused Porous Surface (SLIPS) has been proven to work in extreme temperatures and is self-healing. Researchers are mimicking the jagged scales found in lightning bugs in order to make LED lights brighter which could result in making them even more energy efficient than they already are. The amino acids used by the blue mussel to attach itself to rocks underwater was the inspiration for a soy-based glue used in hardwood plywood construction that is water resistant and free of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.

Biomimicry is going to have a large impact on the future of green construction. By imitating the designs, processes and systems found in nature and adapting and applying them to the architectural, engineering and construction industries it will lead to stronger, safer and more eco-friendly buildings in the future.

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