Biomimicry: Why it is Important to Learn from Nature
We have entered an age of awareness: awareness of the environmental damage the earth has suffered throughout the years of human existence. The severity of this damage is becoming more and more apparent through the recognition of certain changes in natural systems. Global warming, rising sea levels, desertification, extinction of species, and numerous other environmental problems have, to at least some degree, been attributed to humans and their systems, which in many cases compromise or sacrifice the functions of natural systems in order to work. Natural systems are innately sustainable, sometimes indefinitely, and it is this inherent characteristic of sustainability that scientists, designers, and many other professionals, have been looking to in recent years for solutions to today’s human-made environmental problems. This type of cross-disciplinary study is known as biomimicry. Those who work with concepts of biomimicry look to nature and its systems for inspiration on how to improve human-made systems and products. The goal of these designers is a world in which humans and their systems are part of the larger ecosystem and work with, rather than against, the natural environment. Through research on the subject of biomimicry, interviews, and visits to ‘green’ buildings, I have collected information that has allowed me to create a prototype of a sustainable housing project that incorporates principles of biomimicry and can be mass produced for accessibility and effectiveness.
Severe damage is being wrought on earth faster than we can prevent it or recognize it. The study of biomimicry and the application of its principles into the way we function as a species will help us to stabilize our negative effect on the planet and allow us, and the rest of the world’s inhabitants, to survive in a sustainable way. For example, current agricultural methods treat the farm as a food factory. Application of biomimicry principles would alter this wasteful system and turn it into a naturally sustainable and low maintenance system. By observing the functions of a wild prairie in Iowa, biomimics have developed a model of a sustainable farm that employs a mix of native plant types for a highly productive, but amazingly hands-off, venture. Biomimics call for the use of perennial plants (like those found in the Iowa prairies) for food production, rather than the labor-intensive annuals that are currently used. The roots of perennial plants prevent erosion and eliminate fallow periods, and seeds would not need to be replanted every year, thereby reducing the embedded energy of foods and products made with the crop in question. Agricultural biomimics see the importance of learning “soil husbandry” and viewing soil as a living resource in order to produce sustainable harvests for years to come (Lang). They also are aware that many of the problems associated with agriculture (i.e. irrigations issues) are products of our current system, whereas a changeover from a factory to a natural system with natural solutions would eliminate such issues.
Engineers in the plastics industry and other manufacturing pursuits have been looking to biomimicry for solutions to their own problems with energy use and sustainability. Current efforts have focused on the functions of photosynthesis and plants’ ability to produce ATP energy with sunlight and carbon dioxide. Inspired by the plant model of self-sustained energy, scientists are now looking for molecules that, when combined or separated with a catalyst, create their own energy with up to 100% yields from material inputs (Benyus). With further refinement in this area, efficiency in manufacturing would rise, and possibly in other areas as well, without creating a larger ecological footprint or depleting non-renewable resources such as coal.
Biomimics have also been concentrating on the study of the so-called “lower animals” in recent years (Benyus). Janine Benyus, a major spokesperson and scholar of biomimicry and its principles, has cited that ‘intelligence’ and being ‘well adapted’ are two entirely different things, and that being well adapted is often a much more sustainable route (Lang). One lower animal that has undergone intense scrutiny by biomimics is the abalone, which has an incredibly strong shell. Scientists have been studying the structure, chemical makeup, and self-healing properties of the abalone’s shell in order to improve ceramics, manufacturing machinery, and computers (Passino). Mussels have also been used in scientific research, but instead of shell properties, their strong bonding threads have served as inspiration for the manufacture of adhesives and other bonding agents. Biomimics have discovered naturally sustainable, low energy technologies in these two lower animals that have yet to be recreated with current human innovations. This shows that we are a long way off from understanding nature and can benefit a great deal by studying its successes.
The international carpet manufacturer Interface™ serves as an example of the application of biomimicry principles and the many rewards they offer to corporations and businesses of all sizes world wide. Interface’s founder and president Ray Anderson saw the value of sustainable practices early on when the company’s customers began asking what Interface was doing for the environment. Proactive environmental procedures and changes in protocol and manufacturing technologies gave Interface a clean reputation and world renown as a ‘green’ industry. Because Interface is the largest carpet manufacturer in the world, its methods serve as a model for the rest of the manufacturing industry and spread the word about the environmental and also monetary benefits of sustainable practices (Business in the Community). One of Interface’s chief designers, Georgia-based interior designer David Oakey, has integrated biomimicry into his visual designs for modular carpet tiles. An avid reader of Janine Benyus’ literature on biomimicry, Oakey has learned to recognize the importance of diversity and organized chaos in the sustainability of natural systems (email to Rachel Boswell) and has centered many of his designs on these principles. Like Interface, Oakey’s own design studio recycles all materials and operates on renewable energy sources like sunlight, making it a completely sustainable design business.
The Dana building on the campus of the University of Michigan is another example of a sustainable ‘green’ building that also in some ways integrates principles of biomimicry into its functions. The building sports composting toilets that can be likened to the functions of earthworms, and uses photovoltaic panels to convert the sun’s energy into a useable form. Sustainable structures such as the Dana building have prompted me to design a modular residential structure based on the formation and function of trees. Wallace Branches, as the structure might be called in its final form, takes on the physical function of a tree so as to minimize the amount of land and vegetation displaced for construction. Residential units perch on the end of ‘branches’ and are powered by photovoltaic roofs, like the leaves on a tree. At the apex of the structure, a community garden and park replaces the vegetation lost by the placement of the trunk, and also provides a local food source for the residents. Drains and piping in each residential unit and the community garden space collect rainwater, which is then recycled for use by the residents. The structure itself is made of local renewable materials, such as straw bales, with high ratings for interior climate maintenance to reduce energy losses. Further refinements for complete self-sustainability would of course be necessary and plausible with further research and expertise into the practice of green architecture.
Through the study of biomimicry and its myriad available applications in the world, we are steadily approaching a period of understanding and partnership with natural systems. Currently, human-made systems are “at war” with nature and often “extract to create wealth” as the expense of natural systems (Lang), but this route may change with more comprehensive and intuitive knowledge of the damage humans have wrought on earth. As Janine Benyus says in her influential book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, human ignorance is correctible and we have the power to adapt and learn from nature for a sustainable future. Sustainability will catch on as a responsible way to live and work with the help of leading corporations such as Interface and designers such as David Oakey paving the way. Perhaps when my formal training is done, Wallace Branches, or some version of it, will become reality and change the way we think about housing and our effects on the planet. Teamwork is the ultimate goal: we must work with nature to protect and rehabilitate our habitat, and biomimicry will help us to better understand our partner.
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