Friday, July 16, 2010

Sustainable Architecture: Learning from Nature & The Magic of Symbiosis

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain—Leonardo daVinci

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m a science fiction author. The alien race in my book “Collision with Paradise” live 100% sustainably in a cooperative and synergistic partnership with their environment, including intelligent organic houses with self-cleaning floors and walls, heated, fueled and lit by organisms in a commensal relationship. Everything works on a natural cycle of harmonious renewal and natural evolution.

Science fiction? Think again. Science fiction is turning into fact.

Architects Bob Berkebile and Jason McLennan wrote, “In the future, the houses we live in and the offices we work in will be designed to function like living organisms, specifically adapted to place and able to draw all of their requirements for energy and water from the surrounding sun, wind and rain. The architecture of the future will draw inspiration, not from the machines of the 20th century, but from the beautiful flowers that grow in the landscape that surrounds them.”(The Living Building: Biomimicry in Architecture, Integrating Technology with Nature)

Humans have been getting ideas from other animals and plants since long before Leonardo DaVinci wrote the quote at the top of my article. Application of these ideas has been haphazard, and not particularly aimed at green design. Janine Benyus, leading proponent of nature-based design, first proposed in her book “Biomimicry” that learning from nature would be the perfect tool for eco-design. Engineering inspired by nature can be “functionally indistinguishable from the elegant designs we see in the natural world,” says Benyus, who founded the Biomimicry Institute to research and educate the world on sustainable biomimetic design.

Promises abound: glass that “breathes” like gills. Solar cells that imitate photosynthesizing leaves. Ceramics with the tough strength of abalone shells. Self-assembling computer chips that form in ways similar to how tooth enamel grows, adhesives that mimic the glue that mussels use to anchor themselves in place, and self-cleaning plastics based on a lotus leaf.

Sustainable architecture will take “its cue from the original green: Nature” says Blaine Brownell in the March 2009 issue of Discover Magazine. It makes sense when you look at Nature’s proven track record.

Biomimicry is already being applied in large-scale challenges.

Brownell reports that the Kyoto-based company Kyosemi developed a power-harvesting solar cell that imitates the way trees collect sunlight. Called Sphelar, the product is made up of little spherical cells that can be incorporated into a building’s windows. Unlike standard photovoltaic panels, Sphelar absorbs light from many directions, providing more consistent power generation as the sun moves across the sky. Similarly, Osaka University used the example of the forest canopy to cool buildings (e.g., the Frontier Research Center).

The think tank The Living is developing a product called Kinetic Glass, based on animal respiratory systems and made with a slit silicone surface that lets air pass through. Its tiny sensors detect levels of certain gases and opens or closes its “gills” accordingly.

Scientists are taking their cue from the air-purifying ability of plants and fungi to create barriers that not only reduce noise but remove harmful substances. Imagine, for instance, concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide, highway barriers that break down smog, and paint that eliminates odors in the room. Architects Douglas Hecker and Martha Skinner of the design studio Fieldoffice created the SuperAbsorber highway barrier that reduces local airborne pollution through a process known as photocatalyzation. Italcementi, an Italian maker of photo-catalytic cement, claims that the airborne pollution of a large city could be cut in half if pollution-reducing cement were to cover just 15 percent of urban surfaces.

There are two things missing in this scenario of “sustainable architecture” and design. In their absence, the longevity of our continued existence will be threatened and the success of green design will falter. One is the concept of synergy and the other is the role humanity—particularly our communities—will play in this partnership. In my book, Collision with Paradise, the alien race discovered by my hero had formed a true synergistic relationship with nature. They had not just copied some of her tricks or mimicked her cool attributes. They had formed a natural and respectful synergistic partnership with Nature. This is not the same as using Nature’s tools, per se, to improve on old designs. Because, in truth, it is not so much tools like biomimicry that is required; what is needed is a true paradigm shift in how we relate to our environments, from our bedrooms to our communities. I am referring to “symbiotic design”, a living design that incorporates all aspects of a community.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, John R.J. French and Berhan M. Ahmed, respectfully touch upon this concept when they discuss a human-termite design partnership. They explore the termite model, which meets all nutrition, energy, waste, disposal needs, shelter, and food sources in a true symbiotic relationship; and they are applying it to how we design our buildings. The Eastgate Centre building in Harare Zimbabwe, already mimics the way tower-building termites construct their mounds to maintain a constant temperature. Engineers copied the way the insects constantly open and close vents in the mound to manage convection currents of air and the building consumes less than 10% of the energy used in a similar sized conventional building. “We need to emulate the symbiotic abilities of termites to survive over time, for we all live on this symbiotic planet, and symbiosis is natural and common,” French and Ahmed remind us.

The term “sustainable architecture” describes environmentally-conscious architectural design, framed by the larger concept of environmental and economic responsibility. This implies responsible leadership and strong partnership with community tied to respect for Nature. Without educated citizens embracing the concept of “symbiotic design” and personal involvement, we simply continue the same cycle of unhealthy consumerism and the irresponsible concept of a user society taped together by piecemeal, disconnected and ultimately failed green technology. This is why designs like pollution-cleaning concrete suggest a limited solution to a larger challenge. For instance, this technology could be construed by some as permission to keep polluting—something or someone else will take care of it, after all. It reminds me of one of my pet peeves: littering. And at its root is the lack of partnership and respect of the community and individual for his or her environment from his own back yard to some foreign city being visited abroad. Green concepts need to be fully embraced by the community in which they are applied. And this is best accomplished through the larger framework of green city planning and community education.

Educating the public and promoting community responsibility and involvement in green designs is key to achieving the necessary paradigm shift for future success. These can include: green rooftops; rain gardens; people’s gardens and curbside gardens; and green streets. It isn’t enough to know the how; we need to know why to make it work.

This article first appeared on Viridis developments, June 2010.

1. Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Write building in Bejing
3. Shanghai Tower
4. Salk Institute, California
5. Vancouver Public Library
6. green-architecture
7. Fallingwater

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

These structures are beautiful. More need to be a reality, instead of the ugly monolithic concrete structures that we seem to build mainly.

SF Girl said...

Yes, I totally agree, Jean-Luc. When my son was just going into high school, he was very interested in architecture. It turns out he has gone a different route. He used to share some awesome ideas of melding architectural design with nature. I wonder what he would have come up with...

I'm happy to see this way of thinking is catching on...

See a previous post by guest blogger, Kathryn Brennar, on green architecture and what communities are doing... COOL!

Anonymous said...

My initial thought on reading your posting was - Cameron's movie Avatar. All the entities on Pandora were symbiotically connected. Plants, creatures and hominids all able to be in contact. The impression is that all are in harmony and the hominids are in tune with the nature of their environment.

But let us come back to Earth...

Everything old is new again - Plants on buildings reminds me of ivy covered buildings. The ivy protects the stone from heating up in the summer. In the winter the sun gets through. Seems kind of symbiotic- let plants be plants, the plants don't lose. Humans gain better heat management.
Not sure how spheres of glass mimic leaves. Leaves turn to face light. Some solar arrays are designed to track the sun with motors to turn the panels to the light. Glass spheres remove the need to track the sun, absorbing light from any direction. No biomimicry, just clever use of optical principals.
The kinetic slit silicone "gills" on windows are a sensor array used to detect levels of toxic gases then provide a warning to the those affected. Clever engineering yes, sybiotic no, biomimicry only in so far as looking like a fish gill, completely different function.
What would be really cool - a gill structure to extract oxygen from rain water or to extract CO2 and sequester it.
I enjoy reading about observations of how insects do things then implying that it might be possible to extrapolate the method to human scale.
The example of how termites control the temperature of their mound doesn't scale well. Given that thousands to millions of termites live in a mound about the size of a refrigerator we would be looking at trying to stuff a lot people into a 50 story building. Termites don't mind crawling over each other, humans are not as tolerant. The Eastgate Centre building in Harare Zimbabwe does leverage the local setting. The building uses old school building methods - limit the window to 25% or less and deep eaves to for shade in the summer, allowing light in the winter. The design limits the civic density. The weight of such a building limits how tall it can be built which begets the compromise of requiring limits on population.

Nature has a dark side -
It is always nice to see the beauty and wonder of nature. Nature provides us with a blue print of what is truly beautiful. Nature also provides some very efficient models that are worthy of study. But we must also remember that many of the tools that nature uses can be harsh. Over eons of time, many creatures have come and gone as planet earth changes. Rapid extinction is not limited to human causes. An ice age can really cramp your style.
Predators are kept in balance with their prey by starvation. Too many predators, not enough prey, no problem - predators starve to death until a balance is achieved. Too many prey animals, no problem - predators will come along and eat the excess.
There used to be some very efficient checks and balances to maintain human populations. In the past, when populations became too dense, nature had options: When a given area could not sustain a higher population, people would migrate to another area. If the new area was sparsely populated and the migrants were stronger then the migrants would supplant the indigenous people (not very pleasant for the losers); Or, the higher density of people would generate a breeding ground for pathogens, leading to disease and a quick thinning of the population; Or, the population outstrips the availability of resources to sustain the growth then nature pulls out the starvation card. We now have tools to fight disease, force more production of food and the might (but not the right) to get what we need (and unfortunately what we want). There are those among us who think if we mess up this planet too much, some of us will be able to migrate to another planet and leave Nature to recycle earth and try again. Of course, those of us that are just visiting this planet already know this.


SF Girl said...

:) ....

Anonymous said...

In The News -
'Chia Wall' To Muffle Highway Sound

A bit of green tech.


SF Girl said...

Thanks so much for the cool link and story, Limberger!

I like the idea of a Chia-wall designed by Canada-based civil engineering products company Deltalok. The article describes how the wall, like a Chia pet (just add water and watch it grow) will consist not of concrete, which failed in a previous attempt (plants dried up and the concrete crumbled and fell apart), but of
bags containing several different grass varieties that are stapled, tied, and sewn together. This sounds more likely to succeed.

I remember reporting on the success of a landscaping renovation of a million-dollar home where the landscape artist spent upteen dollars to put in lovely, exotic plants that were not suited to the ecological setting; it looked splendid for half a season then they all died. What a waste. They needed to hire the ecologist first not after! I could have saved them tons of money and time...

Double Glazing Quote said...

Wow.. This is great! I can say that this is the first time I saw this house and it is impressive! Anyway, thanks for posting and I will definitely visit this blog more often.

SF Girl said...

You're very welcome and thanks for you comment. Do drop by again...

SF Girl said...

p.s. Here is a very cool link about green building based on termite ecology in Zimbabwe, delivered to me through a comment on this same article on Climate of Our future:

The link to "Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled after Termite Mounds" as it appears on Inhabitat is here: