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A different approach to learning from nature

Michael Pawlyn’s stimulating introduction to ways of thinking that could radically change how we build

It is said that more money worldwide is now devoted to biomimicry than to any other field of research, and while the term may not yet be on everyone’s lips its headline stories are familiar − moths with ‘stealth bomber’ features to help them evade predators or glass-climbing robots modelled on geckos’ feet.

Biomimicry promises to be game-changing in fields from materials science to medicine and for Michael Pawlyn it is also the key to addressing the major architectural challenges of the 21st century: radical improvements in the efficient use of resources, shifting from a fossil-fuel to a solar economy, and changing from linear to closed-loop systems for stewarding the flows of energy and materials.

The best known applications of biomimetics in architecture, such as passive-cooling systems allegedly inspired by termite mounds, are environmental and have little to do with that more ubiquitous manifestation of the revival of interest in ‘natural design’ − computer-generated biomorphic forms emulating nature’s appearance rather than her underlying logic. Pawlyn, happily, is dismissive of most things blob-like: he is interested in what the scientist Julian Vincent calls ‘the abstraction of good design from nature’ and his book offers an admirably clear account of how such thinking can be applied to buildings and settlements.

Sahara Forest Project - a scheme that integrates two technologies

Sahara Forest Project - a scheme that integrates two technologies

Although Pawlyn’s concerns are global in scope, much of the delight of his book lies in the design principles illustrated by numerous, often near-miraculous examples he marshals as potential models. Some were grist to the mill of the last wave of nature-inspired thinking in architecture − illustrations of nature’s ability to economise on materials by exploiting shape, for example, were celebrated in Gyorgy Kepes’s ‘Vision + Value’ series of books in the 1960s − but many are new and striking.

The abalone shell, we learn, is formed from stiff platelets of aragonite (a form of calcium carbonate) held together by a flexible polymer mortar, producing a material that is more resistant to fracture than would have been produced by a stronger ‘glue’. Like bricks bonded with lime
mortar, this combination is the almost universal practice in nature, and in striking contrast to many man-made assemblies.

Or consider the Namibian fog-basking beetle that climbs to the top of a sand-dune at night, radiates body-heat to the night sky to cool its matt-black surface below the ambient temperature and then drinks the water that condenses overnight, courtesy of water-attracting bumps that create spherical droplets which run easily to its mouth − a process analogous to the way the Persians once made ice in the desert using black ceramic trays.

Similar examples pervade the literature of popular science. However, what makes Pawlyn’s arguments so pertinent is topicality, as the need to think differently is becoming everywhere apparent. Technological developments are now enabling us to engineer structures, materials and systems in ways that emulate these natural models.

The strength of spider’s silk (which is better than Kevlar, the strongest man-made fibre) is well known, but now the means to build and spin similar polymer chains may not be far off. Also pertinent is the growing range of architectural projects that deploy biomimetic thinking. Several of these come from his own portfolio, first with Grimshaw, and now with his own firm Exploration Architecture, and most concern passive energy design.

Others, however, such as the carpet-makers Interface, are more unexpected. The firm’s late chairman became fascinated with biomimetics when a workshop entitled ‘How Would Nature Make a Carpet?’ yielded a hugely successful design based on the randomness that pervades natural surfaces. Gecko-inspired ways of eliminating adhesives, re-engineered carpets that need half the material to achieve the same durability, and a host of other nature-based innovations followed.

History teaches us to be wary of technologically-inspired predictions that concern the future of architecture. A century and a half after Eugène Viollet-le-Duc suggested that within 20 years most buildings would be made in factories, on-site construction remains the norm, and in his enthusiasm for biomimicry I suspect Pawlyn overestimates how quickly these ideas will transform everyday building in temperate climates. But his enthusiasm is contagious and despite a somewhat steep price his book can be enthusiastically recommended as a stimulating introduction to ways of thinking that could radically change how we build.

The structural engineering genius Pier-Luigi Nervi frequently used examples from nature to inspire more efficient structures as in this example of the Palazzetto dello Sport that has a striking resemblance to the leaves of the giant Amazon water lily

The structural engineering genius Pier-Luigi Nervi frequently used examples from nature to inspire more efficient structures as in this example of the Palazzetto dello Sport that has a striking resemblance to the leaves of the giant Amazon water lily

 

Biomimicry in Architecture

Author: Michael Pawlyn

Publisher: RIBA Publishing

Price: £25

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