Biomimicry: The Artful Science That Emulates Nature

As a general concept, biomimicry is anything but new. From clothing—originally derived, one supposes, from cold humans observing warm animals—to advanced propulsion systems being developed today, we have long taken advantage of nature’s 3.85 billion years of research and development on Earth.

Only fairly recently, however, has biomimicry become a recognized scientific discipline with its own certification system. In fact, in the entire world, there are currently only 14 certified biomimicry professionals, with certification coming from the Biomimicry Institute. One of those is Lisa L. Schmidtke, an associate with Clark Nexsen Architecture and Engineering in Norfolk. Schmidtke will be joining Clark Nexsen Vice President Ray Pentecost, FAIA, to lead a workshop in Richmond the afternoon of November 2, 2011, just prior to Architecture Exchange East, to explain the potential of biomimicry to the profession of architecture.

“It is a science and it’s cool because it’s interdisciplinary,” Schmidke explains. In fact, of her initial certification cohort of 16 (two did not complete the two-year master’s curriculum) there were four each of businesspeople, designers, biologists, and engineers. In turn, the curriculum consisted of a half a year each on design, engineering, biology, and business.

But what exactly is biomimicry?

By analyzing the tail-induced vortexes of schooling fish, researchers at the Caltech Biological Propulsion Laboratory modeled an optimal configuration for vertical-turbine wind-power generators that is 10 times more efficient than blade-powered turbine arrays. Photo courtesy of Dr. John O. Dabiri, California Institute of Technology

“I have found that it makes sense to explain biomimicry in terms of examples,” Schmidke says. And she offers two classic architectural examples. The Eastgate Centre tower in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by Mick Pearce, is modeled after termite mounds ubiquitous to the plains of that part of Africa. Wing shaped in section, with the edges oriented north to south, the mounds are riddled with airways the termites open and close in sync with the sun and prevailing winds. Thus, the termites keep their microbial food source thriving at a constant 87 degrees F day and night.

The Eastgate Centre likewise stays consistently comfortable with a passive heat-transfer system, engineered by Ove Arup, that takes advantage of the city’s wide day/night temperature variations. The building uses 10 percent of the energy of an equivalent yet conventionally condit ioned building, according to a Prince Claus Fund evaluation.
Another well-known example is Norman Foster’s 30 St. Mary Axe, completed in 2002 in London, which circulates air the way a glass sponge circulates water. Despite firebreaks that are required every sixth floor, the building is effectively ventilated with six chimney-stack shafts. The air stacks, sandwiched between two layers of glazing, also help insulate the building’s exterior. Engineered by Arup, the tower reportedly uses half the energy of a conventional equivalent tower.
“By giving the client these examples, they see that biomimicry is a real entity with real benefits and not some scary new design approach that’s going to cost a lot of money,” Schmidke says.

Biomimicry is a process

A lot of the design work in biomimicry is spent evaluating building performance-optimization. “We are not looking at what we want to design—say, a school—but at what we want our design to do—be a part of the instructional experience,” Schmidke explains. “You can look at how nature purifies water, provides seasonal shade, ventilates, or prevents fires. And that’s how you go about developing design strategies. But first you have to develop a process of evaluating connectivity. Nature doesn’t design schools or trains. What nature does know, and that we can learn from,
is how to make sea kelp spin with the waves and eliminate drag. Biomimicry is applying that observation, somehow, to building performance.”

Schmidke’s method of teaching biomimicry to others involves exercises that develop potential design strategies based on observed natural principles. The goals span from finding free energy and managing water to benign recycling of all fabricated materials, she say. “And once you know where your problem areas are, you can look to nature to see how to handle each challenge. So the study of biomimicry just gets your brain going.

“Humans are brilliant,” she continues. “Our brains make us stand apart from the 30 million other organisms on Earth. But, in turn, we designers also have to stand apart from our hubris and accept that there are other ways to increase building performance that are gentler and more efficient than what we are used to doing. I’m anxious to see where this discipline will go in the A/E world. But I think architectural design will benefit greatly. And, hopefully, the science will help us keep humans as one of those 30 million species on the Earth.”

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