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Building Evolution: How Biomimicry is Shaping the Nature of our Buildings

there is a new “nature” within a building

When you think of nature as it applies to building design, operation and maintenance, you probably think about the garden atrium in the building, the staged greenery throughout the lobbies or perhaps the views to common areas planted in greenery. However, there is a new “nature” within a building. It is a concept termed biomimicry, which literally means to mimic life.

In 1997 biologist and science writer Janine Benyus coined the term when she wrote the book Biomimicry—Innovation Inspired by Nature.  Biomimicry has since become a design discipline that investigates how the natural environment operates, and more specifically, how living organisms create and solve design challenges. Design solutions adapted through the use of biomimicry are intended to foster a more sustainable human experience and existence.  Major architectural design firms, in building and city design, are actively using this new discipline.

Through a process of reconnecting with nature and researching living organisms, the design teams, together with biologists, are looking at how natural systems operate and are “asking nature” as a means to inform their building design.  How do living organisms capture, store and process water, sunlight and waste? How does nature cool, shade and recycle nutrients? In addition to some of the more basic building functions, other designers are looking at 3D printing and nanotechnology as a means to advance building material design and construction. The observations of lessons in nature are having a profound impact and are challenging the way things have been done since the industrial revolution.

Applied biomimicry can be utilized in three ways or in a combination of these three ways:

    • Form– such as mimicking dragonfly wings to create lightweight structures
    • Processes-such as mimicking photosynthesis to capture solar energy
    • Systems-such as building wall systems that mimic the homeostasis in organisms which allows them to regulate their internal conditions such as temperature

It’s for the birds

Millions of birds are killed each year by flying into the reflective glass of office buildings and homes. The reflections of trees, landscape and the sky can make it appear as if the glass is not there. Green building has increased the need for additional glass for interior day lighting creation. The result is an increased frequency of bird deaths each year. The Arnold Glas Company, through the use of biomimicry, looked to spider webs and their ability to avoid destruction by bird flight. Spider webs include a reflective component in the UV range that deters birds from flying into their webs, yet they attract insects such as moths towards their reflective light. This UV component increases the spiders foraging success and avoids destruction at the same time. Arnold Glas has created a product called ORNILUX that integrates this UV reflective pattern into its glass. This has resulted in 76% fewer bird collisions in field-testing.

From pounding waves to formaldehyde-free indoor air

Construction-materials technology requires continual improvement focus in the built environment. Of particular concern is improvement of indoor air quality and volatile organic compound (VOC) reduction and removal. Although VOC’s are best never having made it into the indoor environment, they have been a major contributor to poor indoor air quality and sick building syndrome. Colombia Forest Products has looked to biomimicry in solving the issue of carcinogenic, formaldehyde-based glue in its plywood products. They asked, “How does nature adhere?”

The blue mussel mollusk creates a unique amino acid, which formulates a strong thread, connecting it to rocks in the ocean. By remaining attached to the rocks, mussels withstand the pounding waves of the surf. The mussel “glue” is created at ambient temperatures, under ambient pressures, and in a wet environment. Looking to nature, researchers were able to mimic the mussel recipe, creating a soy-based and formaldehyde-free adhesive now used in its products. PureBond® is a soy-based, formaldehyde-free technology used in the construction of hardwood, plywood products. This same amino acid process is now being looked at as a medical implant coating.

Cement from fumes

As the second most consumed substance in the world behind water, concrete is the most used building material. At a cost of $37 billion per year, about 10 billion tons are produced annually. The creation of portland cement emits 1 pound of CO2 for every ton of cement produced. Obviously, cement production comes at an environmental cost.

Brent Constantz is a bio mineralization expert from Stanford University; Constantz used biomimicry to observe the construction of the coral reefs and as an application technology for concrete production. CO2 gas and ocean water have a natural reaction, which creates calcification. This rapid mineralization uses CO2 as a raw material that creates the coral structures.

By using waste gas from a local power plant and dissolving it in water, Constantz and his company Calera are using CO2 as a feedstock for concrete production. In addition to sequestering carbon within the concrete they are producing, they are helping to reduce the carbon footprint from portland cement production.

It’s genius

The genius of nature is all around us, from the coral in the ocean to the ecosystem services provided by trees, algae and earthworms. Living organisms operate under a sustainable set of operating conditions, which have been evolving over the last 3.8 billion years. By looking to nature and mimicking designs that fall within these “life’s principles,” we have the opportunity to create from a knowledge bank of the best research lab ever—nature. Our knowledge about the built environment is changing rapidly. What better teacher do we have than organism models, which have learned to survive on this planet across billions of years?

URBAN AGRICULTURE

turning vacant city lots into farms

The urban agricultural movement in this nation is progressing rapidly. Cities from New York to Seattle are combating economic struggles by turning vacant city lots into farms and feeding their impoverished neighborhoods with locally grown foods.

Urban agriculture is the practice of growing plants and raising animals within or around cities. Urban residents usually provide the labor necessary to cultivate, process, and distribute food, and urban residents are often the consumers of this food.  Organic waste can be used as compost, and organic wastewater can be used for irrigation.

According to the New York Times, demand for locally grown produce is at an all-time high. Farmers markets are becoming more popular as traditional markets continue to sell inorganic produce and genetically modified foods.

Here are some examples of the urban agricultural movement at work:

A Farm at New York’s Battery

A one-acre farm grows at the Battery, and it’s designed in the shape of a turkey. A real wild turkey even lives there—her name is Zelda. The bird-shaped garden is defined by a fence made from bamboo poles originally used in a roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The garden shakes whenever the subway runs underneath. The vegetables grown include broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, and more.

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport

Fresh organic produce is grown in this “aeroponic” garden nestled in the rotunda building between terminals. The garden uses a solution of water and minerals instead of soil. The seeds start in containers made of “a natural volcanic ash material” and are moved to tall towers once grown. The garden produces 44 organic vegetables and herbs, and it uses and recycles water.

Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Program

This boot-camp urban garden program prepares inmates for jobs in the growing green-collar industry. Behind razor wire, Cook County inmates manage a three-quarter-acre vegetable farm that produces tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and kale. Inmates receive instruction and certification in sustainable horticulture in partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago.

Some cities are building greenhouse farms on urban roofs. Others are forming groups to raise chickens so they can deliver fresh eggs to urban dwellings. Many cities and groups are promoting policies to encourage the growth of farmers markets. According to the USDA, there are now more than 6,000 farmers markets nationwide.

Detroit currently has our country’s largest urban farm, but urban farms are being planted everywhere—even on city hall properties.  Obviously, urban agriculture is not just here to STAY … it’s growing!

Go Green with Living Walls

living walls purify the air

Living walls are the ultimate in going green. As the name implies, a living wall is an interior or exterior wall covered by live plants. Sometimes these plants are grown in soil. But when water is plentiful and conditions are right, living walls can grow without soil making them surprisingly lightweight.

Living walls, or vertical green walls as they’re also called, are beautiful to look at and functional. With proper irrigation, adequate sunlight and sufficient support, vertical gardens can quickly and inexpensively update the look of an otherwise boring wall. But that’s not all. Many require very little in the way of maintenance. Dead leaf removal and occasional plant replacement are usually all that’s needed.

Living walls are more popular than ever and it’s no wonder. They’re all the rage in urban environments where horizontal space is rare and vertical space abounds. They can promote happiness and a sense of calmness where there once was none. They can cut noise pollution by acting as effective sound barriers. They can add visual interest. They can provide insulation and can even purify the air.

Design options are practically limitless thanks to the ability to mix and match plant species and vary the shape and size of a wall. All that combined with strategic placement of plants lets you achieve practically any desired look or purpose. It doesn’t matter whether you want an entire wall of live landscaping or a few rows of plants to define a space or draw attention to a focal point. It’s all possible with vertical green walls.

Turning ordinary walls into thriving living walls isn’t as simple as potting a few plants. There’s a lot to plan and consider. So do yourself a favor and enlist the help of a plantscape design expert. You’ll be glad you did!

Interiorscaping with Potted Plants

three issues to consider before interiorscaping

Adding a few potted plants to an interior space is one thing. But interiorscaping, which involves using indoor plants including silk plants, succulents, foliage, and other greenery to design an inside space, is a whole different process.

Before you can create the perfect interiorscape, it’s important to take these three issues into consideration:

  1. Your GoalsAs you would with any home or office improvement project, it’s important to define your goals right from the start. Like landscaping the outdoors, your interiorscape options are limited only by your imagination. So think about what you want. Do you want to beautify a space? Do you want to purify indoor air or add moisture? Do you want potted plants to act as a sound barrier? Or something else?
  2. Your LocationIndoor plants, foliage and other greenery need water care to survive. But something else they need is the right location. If a potted plant’s care instructions specify filtered sunshine sunlight, you can’t put that particular plant in a windowless corner and expect it to thrive – or survive. Of course, this isn’t a problem when choosing silk plants. But when interiorscaping with live plants, location definitely matters.
  3. Your BudgetAs you shop for plants you’ll find a vast difference in price among different plant species. To keep from busting your budget, make sure the plantscape you design includes plants you can afford. Also be sure to factor in the cost of containers for any indoor plants that need re-potting. If all of this sounds too confusing, don’t give up on your interiorscape dreams. Instead, find someone who specializes in plantscape design. With the right assistance, you’ll end up with an attractive interiorscape that achieves your goals, requires minimal upkeep, and doesn’t bust your budget!