Lecture Notes: Biomimicry in Architecture


When it comes to envisioning a happy, healthy and prosperous future, few philosophies pack the allure of biomimetic design. Rose Tocke, a biologist on staff at the Biomimicry Guild consulting and research firm, visited Seattle this week to lead about 45 architects and designers through a workshop (hosted by AIA Seattle and the AIA Committee on the Environment) on the principles and methods of nature-inspired sustainable innovation. On Wednesday evening, Tocke lectured to a crowd at downtown's Central Library.

There's no question that the Biomimicry Guild preaches an important message. Humans are only one species of 1.7 million classified species, and scientists estimate that those 1.7 million make up approximately 1% of all the living things that have ever occupied a piece of the Earth. We take up a severely disproportionate share of resources and allow ourselves a severely over-inflated sense of self-importance. "Biomimicry," Tocke says, "is a way of humbling ourselves." (Worldchanger Jeremy Faludi also offers an excellent comprehensive overview of biomimetic principles and techniques in this post, and a quick search of our archives will lead you to a plethora of case studies in the field)

So where are we currently at the intersection of biomimicry and architecture? According to leading biomimetic thinker Bill Reed (who co-chaired the development of LEED standards from the outset), we could "have a world full of LEED platinum buildings and still destroy the planet." These greener designs, though progressive, often stick too close to the existing standard in a way that is simply "less bad."

The next step on the continuum is living building design, such as the plan for Lloyd Crossing, a blueprint developed by Seattle firm Mithun to revitalize 35 blocks of Portland's inner-city Lloyd District. According to a release from the Portland Development Commission:

Led by an interdisciplinary team of urban placemaking experts, the Lloyd Crossing Sustainable Urban Design Plan transforms an inner-city neighborhood into a vibrant, highly desirable place to live and work. The plan’s onsite and offsite strategies contribute to the capability of its 35-block ecosystem, emulating the natural systems of a pristine forest—even as the area’s density increases fivefold.

And a look into the details for environmental sustainability, from AIA:

All of the Plan's key environmental strategies work toward the Predevelopment Metrics Goals in the categories of habitat, water, and energy. These goals provide the framework for evaluating and understanding the systemic nature of the interconnected design strategies.

Habitat quantity, quality, and connections will be improved by restoring habitat "patches" within the streetscape that connect to existing habitat corridors. Tree cover will increase from 14.5% in 2004 to 30% in 2050.

Potable water use will be reduced by 62% and annual fees will be reduced by 89% through an integrated water system that includes stormwater management and treatment, and graywater and blackwater treatment and reuse for nonpotable purposes.

Energy demand will be reduced and onsite renewable energy resources, such as daylighting, wind power, photovoltaic systems, and biogas generation, will be harnessed. A shared "thermal loop" will balance heating demands among complementary uses. Solar utilization will increase from 2% currently to 13.7% in 2050, exceeding the pre-development utilization of 5%. The carbon balance will be reduced from 29,000 tons per year to 2,000 tons per year, despite the addition of 8 million ft2 of new buildings. Almost 90% of the power will come from renewable sources in 2050, and carbon neutrality will be achieved through the purchase of carbon credits.

Image Credit: Mithun

According to Tocke, Mithun's goal for Lloyed Crossing is to create a development with zero net impact on the surrounding ecosystem—a truly laudable aim.

But, she says, what would it mean to take the concept of design a step further, and create a building that works as a natural system, creating positive impact? (For more on this topic, see Jamais Cascio's post on Cradle to Cradle certification and biological nutrients)

One thought leader at the front of this movement is Bill Reed, president of the Integrative Design Collaborative and principal of regenerative development firm Regenesis Group. Tocke explained Reed's ideal of "Regenerative Design" as "contributing to biodiversity with our own designs … an approach that not only reverses degeneration of the earth's natural systems, but creates systems that can co-evolve with us, in a way that generates mutual benefits and creates an overall expression of life and resilience."

The audience at Central Library was left with a lot of questions: What will it take to make this happen? How can you be sure that a regenerative building, which interacts with the surrounding ecosystem, will do no harm over time? How will biomimetic principles affect software interface design? What are the legal issues at stake?

For some of these answers, Tocke says, we can look to Europe, which is (surprise!) way ahead of us on this front.

Is your interest piqued? Browse case studies of biomimetic designs on the Biomimicry Institute website. You can also read/listen more about biomimetics from TED and National Geographic.

Photo by Flickr/Roger Smith, licensed by Creative Commons.