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Architecture Follows Nature

For a better functioning and more environmentally sustainable built environment architects can learn a lot from animals great and small, the details of which are outlined by Ilaria Mazzoleni in collaboration with Shauna Price in their book detailing biomimetic principles for innovative design.

Not many professionals would think to look to a Californian banana slug as architectural inspiration. This is unfortunate, because slugs, along with many other seemingly unrelated creatures, have a lot to teach us. As this book points out, plants and animals have evolved over millions of years in a way that best adapts to the surrounding environment. Humans’ architecture on the other hand has evolved over a tiny fraction of that period in a direction of increasing environmental conflict.

Increasingly the human race is realizing the often negative impact of our built environment on the natural environment and subsequently on ourselves. By looking closely at nature, however, we may discover solutions to the problems at hand – and this is how the biomimicry movement began.

The first challenge, points out Mazzoleni, is bridging the gap between the diverse professions of architecture and biology because biology can not only impact the form and function of a building but our approach to architecture in general.

The book can open the mind of biologists, architects and the general public to how applying a scientific method to architecture could not only improve but even reverse the negative impact of our buildings on the world. It states, “Restoration of natural systems could become a significant contribution of Architecture.”

Mazzoleni shows how this is more than mere aspiration using the example of restorative architecture at “A Model Community at Salton Sea”, where each phase in the development is tied into a restorative cycle that promotes growth through the application of holistic thinking.

Though real world examples exist, the public, and architectural clients, still have trouble understanding architecture that is flexible, dynamic and responsive to its surroundings. Architectural method involves leaving the project once the building is complete but responsive architecture requires the building’s ongoing operability to be paramount.

To achieve success in this area designers can learn from the biologists’ iterative scientific approach to problem solving that starts with a hypothesis to be tested rather than the deductive creative approach favoured by designers.

Mazzoleni describes many ways that biology and the process of evolution specifically can be used to inspire better design in overview of environmental and biological systems and processes that provide an elegant supplement to what many will have forgotten from high school. However she is not advocating that all architects retrain in biology, as she points out there are many specialities and sub-diciplines that would make that task impossible. Insteadarmed with the information contained in the book architects can form part of interdisciplinary teams – the required skill of seeing all elements and systems as part of an interconnected whole can be acquired.

The second part of the book is filled with examples of biomimetic design focusing on the building’s ‘skin’ – or what is more typically known as the building envelope – and how designers are mimicking the skin, feathers, shells and fur of to achieve specific outcomes. The outer covering of these creatures just like the ‘Skin’ of a building can be used for communication, thermal regulation, water balance and protection and specific examples of prototype projects show how.

For example the banana slug mentioned above has inspired the design of a green house that has a unique system for collecting, retaining and circulating water in the same Californian environment where the slug is found. More than enough information is given about the biological subjects and their surroundings with examples ranging from the Nabib desert beetle found in Namibia to the arctic Polar Bear.

Overall the book is a wonderful first step and one that biologists, architects and the public at large are going to learn something from. It is both practical and optimistic, very well researched and conceived. It will make readers question their assumptions.

What is missing, however, is the next step. I hope that either these authors or inspired readers are going to write about what difference the projects will make. What the quantifiable outcomes will be for each of these projects and what that could mean for the industry as a whole. While the first part of the book alludes to a marvelous sense of possibility in the field, the second part, depicting the prototype case studies said what is happening but leaves the reader, and the profession, needing to know more. How could these projects and the research behind them be applied to other projects globally? What quantifiable impact will these projects specifically have on the natural environment?

As the projects are still yet to be built, we must wait and see. What has been shown however is that biomimicry in building design is possible and happening. It shows the fundamental logic behind looking for design solutions in systems that have iterated over millennia in order to create a future of plenty for all.

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