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Sustainable Architecture: Learning from Nature & The Magic of Symbiosis

Sustainable Architecture: Learning from Nature & The Magic of Symbiosis

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain—Leonardo daVinci

I’m a science fiction author and the alien race in my book “Collision with Paradise” live 100% sustainably in a cooperative and synergistic partnership with their environment, including intelligent organic houses with self-cleaning floors and walls, heated, fueled and lit by organisms in a commensal relationship. Everything works on a natural cycle of harmonious renewal and natural evolution.

Science fiction? Think again. Science fiction is turning into fact.
Architects Bob Berkebile and Jason McLennan wrote, “In the future, the houses we live in and the offices we work in will be designed to function like living organisms, specifically adapted to place and able to draw all of their requirements for energy and water from the surrounding sun, wind and rain.  The architecture of the future will draw inspiration, not from the machines of the 20th century, but from the beautiful flowers that grow in the landscape that surrounds them.”(The Living Building: Biomimicry in Architecture, Integrating Technology with Nature)

Humans have been getting ideas from other animals and plants since long before Leonardo DaVinci wrote the quote at the top of my article. Application of these ideas has been haphazard, and not particularly aimed at green design. Janine Benyus, leading proponent of nature-based design, first proposed in her book “Biomimicry” that learning from nature would be the perfect tool for eco-design. Engineering inspired by nature can be “functionally indistinguishable from the elegant designs we see in the natural world,” says Benyus, who founded the Biomimicry Institute to research and educate the world on sustainable biomimetic design.

Promises abound: glass that “breathes” like gills. Solar cells that imitate photosynthesizing leaves. Ceramics with the tough strength of abalone shells. Self-assembling computer chips that form in ways similar to how tooth enamel grows, adhesives that mimic the glue that mussels use to anchor themselves in place, and self-cleaning plastics based on a lotus leaf.

Sustainable architecture will take “its cue from the original green: Nature” says Blaine Brownell in the March 2009 issue of Discover Magazine. It makes sense when you look at Nature’s proven track record.

Biomimicry is already being applied in large-scale challenges.

Brownell reports that the Kyoto-based company Kyosemi developed a power-harvesting solar cell that imitates the way trees collect sunlight. Called Sphelar, the product is made up of little spherical cells that can be incorporated into a building’s windows. Unlike standard photovoltaic panels, Sphelar absorbs light from many directions, providing more consistent power generation as the sun moves across the sky. Similarly, Osaka University used the example of the forest canopy to cool buildings (e.g., the Frontier Research Center).

The think tank The Living is developing a product called Kinetic Glass, based on animal respiratory systems and made with a slit silicone surface that lets air pass through. Its tiny sensors detect levels of certain gases and opens or closes its “gills” accordingly.

Scientists are taking their cue from the air-purifying ability of plants and fungi to create barriers that not only reduce noise but remove harmful substances. Imagine, for instance, concrete that absorbs carbon dioxide, highway barriers that break down smog, and paint that eliminates odors in the room. Architects Douglas Hecker and Martha Skinner of the design studio Fieldoffice created the SuperAbsorber highway barrier that reduces local airborne pollution through a process known as photocatalyzation. Italcementi, an Italian maker of photo­catalytic cement, claims that the airborne pollution of a large city could be cut in half if pollution-reducing cement were to cover just 15 percent of urban surfaces.

There are two things missing in this scenario of “sustainable architecture” and design.  In their absence, the longevity of our continued existence will be threatened and the success of green design will falter. One is the concept of synergy and the other is the role humanity—particularly our communities—will play in this partnership. In my book, Collision with Paradise, the alien race discovered by my hero had formed a true synergistic relationship with nature. They had not just copied some of her tricks or mimicked her cool attributes. They had formed a natural and respectful synergistic partnership with Nature. This is not the same as using Nature’s tools, per se, to improve on old designs. Because, in truth, it is not so much tools like biomimicry that is required; what is needed is a true paradigm shift in how we relate to our environments, from our bedrooms to our communities. I am referring to “symbiotic design”, a living design that incorporates all aspects of a community.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, John R.J. French and Berhan M. Ahmed, respectfully touch upon this concept when they discuss a human-termite design partnership. They explore the termite model, which meets all nutrition, energy, waste, disposal needs, shelter, and food sources in a true symbiotic relationship; and they are applying it to how we design our buildings. The Eastgate Centre building in Harare Zimbabwe, already mimics the way tower-building termites construct their mounds to maintain a constant temperature. Engineers copied the way the insects constantly open and close vents in the mound to manage convection currents of air and the building consumes less than 10% of the energy used in a similar sized conventional building.  “We need to emulate the symbiotic abilities of termites to survive over time, for we all live on this symbiotic planet, and symbiosis is natural and common,” French and Ahmed remind us.

The term “sustainable architecture” describes environmentally-conscious architectural design, framed by the larger concept of environmental and economic responsibility. This implies responsible leadership and strong partnership with community tied to respect for Nature. Without educated citizens embracing the concept of “symbiotic design” and personal involvement, we simply continue the same cycle of unhealthy consumerism and the irresponsible concept of a user society taped together by piecemeal, disconnected and ultimately failed green technology. This is why designs like pollution-cleaning concrete suggest a limited solution to a larger challenge. For instance, this technology could be construed by some as permission to keep polluting—something or someone else will take care of it, after all. It reminds me of one of my pet peeves: littering. And at its root is the lack of partnership and respect of the community and individual for his or her environment from his own back yard to some foreign city being visited abroad. Green concepts need to be fully embraced by the community in which they are applied. And this is best accomplished through the larger framework of green city planning and community education.

Educating the public and promoting community responsibility and involvement in green designs is key to achieving the necessary paradigm shift for future success. These can include: green rooftops; rain gardens; people’s gardens and curbside gardens; and green streets. It isn’t enough to know the how; we need to know why to make it work.


Nina Munteanu is an ecologist who conducted research and taught university courses for over twenty five years. She is an acclaimed author of numerous science fiction novels, short stories and critical essays, with works published worldwide. See Nina’s blog The Alien Next Door for lively discussion on science, pop culture, philosophy and writing. For more information on Nina visit www.ninamunteanu.com.

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