February 17, 2016 Sofia Siegel

Biomimicry in the Built Environment: Nature’s Answers to Our Toughest Problems

Photo credit: Tomaz Gregoric

In a fast-paced present, rushing into the future, Biomimicry is a systems-based approach to innovation and design that looks to the past. Specifically, the 3.8 billion years of research and development that nature has completed through the ages. The term “biomimicry” was coined by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, and has inspired design improvements in the built environment ever since. By focusing on evolutionary successes, we can find solutions to many of the most complicated problems we encounter today. For the host of global sustainability issues humanity is up against – the changing climate, inadequate access to fresh water, and diminishing natural resources – nature is a lean guide to drive positive change.

In the nearly two decades since Benyus’ book was first published, we see examples of biomimicry in design all around us. Engineering firm Glumac optimizes the efficiency of their building mechanical system designs by mimicking the efficiency observed in natural systems. Similarly, architecture firms like Gensler and IM Studio integrate biomimetic thinking into building envelope design to increase energy performance and elevate occupant health. Although there are few buildings in the U.S. that are easily identified as complete examples of biomimetic design, the design philosophy is gaining momentum.

Nature-inspired products are all around us. The forest floor, made up of leaves, bark and branches, led the carpet company Interface to roll out its first biomimetic category of carpet tile. By letting nature guide the design and aesthetic, they were able to eliminate waste in the form of excess material and adhesives, and cut down installation time, while making a carpet product that has a calming effect on occupants.

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Photo credit: Interface

Biomimicry also works as a lens for the urban scale, through which we may better design our communities. Biomimetic practitioners look at a design decision and start by asking the initial question, “How would nature solve this problem?” Heather Joy Rosenberg, Director of the U.S. Green Building Council Los Angeles (USGBC-LA) Chapter Resilience Initiative, draws connections from her background in ecology to her work in community development. A resilient community is one that can survive and thrive in the face of stressors and shocks. In a natural ecosystem, those stressors could take the form of fire, drought, or earthquakes. In the context of community resilience, shocks take the form of natural, social and economic hardships. Rosenberg draws inspiration from natural systems to guide the development of community resilience programs. She uses the Integrated Design Process (IDP) to ensure all stakeholders have a voice at the table, including the voices of people in marginalized communities that are typically excluded from the conversation entirely. Rosenberg’s use of biomimetic thinking to inform community development, builds redundancy and the capacity for self-sufficiency.

As the conversation around nature inspired biomimetic design gains intensity, a group of nationally leading speakers will converge at Verdical Group’s Biomimcry 2016 Conference on March 11, 2016 in Irwindale, CA. Conference speakers will include biologists, architects, green building consultants and engineers, and will feature thought leaders from firms including Biomimicry 3.8, the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), Interface, Biomimicry LA, Glumac, Gensler, SCI-Arc, IM Studio, Terrapin Bright Green, and USGBC-LA. The half-day Conference will include a variety of brief, TED-style presentations and panel discussions meant to inspire attendees toward a built environment that functions more like a living system.

To truly tackle the mounting environmental issues of our time, we will need disruptive thinking and exuberant innovation. Nature provides examples and inspiration; join the conversation and be a part of the solution!