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The Darwinism of architecture - how Biomimicry will evolve architecture
Dayna Baumeister

The Biomimicry Guild is the only innovation company in the world to use a deep knowledge of biological adaptations to help designers, engineers, architects and business leaders solve design and engineering challenges sustainably. Since 1998, the Guild has been helping companies and communities find, vet, understand and emulate life's time-tested strategies. By emulating 3.8 billion years of well-adapted technology, the Guild helps innovators design sustainable products and processes that create conditions conducive to all life. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder, explains the ideology behind biomimicry and how a collaboration with HOK is pushing the idea further...

Biomimicry is an emerging discipline that consciously studies nature's best ideas and imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The term was coined by Janine Benyus in 1997 with the release of her book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” Joined by biologist myself in 1998, we set out to naturalize biomimicry in design practices by establishing and growing two organizations designed to foster learning from nature. The Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organisation, focuses on education and conservation initiatives, including a newly launched website, AskNature.org. The Biomimicry Guild, a consulting arm, works across many industries, from consumer products to information technology to buildings, bringing nature’s wisdom to the design table.

The field of architecture has consistently been the most intrigued by biomimicry, and there are numerous commercial products and several individual buildings that have demonstrated lessons from nature. Yet, within the built environment, biomimicry is still in its infancy. There are only a very small number of building projects throughout the world that have truly integrated biomimicry at the macro scale.

One of the most high-profile projects is the Eastgate Centre shopping center and office building in Harare, Zimbabwe. Inspired by thermal control found in termite mounds, architect Mick Pearce worked with Arup to design the structure, which is passively cooled lowering its utility rates by 90%.

Another example is the SwissRe headquarters in London, whose ventilation was inspired by sea sponges. The Singapore Arts Center has photo sensor louvers that adjust to the sun’s angle, inspired by polar bears hairs. The Waterloo train terminal has a façade said to have been inspired by scales on a pangolin. More recently, several design concepts out of the Middle East have demonstrated solar-tracking from the sunflower, self-shading from the barrel cactus, and water harvesting techniques from the Namibian desert beetle.

While these examples make great stories, the greatest potential of biomimicry is that it can be applied to ANY building project – regardless of building type, size or location. And the possible design solutions are as diverse as nature itself.

Recognizing this potential—and a huge need to find radically different approaches to building, the Biomimicry Guild and HOK formed an alliance in 2008 to try to dramatically expand biomimicry’s scale and impact in the built


environment. The built environment is one of the most fertile grounds for biomimicry from a sustainability perspective. Buildings account for about 50% of total U.S. energy use, and our greatest collective impact will come from applying biomimicry to the planning and design of buildings, communities and cities – at every scale and in every region.

HOK is uniquely positioned to expand the awareness and application of biomimicry within the built environment, advancing its long-standing commitment to sustainable design and innovation. The firm contributed to the development of the U.S. Green Building Council's original LEED® rating system, has adapted LEED to new building types and regions, and authored the influential HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design.

Today, biologists from the Guild work side-by-side with designers at HOK on global projects in India, Saudi Arabia, China and the U.S., with projects pending in Africa, Brunei, and Europe. "We believe biomimicry will not only help us significantly reduce the environmental impact of our projects, but also has the potential to help define a whole new sustainable standard for our profession," says HOK Sustainable Design Director Mary Ann Lazarus. "Because biomimicry addresses critical environmental issues at the habitat scale, it gives us lessons on how to achieve significant results – even restorative outcomes – at all scales."

Throughout the last year, our unlikely duo has learned much despite our language differences and perspectives. The Guild has refined a number of services specific to the built environment to help foster the integration of biology into design. Depending on the project, approaches as varied as Genius of Place, Ecological Performance Standards, and Life’s Principles have been incorporated into master plans and building blueprints.

We are still exploring the full potential of bringing biology to the design table, but have found some initial fertile applications. In our “Genius of Place” analyses, our biologists study a specific site and determine its unique natural systems attributes – how the flora, fauna, etc. function and respond to that particular environment. That information helps the design team at HOK identify potential strategies with design principles that can be incorporated into the work generating innovative approaches and positive environmental outcomes. For example, on a project near Pune, India known as Lavasa, we learned that the flora mediates the erosive impacts of the monsoon rains through a divided, fractional tree canopy, a thick layer of detritus underfoot, and an interlocking web of roots beneath the soil. When we looked at standard approaches to building here, we found that our “canopies” (i.e. rooftops and awnings) concentrated the energy of the water, our soil was left exposed, and by disturbing the soil through excavation we effectively dismantled the web of roots. In response, we are looking to design façades that disperse the rain energy prior to hitting the ground, employ construction techniques that minimize the amount of exposed soil, and local engineers are using geomats made from locally sourced fibers embedded with native seeds to create their own root network.

Our Genius of Place approach is complemented by quantitative approaches as well. We are most excited about the application of “ecological performance standards” for the built environment. We believe human developments should perform at least as well — in terms of ecosystem services such as carbon fixation, water purification, air cooling, biodiversity maintenance, soil building, erosion control, etc.— as the ecosystems that are native to that place. These metrics ensure that human settlements pull their weight from an ecological standpoint—that our buildings, hardscapes, and landscapes provide ecosystem services that match or exceed local ecosystems.


Using ecological design standards as a baseline, human settlements can actually enhance local ecology by functioning at least as well as a healthy, high-functioning ecosystem. The buildings and eco-structures will support themselves and then some, creating more fertile soils, cleaner air and water, and safe passage for native species.

Taking our cue from native ecosystems, we begin by asking: How many tons of CO2 is sequestered by native ecosystem per year, how many gallons of water stored per storm, how many gallons filtered per month, etc.? The metrics of EPS allow us to set goals for development that exceed most green rating systems, goals that will allow us look back in 20 years and say, “This human community provides the same level of life-sustaining ecosystem services as the ecosystem that would have naturally grown here. There is no loss of services or ecosystem function. In fact, by taking the genius of the place as our standard, we have created a human settlement that is functionally indistinguishable from the local ecology. We have built and are living here in a way that enhances ecosystem health, creating conditions conducive to all life.”

The place-based metrics of EPS will lead to a truly sustainable and restorative plan that reflects each unique place in the world. Meeting these standards encourages planning and design teams to think outside the box, and influences everything from roads, eco-structure, infrastructure, and zoning to buildings. It’s a lofty goal, but essential for developments to be truly sustainable.

At the Lavasa project, we learned that the monsoon rains in the native moist deciduous forest is distributed in multiple pathways. By reading the scientific literature, we found that an estimated 20-30% of the rainfall is returned to the atmosphere directly from the forest canopy during the storm itself. Further, 10-20% of the rainfall ends up as surface runoff, while 7-10% is channeled through underground 'pipes' in the steep forest terrain. Lastly 40-60% of the rainfall is absorbed in the vegetation and soil of the ecosystem. Taking these metrics as cues, we are trying to design our landscapes, hardscapes, and softscapes to match these proportions, including designs like permeable pavers specified to put 40-60% of the water back in the soil, and unique ways to increase evaporation from rooftops ultimately striving for a 20-30% return to the atmosphere.

For some projects, we have found that local strategies can be well complemented by a set of global strategies we call Life’s Principles. These are guidelines for living well on this planet, drawn from deep patterns found in strategies across all life forms on the planet. We are using these design principles as the framework for designing new cities, “remodeling” old ones, and in creating new systems based planning tools for governments. While this work is relatively new, we are extremely excited about its potential and are looking forward to the stories yet to be told.

"Together with HOK, we are looking at what it means to be a bio-inspired company in the architecture space," says Biomimicry Guild Co-Founder Janine Benyus. "And I think the answer to that question is really going to be something new in the world. Because making a bio-inspired product is one thing; making a bio-inspired city begins to change the world."



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