BY KATIE - MYGREENPOD, 25 March '16

The future of sustainable design

interface-1 Nature is a unique, 3.8 billion-year R&D programme that has ruthlessly weeded out any inefficient variations, leaving behind an amazing catalogue of biological success stories.

But how can Nature inspire us to become radically more sustainable in the processes, systems and products we create? Through his architecture and design work, world-renowned biomimicry expert Michael Pawlyn is investigating precisely that.

Beyond sustainability

Michael believes that we’re entering an ‘ecological age’ in which mankind has both the knowledge and the technology required to devise truly sustainable ways of living.

In contrast to the wasteful, disconnected and fossil fuel-dependent systems of the industrial age, this ecological age is characterised by interconnected, highly optimised systems that are created from natural ecosystems and which generate zero waste.

Biomimicry represents a new paradigm that helps us embrace this age. It moves beyond current understandings of ‘sustainability’ – which typically focus on mitigating negatives – and instead seeks solutions that are restorative and deliver positive impacts.

Through biomimicry, the many remarkable adaptations found in biological organisms are used to inspire new design solutions. By mimicking time-tested strategies, designers can create radical new solutions to the sustainability and environmental challenges of our age.

Biomimicry is helping to overcome some of the key design issues facing mankind today, and the discipline is rapidly gaining traction across many industries as a result.

Biomimicry in action

Examples of Nature’s efficiency can be found all around us – sometimes in the most surprising places.

Velcro is one of the first and most famous examples of biomimicry in action. Swiss engineer George de Mestral invented the fastening concept when he noticed how burdock burrs (the hooked seed-heads that catch on clothes and fur) clung to his dog’s fur coat. From this observation, he developed the idea of a two-part fastening made of hooks on one side and loops on the other – and later patented it under the name ‘Velcro’.

More recently, biomimicry has been used to rethink architectural challenges and the design of everything from carpet tiles to air conditioning systems.

The Eden Project is one of the best known examples of a building designed using biomimicry. The project’s design team took inspiration from soap bubbles, pollen grains, marine micro-organisms and the unique form of dragonfly wings to develop a lightweight design solution for the junctions connecting its large geodesic domes. The simplicity and efficiency of the design is such that the entire super-structure weighs less than the air inside it.

The ability of termite mounds to maintain steady temperatures in extreme climates inspired the design of an office building close to the equator that stays cool without air conditioning, and the random beauty of the forest floor prompted modular carpet manufacturer Interface to create a new category of carpet tile featuring unique patterns and colours.

The result was an innovative flooring system that substantially reduced installation time and cut waste by up to 90% when compared with traditional broadloom carpet.

The Biomimetic Office

Michael’s architectural firm, Exploration, was established in 2007, and it has used biomimicry in every project that has passed through its doors. It’s currently working on a concept for the first office building to be comprehensively designed with biomimicry.

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The team has found inspiration from spookfish, stone plants and brittlestars for lighting solutions; bird skulls, cuttlebone, sea urchins and giant Amazon water lilies for the structure; termites, penguin feathers and polar bear fur for environmental control and mimosa leaves, beetle wings and hornbeam leaves for solar shading.

The environmental engineer on the team has predicted that, when built, the Biomimetic Office will be one of the most energy-efficient office buildings in the world.

Challenges to biomimicry

Michael’s also working to overcome some of the limiting factors that affect the progress of biomimicry, which are mainly related to technology, human needs and conventional economics.

Our technology has a long way to go before we’ll be able to grow sophisticated living material that reacts and self-repairs in the same way that biology does, but technological advances are being made all the time – and previously unachievable sources of inspiration are now becoming viable design options.

Advances in ‘rapid prototyping’, for example, are allowing us to turn increasingly complex computer models into physical ones, with a high degree of accuracy and minimal labour.

At the same time, some things that work in biology simply do not meet human expectations. The fact that termites tolerate much lower air quality than humans places a limit on the extent to which we can take inspiration from the thermal functioning of termite mounds.

The future

When truly embraced, the outcomes of projects that employ the principles of biomimicry can be remarkable – but there are challenges. As well as investigating and understanding the efficiency of biological adaptations, designers and architects must also devise methods for translating finely realised engineering into man-made processes.

Many of the amazing solutions found in biology are beyond our current capabilities – but the natural world is living proof that they can be achieved. New technologies, such as 3D printing, are already helping us to get much closer to cost-effective replicas of complex biological materials and structures.

Click here to find out more about Interface and its Beautiful Thinking campaign.