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Michael Pawlyn on the promise of biomimicry for a better future

Artist's impression of the Biomimetic Office Building. Image: Exploration Architecture

Data centres buried deep in caves, mimicking the structure of leaves to cut cooling costs; buildings that reference the design of a spookfish eye to distribute light efficiently; greenhouses that borrow from beetles to collect and distribute water more effectively. Biomimicry – the implementation of functions from biological systems into technological ones – presents a neat way to deal with some of our most pressing environmental concerns.

And in a world becoming more inhospitable, looking to species that have already found solutions to surviving in harsh conditions may be the built environment’s best chance of remaining resilient and efficient into the future, according to biomimicry expert Michael Pawlyn.

Michael Pawlyn

Michael Pawlyn

Pawlyn, founder of Exploration Architecture in the UK, says that nature offers “an amazing design source in which all the products have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period”.

“And to make things even better, all the faulty products have been withdrawn from the marketplace.”

Pawlyn was speaking at last month’s Green Cities Conference in Melbourne, providing via video link one of the most thought-provoking sessions of the two-day event.

“I think [biomimicry] is going to be one of the best sources of solution to help us address the challenges we need to face in the years ahead,” he told the audience.

Biomimicry had a huge amount to offer in terms of moving beyond “conventional sustainability”, towards which there was a feeling of dissatisfaction building, he said.

“I think Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute captures this quite well when he says if you were to ask one of your best friends how their relationship was with their partner and they were to say, ‘Well, you know, it’s sustainable,’ you’d probably say, ‘Well, I’m really sorry to hear that.’

“There’s something about the word sustainable that implies a situation that is just about bearable. And I think it’s time we move beyond that. And I think it’s really important we move from what I call the sustainability paradigm to a regenerative paradigm.”

Some fantastic examples

Examples of species that had evolved to deal with challenging environments revealed the potential of adding biomimicry thinking to the design process.

The thorny devil lizard

The thorny devil lizard

A local example was the thorny devil, a desert lizard that can drink from its feet and harvest water from the spines on its back.

“If we could learn how the thorny devil harvests water in the desert then maybe we could learn to harvest water in dry conditions ourselves,” Pawlyn said.

Urban transport planners might want to look to the dog vomit slime mould for help solving complex rail network problems.

“Slime moulds are single-celled organisms which form minimum distance networks between sources of food. In Hokkaido in 2009 some scientists carried out an experiment in which they took the area around Tokyo – they had a map of the Tokyo region – and they put a little source of food on each of the cities around Tokyo and they put a slime mould on Tokyo itself, and what happened is the slime mould has spread out and quite quickly located all those sources of food and then it’s started optimising the connection between it.

“When the slime mould finished, that layout exactly matched the railway network in that part of Japan. It had taken the rail engineers thousands of hours to arrive at that optimisation but the slime mould did it in just 26 hours.

“So it’s a good example of how we could learn at biology to develop more sophisticated, more efficient systems ourselves. If we use biological algorithms, we could start to connect up cities in much more effective, efficient ways.”

Real world applications

Pawlyn said there were a number of real world examples incorporating biomimicry he had been involved on.

“I believe you can use biomimicry to address pretty much any functional design challenge, whether that’s designing cities, refurbishing cities, or even designing a really high performing building.”

One such building Pawlyn has been working on is the Biomimetic Office Building, which he says is the first office “comprehensively designed” with biomimicry in mind.

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

On completion, it promises to be one of the world’s lowest energy office buildings.

Greening IT

Another essential use for biomimicry is in the design of data centres.

“The one area where energy use is getting worse is in IT,” Pawlyn said. “Office buildings have been getting steadily more energy efficient but IT energy has been getting steadily worse. And perhaps that’s because of the way we connect IT into our cities. We tend to have data centres in cities or servers in buildings and they require a huge amount of energy just to keep them cool.”

Pawlyn worked on a new concept for a data centre that involved biomimetic design principles along with a more suitable, natural location for improved cooling efficiency.

“Animals, when they need to keep cool, they don’t have access to intense forms of energy like fossil fuels, so they have to do simpler things like simply going somewhere that’s cool or losing heat by evaporative cooling. The first move on this building was to relocate the servers – rather than have it in an urban area we’ve put it somewhere that’s already very cold then we connect that in and rely on high-speed data transmission.”

The mountain data centre

The mountain data centre

Next, the server stacks were designed in a way to minimise cooling required using Murray’s law – a mathematical principle that holds true for all branching systems in biology.

“Murray’s law states that the cube of the parent vessel equals the sum of the cube of the daughter vessels. There also appears to be a very consistent angle at which those vessels branch off, and that appears to follow the principles of hydrodynamics and aerodynamics. So overall this is an evolved minimum energy system.

“What we did on the data centre is use Murray’s law to design the extract system so that we could draw this cool air through in the most efficient way possible.”

Although the data centre appeared to look “extravagantly biological”, Pawlyn said it wasn’t at all an aesthetic decision.

“It looks like that because we’ve followed the principles of minimum energy solutions in biology.”

Applying ecosystems models to cities

The big transformation needed in cities was a shift from “linear, wasteful, polluting systems to closed-loop systems”, Pawlyn said.

“Of course, mature ecosystems do this, so all the carbon, nitrogen and water and so on, are all kept within these closed-loop cycles with no waste.”

There are examples of closed loop systems being introduced in cities including Denmark’s Kalundborg Symbiosis, the world’s first industrial ecosystem, where the by-product residual product of one enterprise is used as a resource by another enterprise in a closed cycle.

A diagram of the carboard to caviar project

A diagram of the carboard to caviar project

Pawlyn’s favourite closed-loop scheme is the “cardboard to caviar” project.

“Now this was initiated by a guy called Graham Wiles… and what they did was collected cardboard from shops and restaurants, they shredded it and sold it to equestrian centres as horse bedding. When that was soiled they would pay to collect the cardboard and manure, they put it into worming composting systems, which produced lots of worms, which they fed to Siberian sturgeon, which produced caviar, which they sold back to the restaurants.

“It’s quite nice because it’s turned this linear, wasteful system into a closed lop system. And they were paid at various stages along the way. And I think that scheme is a great example of how if you approach the subject of waste, you can really create some fantastic opportunities.”

The Mobius project

The Mobius project

He is currently working on a concept, the Mobius project, that would see London’s Old Street roundabout transformed into closed-loop system that would include a greenhouse, restaurant, aquaculture, composting, mushroom cultivation and food market.

“What we’re trying to do here is to bring together cycles of food, energy, water and waste in a way that allows the output for one to becomes the input for something else in that system. And overall it moves towards being a highly productive zero waste system.

“We can transform that whole urban metabolism from a problematic, linear one into a closed-loop one that transforms big problems into huge opportunities.”

Conventional economics is a barrier

The main barrier for incorporating biomimicry into the design of buildings and cities is “conventional economics”, Pawlyn said, “which tends to externalise everything that’s inconvenient”.

“It’s interesting to reflect that economics has the same etymology as ecology. Economy mean ecos – home, and nomos – management. Ecology is home, and locos – knowledge. So you could ask the question, ‘Well how can you manage your home without knowledge of it?’ Conventional economists are literally half-educated. So that’s one of the big barriers.

The second is the fossil fuel industry, which he said has corrupted democracy through funding political parties and the subsequent skewing of policy.

“A lot of these ideas that we’re talking about just have a slightly longer payback period than conventional approaches. So we do need to start thinking over a slightly longer timescale. I’m only talking about 5-10 years. But given what is likely to happen in 10-20 years if we don’t really address the challenges of climate change, that shouldn’t be a difficult argument to win.”

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