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Jamie Durie: how nature-based design can save the planet

Design has the power to engage everyone in wanting to save our environment, according to environmentalist and landscape designer Jamie Durie. And he’s a man on a mission to make it happen, from launching entry-level environmental design products through to demystifying biomimicry for the masses.

In a wide-ranging conversation with The Fifth Estate, Durie says that climate change and other issues have put the environment back on the public agenda, and made people more open to embracing biomimicry and what he terms “transterior spaces”, where the outside natural world flows into the interior one.

The fundamentals of the nature-inspired design approach are about the well-being of people and the environment, and starting to “give back” to nature.

He says it has “never been so important” for people to bring nature inside their homes.

“Houses are getting bigger, lots are getting smaller, and developers’ wallets are getting fatter.”

The amount of concrete around us means people are “craving nature more than ever before.”

Our own over-development is driving horticultural innovation and the design of small space landscaping.

The loss of the big backyard means our interior spaces become the playground, and this can be expressed in the choices of architectural materials.

Durie says that the hospitality sector is catching on. When he started his design business 16 years ago, projects were driven by landscape architecture. Now more and more hotels are asking for interior spaces that use traditionally exterior materials.

The source matters

At the same time, those materials have to be from sustainable sources.

“I am always asking questions of suppliers about the responsibility of materials.”

He doesn’t like using a lot of pebbles, for example, because they are nature’s filter system and also protect the banks of waterways from erosion. Riverbanks in India and Asia are eroding because the pebbles have been taken for landscaping materials.

Timber also has to be carefully considered, as deforestation is a global issue. In his range of timber outdoor furniture, for example, 100 per cent FSC certified timber has always been used.

“As designers, architects and builders we’ve got to show leadership.”

The range, which was sold through major retailers, makes the concept of sustainable timber accessible to everyday people.

Bamboo is a sustainable material that has “never been more accessible” and should be used more extensively.

Vertical gardens – cool in so many ways

The biggest selling product he has at the moment is vertical gardens.

Durie says he met vertical greening rockstar Patrick Blanc about five years ago. Looking at the developers Blanc had created gardens for, he found there was a much greater financial yield for projects with walls covered in nature.

“[Blanc] turned an environmental subject into a financial one.”

Back then, a vertical garden cost around $1200 per square metre to install. Durie decided to design a cost effective one. The result, a blanket with 24 pockets made out of material from recycled plastic bottles with a “plug and play” drip irrigation kit retails for $175.

It means anyone can turn a fence, or a brick wall into a garden. It also has other benefits, because when a wall or fence is turned into a garden, it reduces the amount of heat going into a building. People’s homes can have greater insulative properties, and the garden helps cool the urban heat island effect, he says.

“My company’s aim is to provide entry-level products in environmental design.”

The gardens were sold at a major retailer so the idea becomes “an everyday thing”.

This is how it needs to be, he says, and to save the planet we need at least 20 more of those kinds of ideas over the next ten years.

Greenwash abounds – but at least the planet’s on the agenda

Durie says that a lot of companies use the terms “environmental”, “eco” and “sustainable” too broadly, because many products the words are applied to do not help balance the harm they create.

“Companies are throwing it around like it’s nothing, and using it as a form of cause-related marketing.”

At the same time, it is positive that all the companies listed in the Fortune 500 have the environment somewhere on their public agenda.

Not everyone is making an [actual] effort, but at least they are seeing there is a financial benefit in the environmental cause, he says. It’s good for the share price, and it is also gradually making gains for the planet.

“It’s a win-win.”

Design can drive demand

In terms of achieving better results with our buildings, the old chestnut that “sustainable costs more” needs to be answered by the law of supply and demand.

It’s the architects, designers and builders need to drive demand.

“We owe that to the environment.”

Living Design – using biomimicry to mobilise the masses

The growth of “nature deficit disorder” over the past 20 years also needs to be tackled through design.

Durie has just released a new book, Living Design, that steps people through how to bring nature inside and how to create transterior spaces. Durie says he could have called it Biomimicry, “but no-one would read that.”

The principles explained in the book are the fundamentals of biomimicry and biophilic design, however his goal is to demystify the concepts and make them accessible to anyone.

It’s part of a big picture agenda.

“If homeowners connect with nature, and build a romance with nature, and connect with nature at greater level, they will want to protect it at a greater level.”

“It’s a way to seduce people into being environmentalists by design.”

By making people connected and symbiotic with nature, we can “build the green army.”

“We owe it to future generations.”

The book also encourages people to exercise their “freedom to purchase responsibly” in terms of materials, finishes and furnishings.

It talks about solar energy, water, and solar passive design. Having floor-to-ceiling windows that can “pull the garden into the home”, creating openings that bring vegetation inside and using materials such as stone and decking both inside and out to create flow.

Living Design also looks at using colours that connect to the landscape around the home, and wallpapers and fabrics that have nature motifs.

Every element of design in the book has its basis on mimicking some form from nature.

The pictures in the book are stunning, with a mix of actual properties from around the world, including Durie’s own homes in California and Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and room sets designed with his business partner and co-author, Nadine Bush.

The text explains everything in ways that make biomimicry, frankly, very cool and understandable.

The emphasis is on the achievable, as well as the aspirational.

Big developments embracing biomicicry too

Durie is taking the same biophilic approach into major project work, and says that unlike when he first started in landscaping, when it was the “last thing people thought about” there is now more inclination for the landscape architect to be involved at early design stages.

This is partly because the companies developing projects are starting to see the benefit of landscape and looking after the environment in their bottom lines.

If you look at the on-line real estate websites, they all talk about the garden and the landscape. Growing your own vegetables, rooftop gardens and courtyard gardens are all hot topics.

Durie says that kind of marketing is driving architects to connect with landscape from the outset. They are also having the conversations with engineers about water loads and soil loads earlier and conversations about energy too.

It has all never been so important and relevant as it is today.

An example he is currently working on is the 55-level QT Hotel in Parramatta. Durie says he and Woods Bagot architect Domenic Alvaro are having discussions before the DA even gets lodged about how to “wrap the building in landscape”, including balconies, rooftop and the base of the building’s common space.

In Liverpool, at The Papermill, he is working on the design of a $6.5 million, three kilometre-long riverfront landscape that the developer will use to market the towers. The garden is being given to the city at no cost to the public.

Biomimicry is being incorporated, he says. The design includes “water polishing stations” that will use native reeds and grasses to clean up toxins from water from the Georges River. The water features and their vegetation will oxygenate the water, reduce algae and remove pesticides before the purified water is returned to the river.

Getting more green around us all

Durie says that as the community starts to express its need for nature and demand more of it around us, politics, government and infrastructure will “have to fall in line”.

“We expect and deserve more green space.”

He says we need to “spread out a little bit” to achieve it, not by expanding our existing cities endlessly, but by getting in on a “grassroots level” and planning laterally for more jobs to be located in small towns and regional areas.

He is currently working with a few companies on the design of a low-cost prefabricated home someone can put on an affordable block in a country town to get a foothold in home ownership.

“With technology, people can work anywhere, we don’t all need to live in the city.”

Call centres, for example, could be located in country areas within Australia instead of offshore.

“It’s a concept Australia needs to think about really carefully.

“No-one in Australia likes to call an Australian company and deal with someone offshore.”

Companies have been “giving away jobs” to overseas because of they have been conditioned to think Australian labour is more expensive and must live in the city.

“But if the cost of living lowers for people, the cost of labour wouldn’t need to be so high.”

Durie will be discussing biomimicry and nature-inspired design next week at the ThinkWest festival in Melbourne.

It’s not a topic he’s always been able to go public about. He says that in all of the 52 or so TV shows he has done in the USA, Australia and Asia, he has always been told not to use the words “eco” or “environmental.”

“My producer always says to me, ‘that won’t rate mate’.”

 

 

 

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