The world is a dynamic place, and our surroundings are constantly changing, as are our desires and demands for new, better and more efficient products. And change is healthy, in moderation, but the rate of climate change and its effects on our social, biological and economic environments are not that kind of change.
Majority of existing methods and rates of resource consumption are unsustainable, which is exacerbated by the rapidly increasing human population growth rates. The demand on the world’s resources is growing faster than they can be provided for, and we are in dire need of some of other kind of change.
So where do we look for inspiration?
One approach would be from the environment- a place where the systems and strategies have been developed and refined over billions of years. Nature has solved many of the problems that we are faced with today relating to: energy generation, water harvesting, food production, climate-control, non-toxic chemistry, waste recovery, packaging, transportation and so on…
Nature creates, provides and stores resources and environments that are conducive to life, which contrasts the way our current built environment operates off design principles that were “never built for living”.
So what can we draw from nature?
This brings me to the concept of ‘Biomimicry’, which literally translates into life (bios) imitation (mimesis). Biomimicry is an approach to sustainable design that seeks answers to human challenges by emulating the time-tested ingenious solutions found in nature.
Biomimicry has been around for years, and has been used in some of the most sophisticated and simple designs. One of the most well-known examples of biomimicry was the invention of Velcro, which was developed by Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, in 1941- when he looked past his frustration caused by the burrs that were constantly getting caught in his dog’s hair.
Imagine we could harness some of the characteristics displayed in, for instance a:
- Spider’s web– a material produced by the spider which is up to five times stronger than the same weight of steel; which strengthens under increasing strain and is up to six times more resilient than any man-made materials woven to form similar structures.
- Ant – not only do we have a lot to learn from an ant’s ability to carry 50 times its body weight over extensive distances, but they also have inspired complex computer algorithms through their advanced communication technique known as ant colony optimisation which is how ants communicate the shortest route between a food source and nest via chemical signals and pheromones to each other.
These are just a couple of nature’s brilliant marvels which could be used to drive our innovations. Michael Pawlyn is an established architect who is notorious for his cutting-edge design that draws inspiration from nature. His reasoning is that “you could look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.”
Biomimicry innovations that are remolding renewables
One of the areas that the concept of biomimicry is currently gaining momentum is in renewable energy generation. Some existing examples include:
Sea creatures inspiring more efficient wind energy:
- Humpback whales: have tubercles (bumps) on the leading edge of their flippers causing pressure distribution and diversions across the surface, thereby preventing/prolonging stall
- WhalePower have developed a prototype wind-turbine that incorporates these tubercles in the blade design which in turn: doubles the performance, reduces noise and increases the stability & efficiency.
- Schools of fish: optimise the vortices created by other fish in the school to propel them forward thereby requiring less energy to move.
- Caltech have mimicked this pattern to create vertical-axis wind turbines constructed to operate in pairs and to resemble fish fins which turn in opposite directions and funnel the air through them (much like egg beaters do to batter). The pairs of wind turbines are placed close together in an array to maximize their gains from the turbulence and interference created by the other turbines thereby being able to: yield more power, operate off lighter winds, require less space & smaller turbines (10m high) and produce less noise.
And on Solar Power…
- Smit have developed Solar Ivy which is made up of a series of solar cells that attach onto a malleable wire meshing around a building’s façade. This design was inspired by creeping ivy which grows to great heights on buildings. Besides having a modular design, Solar Ivy can: add to the building’s aesthetics, act as a shade film, use building’s greatest surface area, help moderate building temperature and harness solar AND wind energy through PV leaves.
Smartflower POP is a PV system that mimics the way sunflowers always face the sun. This system ensures that the 18m2 of PV panels are always at the optimal right angles to the sun’s rays. This compares to the conventional PV panels with: 40% higher yield, more aesthetics, built-in storage, portable device.
In a changing climate, we could all do with a bit of thermal regulation. Lets see what we can learn from the pros…
- Zimbabwean termites: farm their primary food source (which is a fungus!) within their mounds, and needs to be kept at exactly 87° The temperatures outside of the termite mounds range from 35°F to 104°F in a day. The termites developed a sophisticated ventilation system that is comprised of a series of heating and cooling vents which are opened and closed accordingly throughout the day.
- The Eastgate Centre is Zimbabwe’s largest office and shopping centre, and it resembles some of the best-used biomimicry principles in architecture (designed by Mick Pearce & Arup). The mid-rise building makes use of only natural ventilation, and was designed based on the same self-cooling properties that termite mounds adopt, resulting in: less energy consumption, regulated temperatures, lower costs and fewer greenhouse gases.
As you can see- nature’s solutions are awe-striking and humbling. Mother nature is full of clever solutions, which are ripe for the taking, if we are aware enough to see them.
High-rise buildings in London’s CBD covered in waving ivy that you knew was fueling the lightbulbs inside. Picture every tall building having a greenroof with a series of vertical spiraling wind turbines putting more energy into the grid. Think of parks with ‘sunflowers’ which you can use to fill up your cars. This paints a bright picture of a future concrete jungle, the kind of future we at XCO2 are trying to contribute towards.
If this kind of thinking inspires you, and you would like to find out about more about our cutting edge design solutions and how we implement similar sustainable concepts into early-stage design, please get in touch or visit www.xco2.com.
Author: Caitlin Wale