kirknature_2_200When it comes to sustainability, no one does it better than Mother Nature.

Design professionals are now tapping nature’s vast storehouse of knowledge in sustaining life under the most adverse conditions to shift sustainable development to a new level, in which buildings are integral to and perform like nature, rather than interfere with life-sustaining eco-systems.

HOK, the world’s largest architectural-engineering firm, has teamed up with the Biomimicry Guild, a Montana-based consulting firm, to create bio-inspired design adaptations for the built landscape that emulate nature’s best ideas.

Biomimicry is a method for understanding and applying a location’s “genius of place” to designing buildings and communities, says Taryn Mead, the Guild’s senior biologist at the design table, noting that nature has 3.8 billion years of experience in optimizing a location or project to support life, while eliminating waste. An understanding of how critters and plant life have adapted to survive in a specific location, or how the local ecosystem works, allows designers to mimic their adaptations in designing buildings and communities, she explains.

Biologist Dayna Baumeister, cofounder of the Guild, notes, for instance, that the passive cooling system at Zimbabwe’s Eastgate Centre mimics thermal control found in the mounds of African termites, which maintains the temperature inside the nest within one degree, day or night. Designed by architect Mick Pearce, the system uses the cold night air to cool the building mass. Daytime air is drawn through the ground floor and cooled by the building mass, then rises up to cool and ventilate the structure, reducing energy use by 90 percent over traditional systems.

Other examples include photo-sensor louvers inspired by polar bear hairs that adjust to the sun’s angle at the Singapore Arts Center, solar panels that track the sun like sunflowers, and water harvesting techniques from the Namibian desert beetle.

kirknature_1_200The Guild’s Genius of Place model involves three processes:

  1. Scoping to develop an understanding of the challenges and set design goals. For example, Baumeister says that in designing a building in New Orleans, a designer might study the live oak trees along St. Charles Street, almost all of which survived Hurricane Katrina. “We’d examine those oaks—look at their root structure, settlement patterns, and how they build in ways to protect themselves from prevailing winds and frost.” 
  2. Creating is the inspirational work when, after observing how nature deals with challenges to sustaining life under existing conditions, ideas, strategies, and adaptations that mimic nature’s solutions are developed. “We come up with a list of building best practices for a specific region that fit the weather, the soil, the storms.” 
  3.  Evaluating is the final phase, in which the results are compared to the natural ecosystems to determine how well the creation mimics natural solutions. With use of biomimicry design strategies, buildings, outdoor art, and other manmade structures would function like trees, meadows, flora, and fauna, capturing, cleaning, and storing rainwater; converting sunlight to energy and carbon dioxide to oxygen; protecting soil from erosion; disseminating seedlings; and eliminating waste.

The three-year-old alliance is applying the principles of biomimicry to designing two new communities in a deciduous forest in India’s highlands, the 11,200-acre (4,534-ha) Lavasa Hill Station and a 12,500-acre (5,060-ha) special economic zone. These projects are helping the team develop eco-performance principles that can be used by industry professionals worldwide to build biomimicry solutions into their own designs.

The goal, according to Chip Crawford, senior vice president of HOK’s Planning Group, is to create eco-performance standards for measuring how well adaptations function compared to nature. The Lavara project is providing a model, or guidelines, for applying biomimicry principles to moist deciduous forests. He notes that the eco-performance matrix is designed as a fully integrated thinking (FIT) system that integrates environmental, social, and economic components of development, which is a requirement for achieving sustainability.

Using the aforementioned biomimicry processes, the team learned how nature manages water in the region. Lavasa gets 16.4 to 36 feet (5 to 11 m) of torrential rainfall during the three-month monsoon season and then is dry the rest of the year. Due to the canopy of leaves, 20 to 30 percent of rain never hits the ground, but rather is evaporated through an up current; 50 to 60 percent infiltrates the soil; and the rest is runoff.

“We will have to build a system that mimics what the tree canopy does in the forest,” says Dhaval Barbhaya, HOK senior planner/urban designer for the project. “This may take the form of a building that creates an up current, or we hold the water and let 20 percent to 30 percent evaporate into the air.”

kirknature_3_250The leafy forest canopy also helps prevent erosion by dissipating the intensity of raindrops, notes Andrew Kilmer, senior landscape architect and project manager on the Indian projects. Animal homes built using saliva make the soil stiff and hold the soil in place when it floods, he says, noting that HOK will mimic this effect by using a polymer product to stiffen soil.

The matrix also addresses social factors that affect environmental integrity. For instance, new rules will eliminate the walls that Indians traditionally put around their property, which would prevent the natural dissemination of seedlings by native animals.

Lavasa Corp. L.T.D has completed construction on the first phase of Lavasa a 1,700-acre [687-ha] new town. But a legal challenge launched by the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) halted construction on the next phase in January 2011. The lawsuit involves damage to the hillside, which was incurred during excavation. MoEF wants a fund established to ensure any damage to the landscape will be restored.

“This is a different way of thinking about design, but it’s not rocket science,” suggests Austin architect April Clark, who teaches a design studio in performance biomimicry at the University of Texas. “You just have to be observant to figure out how things survive.”

Clark points out, for example, that the Southwest’s Agave cactus offers design solutions for cooling or shading a building as well as collecting and retaining water in a desert climate. Agave leaves are cupped to siphon water to the heart of the plant, and the plant’s skin retains water, she explains. A roof form might function like the Agave’s leaves, which open up and spread to shade the plant and retain moisture.

“I encourage designers to look at performance [of systems] in a given climate in terms of survival,” Clark concludes. “With careful observation and analysis of plants and animals that live at a site, designers can develop regionally specific performance solutions for any project.”