How Buildings That Imitate Earth's Creatures Could Save Us From Ourselves

Sustainable design needs a gut check. When it comes to designing for efficiency, balance, and resiliency, nothing beats emulating Earth's creatures.

The frenetic consumption that has defined American culture over the past hundred years transcends food, fuel, and "stuff." We’ve also gobbled up building materials.

From 1900 to 1995, America experienced a five-fold spike in per capita consumption of non-food and non-fuel resources. Of the durable goods we amassed, construction materials for buildings far exceeded any others. In 1900, renewable resources accounted for 40% of this consumption. Today, renewables amount to less than 10%.

Architects are part of the problem. Though we’re getting better at designing in environmentally conscious ways, incorporating green space, and avoiding wasteful use of resources, buildings still separate people from nature, skewing our relationship with the planet.

By 2011, the U.S. Green Building Council had documented 1 billion square feet of LEED-certified construction. In 2011 alone, China constructed 20 billion square feet of conventional space. All this sustainable construction may sound like progress, but we still have a problem. Most sustainably designed buildings still lack the living, breathing ability to adjust to their environment, from dramatic one-time weather events to permanent climate changes. Sustainable solutions divorced from place represent missed opportunities for innovation and geo-cultural connectedness.

The good news is that architects can bridge the gap between the built and natural environments through biomimicry, an emerging field of study urging emulation of naturally occurring principles and processes. Designers and architects at my firm, HOK, have been collaborating with Biomimicry 3.8 biologists for several years. Together, we set out to determine what ecologies of place can tell us about the way we design, build and interact so we can offset the impact of our buildings.

One area of focus has been the temperate broadleaf forest biome, where much of the world’s population lives. Our Genius of Biome research report reveals patterns, principles, and phenomena of the forest system and its unique individual organisms. For each natural principle, we offer a supporting design principle along with application ideas created by HOK designers. By mimicking natural strategies that have evolved over millions of years, we can push our buildings closer to optimum efficiency and resiliency.

"Evolution has been successful because every organism has developed in context and honed its survival strategies based on its setting," says Dr. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8. "Shouldn’t we ask the same of our buildings? From material efficiency, to energy efficiency, to occupant productivity and well-being, the more attuned designers are to local context, the better that system will run."

Ultimately, the goal is to shift our designers’ perspectives from self to place. HOK's team used this approach while working with biologists at Biomimicry 3.8 on an urban commercial center in Brazil. This project had a glass building façade outfitted with slanted blades offering shade from the sun. We wanted to develop a system that, like the Brazilian rainforest, would reject heat while returning water to the atmosphere. When we realized that changing the horizontal blades to spirals would atomize cascading water, sending it back into the surrounding environment, it dawned on me: the building could reject heat and conserve water. This multifunctional capability is ever-present in nature but often ignored or even rejected in our compartmentalized world.

This new design approach could do more than change the way our cities look and feel. It can change the way we view ourselves in relation to the Earth. Rather than remaining part of the problem, architects have the power to lead this dramatic shift in perspective and move us closer to a new sustainable future.

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  • Phillip Royster

    Mr. Knittel,

    This is an excellent article that reveals the need for designers to shift their perspective from self to place. In global practice of architecture, it appears increasingly important to understand man made and natural environments as an intertwined ecology. As an architecture student interested in biomimicry, I suggest that a model presented by Mohsen Mostafavi called Ecological Urbanism proposes a logical next step in implementing sustainability. What Mostafavi set out to do was to study the city at new scales and from broad and nuanced perspectives. What he conveys is the necessity for urban designers to first understand the human ecology in order to apply natural patterns, principles and phenomena to the city as prescribed. In the same way that HOK collaborated with Biomimicry 3.8 biologists, there must be collaboration between professionals in economic, social, political and cultural fields in order to do more than just solve building envelope strategies for buildings and to successfully realize a design perspective focused on the networks that evolve a place.

    Furthermore, is it enough for biomimetic strategies to improve the form and composition of materials or is there also a need to modify the material catalogue for architects completely? While this article proves the effectiveness of changing the viewpoint from which architects practice, I am convinced that it also requires significant material research and development that will bring us back to the effective sustainable building that existed a century ago. It is shocking to see the statistics showing a drastic exclusion of renewable materials in production over the past century. I am convinced that most architects would choose materials that are environmentally friendly if the decision could be synonymous with design synergy. But unfortunately, contemporary architectural aesthetic trends focus on glass, steel and concrete construction, from which there is very little ecological content. But this is not just an architectural problem as American culture focuses much more heavily on soft rather than hard technology. From my perspective, material scientists hold a pivotal role in creating synthetic building materials that are simultaneously organic and futuristic. On the other hand, designers should consider returning to the tradition of using a much higher percentage of local resources in construction. This was the only way to build before the modern network of roads was opened in the early 1900’s. Based on the continued dependency on existing infrastructure, I don’t anticipate this change surfacing in the next decade in the same way that the practice slowly departed from using renewables. It will take decades to solve issues that are now synonymous with the industrial consumer culture in America and change the culture that supports this urban pattern. In sum, I agree that a change in perspective from self to place is paramount as architects are responsible for the largest percentage of consumer products, but this is not implementable without innovative utilization and creation of material.



  • Ken Aitken

    From Ken Aitken in Queensland  Australia: Both Harriet (my wife)  and I seek to provide answers to in the we live out our lives: our whole lifestyle, house, garden, land and the way we relate to other people and the earth overall.  See  the house and garden on personal experiences website:
    • OUR HOUSE …. An Overview• OUR HOUSE …The Actual GardenHarriet and I were into simplicity and recycling, long before recycling became  a  fashionable term. We have a very wholistic approach to life where body (the physical  things of life), soul (mind, will and emotions) and spirit (the part that leads to  spirituality) are integrated as one. We would like that our approach can be used
    to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities
    towards a sustainable future.
    Regards, Ken Aitken