On the leading edge of the green building movement is a strategy called biomimicry - using patterns in nature, particularly in biological systems, to inspire innovative and more efficient designs within architecture and engineering. One such leap from the natural to the artificial is the advanced passive cooling and ventilation systems found within termite mounds and other hive-like structures. Other architects have copied the structure of shells to create stronger, more versatile bridge designs, as in the proposed Shi-Ling Bridge by Arup. Whether by mimicking natural forms or drawing inspiration from the principles that shaped them, architects are increasingly looking to the eon-won wisdom of evolution to provide clues to maximum efficiency and the aesthetic of tomorrow’s buildings.
An important ethos derived from organic systems is that of efficient resource management and closed-loop design. To put it another way, living natural systems use resources in highly effective ways, and are oriented such that waste products from certain elements of the system become raw resources for others. One such application of this methodology is aquaponics, where vegetable farming, fish breeding, and other techniques are used to create a complementary system of resource management and production.
‘The Plant,’ one of Chicago’s latest industrial renovations, is a three-story aquaponic farm in the Back of the Yards Park area that is being molded out of a retired, 93,000 square foot meat-packing facility. One-third of the building will consist of the vertical farming operations, with the rest being leased to sustainable startups – including the New Chicago Brewery, a kombucha tea company, an artisanal bakery, a tilapia farm, and more. Through creative industry pairing and some innovative engineering, the products of each venture will become the raw materials for other businesses within the complex. For example, the oxygen created by the vegetable farming operations will be used in kambucha production, which will produce carbon dioxide for the plants – the plants will also clean the waters for the tilapia, while the tilapia themselves will feed on the spent barley from the brewery. Organic waste from all of the companies will be fed into an anaerobic digester, which feeds biogas into a generator to create electricity for the entire complex.
This kind of symbiosis will be an increasingly-integral part of the sustainability movement around the globe, as we shift from the mindset of ‘waste management’ to one of intelligent and productive pairings of resource consumption and creation to create more efficient, productive systems. Implementing these systems in building design will not only improve energy efficiency, but may eliminate infrastructure-dependence altogether, as all of water, electrical, and even food needs could be met with creative, nature-inspired design.
To cite another example of this kind of life-enabling ingenuity, researches have unveiled designs for a wind turbine that produces, in addition to more than 30 kilowatts of electricity, more than 1,000 liters of potable water per day by condensing moisture from the air. Many plants, insects, and other animals use condensation properties to extract this vital resource in climates where available water supplies are scarce – now, scientists are hoping this technology will not only help support communities in arid locations, but also aid in the reforestation efforts of the world’s growing deserts.
To sum up, biomimicry is not simply an aesthetic toolkit for artistically-blocked architects, but offers exciting possibilities as we look to reduce our global footprint on the environment and more efficiently steward our planet’s dwindling resources. After 3.5 billion years of evolution, nature may have tips worth sharing.