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home : blogs_old : eco_logic October 04, 2015

By Catalyst Architecture, Prescott, AZ
Your Common $ense Guide to Going Green
Thursday, March 07, 2013

What would nature do?

 Jeffrey L. Zucker, LEED-AP AIA

Courtesy Image

As an architect, I find myself fascinated by the strategies that nature has employed as a survival mechanism. I approach each new building design with a sense of wonder, as in: "I wonder what nature would do?"

Biomimicry is one of my favorite topics, one that I have written about before and something that I employ in my practice of architecture. "Bio what?" you might say. Whether you know it or not, you too, are a practitioner of biomimicry.

To quote from the source, the Biomimicry Institute defines it as follows:

"Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a new discipline that studies nature's best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. . . . The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and, most important, what lasts here on Earth."

Look around you. You don't even have to go outside to find examples of ways that we humans have learned how to better survive by studying nature. From prehistoric times, people have adapted to their surroundings. While we can't grow a nice warm fur coat in the winter, and shed it in the spring, like a horse can, we have learned to wear warm clothes in the winter and cooler clothes in the summer. This is why humans, as opposed to, say, toucans, are found from the Arctic to the Equator.

In more modern times, engineers have applied their findings from nature into surprisingly useful, everyday objects and devices. In 1948, a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral returned from a hike in the fields with his dog and was curious about the burs that he picked from his pant legs and his dog's fur. Upon examining them under a microscope, he found that their spines were tipped with miniature hooks that grabbed onto fabric and fur. For the plant, this was a way of dispersing its seeds and propagating the species. But, for Mr. de Mestral, this was the beginning of the invention of Velcro.

Perhaps you have seen wind tunnel tests of cars, where streams of vapors are studied as they slide over the shiny metal skin of the vehicle. The aerodynamic shapes of our most fuel-efficient cars have a lot in common with the streamlined forms of fish. The principle of flight was derived from observations of birds and the lift that you can feel from a simple feather when you drag it through the air. The ways that biomimicry has found its way into our everyday life range from the intuitive to the extremely complex.

How have the animal species that have thrived in this region for thousands of years survive? Do they burrow under the earth? Do they come out only at night? How have the plant species that have prospered here for millions of years adapted to the lack of water, or the abundance of sunlight? What clues can I pick up from how the wind has sculpted the rock, or how the rock itself has moved over the millennia. All of these things are hints from nature as to how to design a building. Should the building save the water that falls upon it like a cactus stores its water? Should the house have a light colored roof to reflect sunlight, like an agave? Should it have a thick, fire resistant skin, like an old growth Juniper? Should it display itself to the sun, like a flower? These are the types of questions that anyone who is embarking upon a design journey should be asking, be it architecture, art, science, math, the medical industry . . . you name it.

Jane Benyus, the author of the book "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," probably says it best: "Organisms have figured out a way to take care of the place that is going to take care of their offspring," or, simply put: "Life creates conditions conducive to life." Nature has something to tell you about design. Look around you.

Related Links:
• National Geographic: Design by Nature
• Watch: Janine Benyus, author of
• Symbiosis - Nature. Sustainability. Innovation
• Inspriring: 12 Sustainable Design Ideas

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, April 05, 2013
Article comment by: Virginia MacGowan

I wanted to say how much I appreciate your article and especially the quote of Janine Benyus that you shared "Organisms have figured out a way to take care of the place that is going to take care of their offspring," which I have found to be such an elegant way to approach making many decisions! Thanks!

Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Article comment by: Karl Kendall

Karl a practitioner,
Yes I am a practitioner of biomimicry and I do know it! I'm also using it to solve a few human problems. And it is right to establish things that last!
Like the picture of the car in the wind tunnel which caught my eye, I spent years design sculpting automobiles in clay for the General Motors Design Staff. Our desire for change need not come from the distructive practice of planned obsolesance in our products! The human mind needs endless facinating change,but it can come from a relationship with the one that created this world of nature. We can't conceive what is available to us at this time, because we don't believe its possible. We shouldn't listen to our world culture saying it can't be done.
We can have clean, no cost,energy now if we fight for it! There are people who have already created it! We must remove the control of greedy investors or politicians and establish harmonious natural design or the world we are trying to live in will become even more destructive! Lets not war with each other like the charactors of a Western movie theme. Remember how the Rail Road investors got the ranchers and sod busters to waste their efforts so the RR would get their land? I know it sells, but we don't need more, "Reply Arguments"-- we need wholesome, constuctive solutions of elegance mimicing our Creator. I agree, we shouldn't let anything crush our constructive and creative compasses as we try to design naturally!
Forget the liberal/ conservative argument, there are good and bad points on both sides of those groups, but we loose the baby in that watered down activity.
Thanks for an article of great purpose,
Karl Kendall

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2013
Article comment by: Coyote Contraire™

Nice article.

Biomimicry is a fascinating subject, and human denial of nature's efficiency is sometimes bewildering. Architects (or their clients) are often great examples of this.

Driving I-17 into Phoenix from the north you witness a remarkable display of environmental denial. Probably because the human ego wants to display its great big house on top of a hill, sun-gathering boxes are perched up there to absorb as much heat as possible. Supposedly they are something to brag about. They sure are noticeable.

They also guzzle electricity to make them comfortable. A friend of mine has a big one of these things and tells me he forks over five- to seven-hundred bucks a month for cooling during the summer.

If these homes were partially built INTO the northern slopes of their little mountains a much smaller exposure to the sun would result, and the naturally consistent below-ground temperature could probably supply most of the cooling. I ain't no engineer, but some things seem pretty obvious.

Maybe there's something about not wanting to "return to the caves" that prevents this from happening except for very rare examples. But then ego often trumps logic, doesn't it?

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2013
Article comment by: Lynn Freedman

Very interesting reading. Thanks for the information.

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