Biomimicry in Architecture

by Michael Pawlyn
RIBA Books

Biomimicry in Architecture is an introduction to an all-encompassing way of approaching building culture, which steps outside much of the conventions of architectural thinking. Its claim is that current and coming environmental challenges will be most effectively met if architects - as much as other designers - look to and learn from the natural world rather than man-made systems and, in so doing, uncover relevant examples of biological and ecological systems which can be imitated. Aimed at students, course tutors, and architects, the book covers much of the terrain of a subject long identified with Anglo-American thinking rather than other parts of the world. This  approach is very much a “how”, rather than a “why”, book. Indeed, apart from the introduction and conclusion, (niftily titled, Synthesis) all chapters are headed with titles such as, “How can we build more efficient structures?” “How will we control our thermal environment?” etc.

Well-illustrated, its hundred plus pages reveal many surprising and thought provoking examples of where nature can inspire building design, with a diverse range of contexts introduced, from small and large alike. So, for example it looks at the case of the Namibian fog-basking beetle which harvests its own water through a matt black outer layer that radiates heat at night, attracting water vapour droplets, until shortly before sunrise it tips its shell up and drinks its nightly water droplet collection. From describing the beetle's behaviour the chapter continues by examining a variety of projects which have been inspired by the beetle's behaviour.

Each chapter discusses and then showcases various examples that aim to provide an elegant and efficient solution to the different chapter subjects: energy, water and other challenges. The book acts as an accessible guide to the fundamentals of biomimicry and also sketches the movement’s roots in the pioneering engineering research of sixties heroes such as Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto. The significant influence of biologist D’Arcy Thompson’s book, On Growth and Form, on recent generations of computer-savvy architects, including the master of skeletal structure, Santiago Calatrava, is also highlighted. At the same time Biomorphic design is distinguished from biomimicry; the former may reflect aspects of the natural world’s appearance, but doesn’t operate or work in the same way. Although good at providing a clear sense of what biomimicry is, the book’s author, Michael Pawlyn, is, however, somewhat hard-pressed to find many completed examples. Grimshaws Eden Project Centre, (which Pawlyn worked on), is one high-profile example which inevitably features in the book. Other Grimshaw Architects examples, and ones from the practice he subsequently set up, Exploration, feature prominently throughout the chapters.     

The Eden Project rainforest biome in bloom
Photo: Wikipedia commons )
The Namibian fog basking beetle in action
Photo: Fotolia
A limited number of architectural biomimicry examples of have now emerged, although Pawlyn notes how these mainly apply to the more obvious examples from design in the natural world; such as spiders’ webs for tension-engineered buildings, or termite mounds for their cooling and thermal structures. The latter provides a built example in the use made by architect Mick Pearce’s use of termite structures for the Eastgate Centre in Johannesburg as inspiration for the buildings thermo regulation.

Again and again, through each of the chapters, Pawlyn, underlines just how inefficient, polluting and wasteful many of the current, linear industrial approaches to resources in contrast to the elegance and efficiency found in the closed-loop ecosystems of the natural world. Pawlyn’s argument is that current approaches to sustainability in architecture are based on mitigation. By contrast, what is required is to move on to a regenerative model, as in nature, where instead of only consuming raw materials, the closed loop systems approach biomimicry embraces also produces materials. William McDonaugh and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle philosophy of material adaptability is approved of, as is Rapid Prototyping design, particularly the work of Geoff Hollington. Rapid Prototyping, allied to natural polymers, Pawlyn believes, will help advance a transformation already underway – the ultimate goal being to manufacture large structural and efficient components from natural polymers. This will require a radical if not wholesale shift in the ways materials – as far as buildings are concerned – are manufactured.

Throughout the different chapters, the move from mechanical to biological, systems understandings of the world is repeatedly underlined. Yet although Pawlyn is upbeat about the early twenty first century being a time ripe for biomimicry, I couldn’t help wondering about the extent to which students, young architects and engineers are being prepared by architecture schools to take on the implicitly different whole-systems mindset, so at odds with the conventions of the architectural world, which biomimicry demands. In the first instance there is no identified tradition of biomimical buildings for architects to consider; secondly the architectural language and geographical of existing buildings and structures is so diverse that they defy understanding as an identifiable grouping. Also in terms of theory, both sciences involved in biomimicry - ecological and biological systems thinking, sit at a complete tangent to what is still understood as the heart of today’s architecture’s Modernist roots. So far there seems to be next to no theoretical traffic between the philosophical underpinnings of biomimicry and how theory is currently taught to students. It would have been both interesting and useful to students and their tutors if Pawlyn had engaged this issue.

Imaging of bone forms used in biomimicry: Professor A Robinson
Drawing of bone forms used in biomimicry:
Professor A Robinson
Grimshaws post-Eden Las Palmas Water Theatre (which Pawlyn worked on) on the Canary Islands integrated biomimicry principles into its design concept to provide desalination and a public amenity combined with a mixed-use development. Image: Grimshaws Architects

Similarly, despite the advent of biomorphic architecture, the way in which this new approach connects with Modernism and much of Post-Modernism and beyond, is not addressed. This may not be Pawlyn’s brief for the book, but if his optimism is to be justified – and if biomimicry is to be nurtured and transmitted as a significant part of the ‘how we will get from here to there’ story, in teaching, academic research and in wider architectural contexts - then an introductory outline to this sort of interdisciplinary knowledge is needed.

Pawlyn acknowledges that biomimicry hasn’t taken root in architecture to the degree that has happened in industrial design and other aspects of engineering. Might it be that the subject’s wider influences are still too alien and outside the parameters of much of what is taught for biomimicry to be taken up by architects beyond a bolt-on level. If so, this may be because it requires architects to think in much larger systems languages, into which buildings and structures are intelligently integrated. Pawlyn doesn’t touch on these sorts of issues, but they are, if the subject is to be considered seriously, part of the educational challenge.

The Sahara Forest Project, which is Exploration Architecture’s most developed biomimicry project to date
Image: Sahara Forest Foundation
It's also interesting, that where examples are showcased, these are mainly from the hi-tech end of the architectural world. As a species of systems thinking, biomimicry has been most enthusiastically received by larger established practices, such as Fosters, Arup, SOM and Grimshaws, taking up where aspects of the nineties shift to EcoTech left off. This suggests that what is attractive are the analogies to technical systems. There are lower tech exemplars too, Pawlyn cites BedZED and the work of Bill Dunster and Pooran Desai as a systems approach, and the intriguing and rather wonderful 'From Cardboard to Cavier' approach, a low tech exemplar used as one of the case studies in the How will we create zero waste systems? chapter. I spotted a couple of mistakes, eg, Jamie McCullough, not Jamie McColl, was Eton Bridge's artist designer. Still, Pawlyn has produced a clear introduction to the subject. What would be interesting is a more sustained exploration of architecture and Biomimicry. This would situate Biomimicry's architectural dimension in the wider streams of the discipline, the growth of systems thinking in the last fifty years, and a clear understanding of its place amidst biological philosophy.