The Report

Look to nature for lessons in building resiliency

Look to nature for lessons in building resiliency

Posting in Architecture

Biomimicry can help us do more than design products and create materials. It can also inform how we design cities.

The Earth is changing at a climatic level, and we humans, in the wake of a growing list of extreme weather events and years-long trends, are scrambling to react. Within the built environment (which includes everything from utility grids to residential homes), designers and architects are turning the focus toward what is emerging as a buzzword: resiliency.

New York Mayor Bloomberg last month announced that the city will spend $20 billion on a program to make its infrastructure more capable of surviving Sandy-like superstorms in the future, which could cost the city upwards of $90 billion by 2050, as sea levels continue an upward march. One research group says the global "climate adaptation services" industry is already worth $2 billion. The U.S. Green Building Council is also considering a plan to give builders Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points for constructing weather- and natural disaster-resilient buildings, because a green building is one that doesn't need to be rebuilt when disaster hits. 

This begs the question: how do we make the built environment more resilient?

For the architecture and engineering firm HOK, the pathway is found in nature. HOK formed an alliance in 2007 with Biomimicry 3.8, a non-profit that helps organizations and educators find design inspiration in biology, and it has been integrating biomimetic principles into projects such as a Haitian orphanage.

Now, HOK and Biomimicry 3.8 have co-authored a report called "Genius of Biome," which serves as a primer to biomimetic design for resiliency based on examples seen in ecologic biomes, communities of plants and animals that exist in a specific climate. The report focuses on the temperate broadleaf forest biome, which is found on six continents, is characterized by cold, dry winters and hot, humid summers, and covers the Eastern half of North America, much of Europe and Eastern China.

Yes to oak trees, no to centralized power grids

HOK vice president and co-author Thomas Knittel says we can learn from the ways plants and animals coordinate resources and create redundant, distributed life-support systems.

An oak tree and a jay, for example, have a strong alliance in which the jay eats and buries the tree's seeds. But the bird won't go back and find every cache, so some seeds will either become new oak trees or food for other animals. Energy and nutrients are moved through the ecosystem this way, and the interspecies relationships evolve and adapt to variations in the climate.

On the other hand, the relationship between a yucca plant and a yucca moth is both efficient and highly vulnerable. "Because they have evolved together, they need each other to perform functions," says Jamie Dwyer, biologist and design strategist at Biomimicry 3.8 and Knittel's co-author on the report.

That specialization turns into detriment to both species if something disrupts that relationship. The same is true of our reliance on the centralized electrical grid, which is incredibly reliable -- until it isn't. This is one of the lessons writ large in the aftermath of Sandy. The built environment needs multiple, redundant, decentralized sources of energy to be resilient to a changing environment.

This is one of many examples in the report where "life's principles" from biomes are used to teach designers and architects to build more resilient communities. Guilds, or groups of species, have evolved to share a resource without conflict. For example, bees, birds and some bats might all visit the same flower for nectar, but at different times of the day and year. It's not much different than sharing vehicles or other assets within the built environment, such that humans only have them when they need them.

Dwyer says the report holds value not just for designers but for anyone interested in how biomimicry can inform ways to reshape human communities, based on place or habitat. She and Knittel hope this will be the first in a series of "Genius of Biome" reports, each focusing on a different biome.

"Biomimicy deals in form but also in process and system-level thinking," she says. "The way a gekko's feet can inform [adhesive] product design works well as an easy-to-understand case study, but we can use biomimicy at the system level, as well, as part of a solution set for the built environment."

(Images: HOK & Biomimicry 3.8)

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure