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Thu, Dec. 12

What would nature do?

Courtesy Image

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.

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