Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí famously stated that “those who look for the laws of nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the Creator.” Embracing this philosophy, pioneering architects are showing how nature-inspired building design can fundamentally transform humanity’s relationship with the ecosystem and reduce energy consumption.
Sustainable architecture: taking a leaf out of nature’s book
Sustainable architecture: taking a leaf out of nature’s book
Norman Foster’s “Gherkin” is a striking 200 metre tall office building that first pierced London’s skyline over a decade ago. Clad in 24,000 m2 of triangular glass panels, the skyscraper stands out not only for its distinctive design but also for its energy efficiency. Taking inspiration from a sea sponge to dramatically increase structural strength and reduce energy requirements, engineers constructed open shafts between each floor to ventilate the building and allow passive heat and sunlight to penetrate deep into the building. The edifice consequently consumes just half the energy of a traditionally-built tower of similar size. Yet despite society’s increasing awareness of the need to save energy, the Gherkin and similar buildings with energy efficiency embedded in their design – like passive and zero-carbon homes – still represent a tiny fraction of new construction.
Around 40 per cent of all energy is consumed by buildings, which in turn account for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Modern commercial and public buildings are sealed, artificially-lit containers, heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer. Winter heating requires substantial amounts of electricity, but air conditioning is equally energy intensive. Pumping hot air from trapped sunlight accounts for as much as half of a building’s summer energy consumption and can even create the heat island effect that raises an entire city’s temperature by up to 12°C.
Many developers have turned to technology to solve this problem – through heat recovery systems, better insulation and glazing, and adaptive temperature regulation systems. Indeed, energy consumption could be reduced by 30 to 80 per cent just by using these established technologies. But architect Mick Pearce decided to buck this trend, looking to nature for a solution. “When asked to design the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, I started looking at how local termites (on the golf course) make ventilation towers in the hot season,” he recalls. Pearce dissected how termites built mounds that respond perfectly to natural forces (air temperature differentials, relative humidity and external air movements). “It was these natural forces, not me, that became the architect guiding the form of the building you see today,” he says. Now the Eastgate Centre is hailed as a triumph of nature-inspired or “biomimetic” design, requiring less than one tenth of the energy of conventional air-conditioned buildings of similar size.
Exploring biomimetic design
Even if examples like the Gherkin and Eastgate Centre show how biomimetic design can improve a building’s energy efficiency, the trend has yet to be fully embraced. “If you go to any architectural university, you’ll see a plethora of projects all trying desperately hard to show how wild and wacky we can be, which for me completely contradicts nature-inspired design,” argues Jason Speechly-Dick, Head of Architecture, London and International, for architectural firm Atkins. Even so, the small but growing community of architects applying the principles of biomimicry is making an impression. When trying to ensure that enough light would penetrate the atrium of the projected Biomimetic Office in Zurich, Switzerland, Michael Pawlyn and his team at Exploration Architecture turned to the spookfish. The deep-sea fish’s eyes are perfectly adapted for life in the ocean’s twilight zone, where darkness is almost total. Its eyes are shaped like a vertically-mounted telescope and are equipped with a unique reflective layer. Together, these features allow the fish to make the most of what little light there is in the ocean depths. “We included a large-scale mirror based on the spookfish eye that helps bounce light deep into the building,” he explains. Still working with the client to secure funding, Exploration has investigated nearly 100 biological organisms for the Biomimetic Office and has even incorporated biomimicry into the design process. A genetic algorithm that imitates evolution-extinction cycles went through thousands of models until a highly optimised solution was found. The result is a design that is close to self-sufficient in energy, lit entirely by natural light during the day and expelling cleaner air than it takes in. When built it is expected to be one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world.
A pioneering minority of architects hope to push the boundaries of biomimetic design even further by not just emulating nature’s structures but actually making living materials for buildings. Arup’s BIQ house in Hamburg, and EcoLogic Studio’s Urban Algae Folly in Milan, contain living microalgae in their façades. The BIQ house draws all the energy it requires for electricity and heat from renewable sources; the façade alone supplies one third of the heat. “Essentially, tiny green algae eat carbon dioxide and absorb sunlight to produce biomass or solid matter,” explains Rachel Armstrong, professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University. This can be used to produce energy, control light, provide shade and even produce food.
Armstrong is not directly involved with either project, but she is a sustainability expert. Her work uses dynamic chemistries and biological systems to “grow” architecture. With her colleagues, Armstrong has developed protocells – “cells that are made of chemistry but perform in ways that are rather lifelike” – that can be thought of as a bone-making system for the environment. In her “Future Venice” project, she applies protocells and other techniques to show how they can create a limestone-like reef that could reinforce the dilapidated foundations of Venice or even grow a new island for the city. Armstrong’s vision for future architecture is clear: “Reimagining architecture in this way, the living world becomes a programmable, designable set of tools that speak of a new age of living design where we are not merely representing natural processes but working with them to produce living architectures,” she says.