Biomimicry points the way to infrastructure revolution

Biomimicry is currently revolutionizing the architecture world, but the use of systems found in nature to address efficiency and sustainability issues is gaining traction. As the adoption of biomimetic principles grows globally, it is increasingly likely that  they will be used in a wide range of infrastructure projects.

Biomimicry at a glance

  • Biomimicry is the incorporation of functions derived from the natural world throughout human-made systems.
  • The use of biomimetic principles in some construction projects has lowered the building cost by as much as a third compared to traditionally builds.
  • The development of corporate responsibility as a concept is increasingly leading some to consider biomimicry’s benefits

The Eden Project

The Eden Project located in Cornwall, England is a complex made up of two biomes. The biomes are comprised of tubular steel and external thermoplastic ETFE panels. Click here to see more.

Technological advances around artificial intelligence, energy storage, data collection and analytics are radically reshaping the ways in which infrastructure designed and built. In the midst of this unprecedented disruption, however, some are looking at how to incorporate natural principles into new construction. Michael Pawlyn, director at London-based Exploration Architecture and author of Biomimicry In Architecture, is one of them.

Michael Pawlyn

The firm has designed multiple projects based on principles derived from nature itself. One project, the Biomimetic Office in Zurich, Switzerland, was been built with the lightweight bones of birds and cuttlefish in mind. Another, the Zero Waste Textile Factory built in Nagpur, India for Morarjee Textiles, features a closed-loop design that is more energy efficient than conventionally-built structures.

Pawlyn spoke with Icons of Infrastructure about biomimicry, its broader applications, and the feasibility for greater incorporation of its principles in the United States.

IOI: Biomimicry is a relatively new design concept. Can you explain exactly what it is?

MP: Biomimicry involves looking at how functions are delivered in biology and used using that information to develop solutions to human needs. You could look at biology as a design source book that has benefitted from 3.8 billion years of research and development. You have an amazing storehouse of proven solutions.

At its best, biomimicry is a combination of human ingenuity and the amazing refinement that has occurred in biology. Sometimes we can find solutions that are beyond the current capabilities of technology. But those solutions can serve as useful guidance for where technology could develop in the future.

IOI: You just now spoke about biomimetic solutions that may be beyond our current level of technology. How can biomimicry be incorporated in a project when you only have access to conventional materials?

MP: It is sometimes difficult to translate something small scale to something large. It doesn’t always work, but ideas can be extracted and used.

For example, we looked at lightweight structures like cuttlebones and bird bones in order to determine how best to construct a biometric biomimetic office. The idea of incorporating a biological design had to be balanced with the practicalities of current concrete technology which requires a certain thickness to protect the steel reinforcing bars the need for a minimum concrete cover in order to reinforce the floors. Looking at ways to design the floor structure, we were able to reduce the amount of concrete needed for the project by 30%. We produced a solution for one third of the cost.

You may have heard about the use of 3D printers to produce materials for a bridge in Amsterdam. The technology is a breakthrough for biomimicry since it allows us to get much closer to biological structures which deliver great efficiency by putting the material in exactly the right place.

With conventional construction this kind of complexity has been expensive but with 3D it can work out more cheaply because this biologically inspired ‘efficiency through complexity’ can use much less material.  at times it may cost more to make the complex and intricate structures one finds in nature. that are intricate. When you can print the necessary materials you can mitigate cost overruns and get closer to efficient.

Biometric Office Building courtesy of Exploration Architecture

IOI: What is your process for determining what example from biology is best for a given project?

MP: It’s important to break a project down into individual functional challenges. So, if you’re looking at an office building you would need to think about how to create an efficient structure, how to gather and distribute daylight, how to maintain steady temperatures, how to detect fires for example.

For a bridge, you would have to consider spanning with limited how to span with efficient use of materials, as well as self-monitoring, self-cleaning and self repair. Thinking about shedding dirt during a normal rainfall could yield ways to clean and maintain the bridge with less effort than would be required for a more conventional structure. You look at those functions in biology, and from that understanding you then have to make a translation from something that works in biology to something that humans are capable of building.

IOI: Many infrastructure projects are designed to last for decades. How does biomimicry address the “long-term” nature of infrastructure?

MP: In my book, I compare human-made systems with biological ones. The conventional characteristics of those human-made systems are part of the Industrial Age. They tended to make things in ways that were tend to be mono-functional, disconnected, and linear / wasteful in their use of resources, running on fossil fuels and extractive.

If you look at the characteristics of ecosystems, they are the opposite: they are complex, densely connected, running entirely on solar energy, and closed loop / zero waste and . They are regenerative. We need to urgently shift from the industrial age to the ecological age of humanity. I’m certain that we will get there but currently the Pace of change is not fast enough globally.

IOI: You mentioned the costs involved when incorporating biomimicry into a project. Cost is one of the most important factors U.S. states and municipalities consider when looking at their infrastructure needs. Does this mean that projects which incorporate biomimicry are always going to be more expensive than conventional projects?

MP: Biological solutions can also be cheaper. The Eden Project was a third of the cost of a more conventional steel and glass solution – partly because the scheme was so lightweight.

We have found that for projects involving large spans, such as bridges or large industrial buildings, biomimicry can deliver results that are cheaper both in terms of capital and running costs. We have also found that projects dealing with large flows of resources can be close to cost-neutral in capital terms and much cheaper in operational terms.

We designed a solution for a water treatment facility based on branching systems in biology could reduce friction in the system by about 60%.  We worked out that it would cost a few percent more to build and would then be much more energy efficient so it would pay back relatively quickly.

I’ll grant that you may have some projects where it costs more to create solutions at the beginning, but you deliver savings over time. Take, for example our data center design, which was modeled on leaf veins. We found that there would be added costs in manufacturing the duct work following Murray’s Law as closely as possible. We applied same idea to a water treatment facility, and showed that we could reduce friction in the system by about 60%. Now, water is an intensive sector. A facility may have a 30-year life span, so the cost of construction is going to be tiny compared to the cost of running it. It all comes down to what the clients want.

 My sense is that in the construction industry we have only recently passed the trough of disillusionment for biomimicry and we are just beginning to see increasing numbers of products reaching the market and increasing applications of the idea to more complex building types. I also think that we are at a plateau of productivity. With advances in robotics and sportswear design, biomimicry is on the path to widespread acceptance.

Construction is a more risk-averse business. But I’ve noticed recently that more and more straightforward clients who are generally keen not to take on risk, are more open to the benefits of biomimicry.

Zero Waste Textiles Factory courtesy of Exploration Architecture

IOI: What’s the reason for this shift?

MP: It Is partly the rise of corporate social responsibility as a concept. Some businesses aren’t necessarily sure where they’ll be in five years, so they’re cautions in terms of their investment horizons. Public infrastructure is built for a long lifespan so there should be an interest in approaches that deliver substantial savings in operation.

IOI: We often hear of the need for “champions” in respect to new processes or — considering infrastructure — P3s in the U.S. Do you believe a champion is necessary for biomimicry to gain a foothold here?

MP: I don’t particularly favor mandating particular approaches. I believe it’s better to create economic conditions out of which we can get the innovations we want to see will emerge.

One thing that would certainly help would be shifting taxation away from employment and to the use of resources. If you were to internalize the damage cost of resources, it would immediately create a stronger incentive for innovations that use would enable materials to be used more efficiently.

The teams I lead are frequently able to devise solutions that achieve radical increases in resource efficiency but we’re told that they Solutions that use less material and less energy, I’m sometimes told don’t make economic sense – they may use 80% less steel but they are slightly more expensive than conventional approaches because they use more human labour. If economists factored in the damage costs of materials (from, for instance quarrying, climate change, etc.) and the benefits of additional employment we would see many of these ideas adopted much more quickly. have not been internalized. But, it’s difficult to make a case using conventional economics. This shift has been talked about for 30 years or more, but has yet to take hold.

In the US, organizations such as Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute are doing a lot in terms of education, outreach, and consulting with companies of all sizes. The institute is passionate about inspiring advocates, and has developed an online resource for that purpose. I think very highly of the group and its leadership.

IOI: How far away are we now from a market that embraces and incorporates biometric principles in infrastructure?

MP: That’s a good question. We’re in a curious age. We have all the solutions we need to make really rapid progress on addressing the key challenges facing humanity but at the moment the pace of change is painfully slow.

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