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Mimicking Mother Nature

Cameron M. Burns

When the Old Mutual insurance company hired architect Mick Pearce to build a combined office and retail building in downtown Harare, Zimbabwe, they threw in a challenge: Make the building comfortable year-round and do it without an air-conditioning system.

Not to be deterred, Pearce enlisted the engineering firm of Arup Partners, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work finding a design model for the new building. The best model, it turned out, was a termite mound.

Termite mounds are marvels of engineering. The creatures live in underground tunnel networks and eat a fungus that grows a couple of feet below the earth’s surface. The termites collect dead plant matter, carry it underground, feed the plant matter to the fungus, and then eat the fungus.

The problem is the fungus must be kept at a constant 87 degrees. To do this, the termites dig special vents around the base of their mounds to let in cool air; as this air warms, it is discharged through the top of the mound. The system keeps the fungus at its optimal temperature during 35-degree nights and 105-degree days on the African veld. The fungus thrives and the termites are able to nourish themselves.

By copying the termites’ heating and cooling system, Mr. Pearce and his Arup partners were able to design a nine-story, 85,800-square-foot building (actually two structures joined by an atrium) with no air-conditioning system. During its first nine months of operation it used 10 percent of the energy a conventional building its size would have used.

The Eastgate building is the first of its kind in Africa, and the science that encouraged it – biomimicry – is catching on as an important area of scientific study. Not surprisingly, it has become an area of research at Snowmass’s Rocky Mountain Institute, which has been studying, sharing and promoting green building techniques for more than a decade.

Biomimicry comes from its Latin roots: bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate. According to Alexis Karolides, an RMI staff architect and leader of the Institute’s green development arm, it is a new discipline that solves human problems by studying and imitating nature’s best ideas. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar energy cell is an example. Those studying biomimicry describe it as “innovation inspired by nature.”

“The core idea is that nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with,” said Janine Benyus, a biologist and author of the 1997 book “Biomimicry.”

“Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers. They have found what works, what is appropriate, and most important, what lasts here on Earth. This is the real news of biomimicry: after 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.”

Benyus and Karolides will present a slide show and lecture on the subject of biomimicry at the Given Institute in Aspen Friday, Feb. 7, at 5:30 p.m.

Copying nature is not new; humans have been doing it for years.

“Indigenous peoples relied heavily on the lessons and examples of the organisms around them,” said Benyus. “Alaskan hunters still stalk seals in exactly the same way that polar bears do, for instance. Many early Western inventions, such as the airplane and the telephone, also took their inspiration directly from nature.”

Even early Coloradans looked to nature for design solutions, according to Karolides. When Mexican settlers first came to the San Luis Valley, they didn’t know how thick to make the adobe walls of their homes, so they observed what the “locals” were doing. They measured the depth of ground squirrels’ burrows and used that dimension for the thickness of their walls.

“Architecture is a natural fit for biomimicry,” she said. “No matter what problem we are trying to address in what particular climate – keeping our structures warm or cool or structurally stable, for instance – there is some creature in that environment that has figured out a clever way to do it.”

Biomimicry has many lessons for architects and building engineers, but Benyus claims biomimicry is important for all human endeavors. In her book she outlines six fields where biomimicry is being used: agriculture, materials science, energy, medicine, computing, and business.

Benyus, who lives in Montana, sits on the RMI board. She has worked with researchers at the think tank for years, but was invited onto the board mostly because of her extensive knowledge of biomimicry. As a result, Benyus and the Institute have launched a major biomimicry research project, exploring the use of natural elements and processes to solve human design challenges – like air conditioning a building in southeastern Africa.

A growing number of “biomimics” around the world are working independently on a variety of design challenges.

According to Benyus, a University of Arizona researcher named J. Devens Gust is studying how a leaf captures energy, in hopes of making a molecular-sized, sun-powered battery. J. Herbert Waite of the University of Delaware is studying the blue mussel, which attaches itself to rocks using an adhesive that can do what our tubes of Elmer’s and epoxy cannot – cure and stick underwater.

So how does biomimicry work? For her book, Benyus examined the research of Wes Jackson of the Kansas-based Land Institute.

“Biomimetic agriculture involves looking at a landscape and asking what grows here naturally?” Benyus explained. “In the Midwest, it’s the prairie. For 5,000 years, the prairie has done a great job of holding the soil, resisting pests and weeds, and sponsoring its own fertility, all without our help. The secret of the prairie is that it is composed of perennial plants growing in polycultures (many species in the same field).”

Unfortunately, humans can’t eat prairies, Benyus noted, so over the last 100 years humans have plowed up the native prairie and replaced it with agricultural annuals grown in sprawling monocultures (think cornfields, wheat fields). Unlike the prairie’s self-sustaining perennial plant communities, these annual crops need human help to survive.

“Using annuals means we have to plow each year,” Benyus said. “That leads to soil erosion. To make up for poorer soil, we pour on tons of chemical fertilizers. To protect our all-you-can-eat monocultures from pests, we heap on oil-based pesticides. It works out to about 10 kilocalories of petroleum to produce one kilocalorie of food.”

And the cycle is repeated, year in, year out. Jackson has labeled this form of agriculture “a treadmill of vigilance.”

His solution is to breed perennial crops that humans can eat and grow in a prairielike polyculture. Jackson’s “edible prairie” would be the opposite of most present-day farms. The plants would remain over winter, so farmers wouldn’t need to plow and plant every year or worry about soil erosion. Synthetic fertilizers would be unnecessary because nitrogen-fixing plants would be part of the plant mix. Farmers wouldn’t need to spray biocides due the presence of many different plant species – which would slow down pest outbreaks. What Jackson envisions – instead of an extractive agriculture that mimics industry or mining – is a self-renewing agriculture that mimics nature.

Locally, biomimicry is being discussed in Basalt as an approach for a proposed River Center that would house the Roaring Fork Conservancy’s offices, classrooms, a lab, and a public reception area.

Last spring, Karolides directed a biomimicry-focused design workshop for the River Center, which brought together local architects with biologists Benyus and colleague Dayna Baumeister.

“With biologists at the design table, the architects saw their design challenges in a new light and were inspired toward some very innovative thinking,” said Karolides.

Local officials think the River Center could become a tourist draw.

“Forty nature center directors all warned us: Build it and they will come,” Jeanne Beaudry, executive director of the conservancy recently told The Aspen Times.

Whatever happens in Basalt, biomimicry seems here to stay, as a science, an art and a way of learning. As Benyus said, “Doing it nature’s way has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business. In each case, nature would be model, measure, and mentor.”


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