Harmonising Nature and the Built Environment
Building design has evolved over time, using a variety of materials and resources to meet the builder’s demands. The materials have evolved as well, with engineers, architects, and scientists using innovation to improve their application and overall efficiency, driving development in residential, commercial and industrial construction.
As populations continue to grow and expand geographically, the building industry is looking for new ways to adapt to accommodate this growth. By developing new materials and approaches, the construction industry as a whole is advancing more sustainably, continuing to improve project outcomes and industry trends.
Today’s driving industry trend is to build sustainably, with increasing numbers of projects attaining environmental certifications, such as LEED, in the process. These investments, whether they are new builds or retrofits of existing properties and spaces, have proven to increase social and environmental wellbeing while improving cost-effectiveness. Using sustainable materials, methods, and approaches, and adopting new technologies and focusing on energy efficiency and resource preservation advances not only how we build and the materials that we use to build, but also sets new best in-class standards for the industry, emphasising both aesthetics and functionality.
One example of environmental design is green rooftops, as these can reduce the impact of construction projects on the surrounding landscape while simultaneously increasing the structure’s ability to withstand harsh weather patterns, helping to regulate temperature and the internal environment. Soft and hard landscape design can contribute to a project’s efficiency and effectiveness.
In other rooftop news, MGM Resorts have taken the lead in environmental design by installing a 6.2 megawatt rooftop installation at the Mandalay Bay. This is one of the largest solar energy installations in the world and the company’s first foray into solar projects in the United States. The power from the project will satisfy 20 per cent of the resort’s power demand, reducing power usage and operating costs in the process.
In Japan, the Shinkansen Bullet Train is the fastest in the world, travelling at over 200 miles per hour. Due to its speed, the train causes air pressure changes that were responsible for creating loud noises, disturbing locals as it passed through tunnels. By modelling the train after the beak of the Kingfisher, the train is now quieter, travels 10 per cent faster and uses 15 per cent less energy.
A more advanced example of environmental design, La Casa Vergara in Columbia is a sustainable earthbag solution designed by architect, José Andrés Vallejo. This environmentally friendly, naturally cooling build, made from earth and soil – a superadobe system – is cost effective, helps create a balanced flow, has low environmental impact, and offers seismic resistance.
To be sure, many construction projects use significant amounts of resources, generate significant waste and are a major contributor to emissions. Natural designs have inspired many architects and engineers who use the patterns found in nature, as well as biological systems as inspiration to create projects and designs that are environmentally responsible and energy efficient, improving design and functionality.
The main objectives of sustainable design are to optimise site potential, reduce or avoid natural resource depletion, prevent environmental degradation, and improve overall design, aesthetics, functionality, resiliency, operations and maintenance. As a result of this growing trend, a new discipline has emerged to encompass systematic innovation in every industry.
In 1997, Janine Benyus defined a new field of study, to better understand innovation inspired by nature and biology. Biomimicry provides a methodology, the “technology of biology”, as engineers, architects, and other innovators serve as “nature’s apprentices”. Biomimicry is found in a number of industries and applications including agriculture, architecture, energy, human safety, health care, and transportation.
Biomimetric design, innovations, and practices are as old as human invention. An example of biomimicry, one that has had significant commercial success, is Velcro, which is designed to mimic the naturally locking hooks of burrs. Though this is a relatively simple example, the field has made significant advancements that are likely to change the way we live our day-to-day lives moving into the future.
Much effort has been undertaken to mimic the Namibian Beetle, a species of beetle that is able to harvest desert fog and convert it into water, in one of the driest regions in the world. This technology can be cost effectively reproduced on a commercial scale, with applications in water trapping tents and building covers, to convert fog into a source of water.
Significant research has also gone into the study of membranes and membrane proteins in nature. Aquaporin was discovered in the early 1990s, one of nature’s filters. As a result of discoveries like this, processes of seawater desalination have improved and are yielding endless potential applications, including new filtering capacities for greenhouse gas emissions.
Biomimicry has inspired the development of a number of materials that will greatly direct how we build and live in the future. Though the study of biomimetrics is still relatively new, it stands to revolutionise the way we as a society think, design, and create. Through understanding natural systems, biomimicry enables the adaptation of successful models in nature for the built environment. Trees, for example, arrange their fibres to minimise stress and to reinforce strength where needed, removing materials where they are not required. Learning from trees, as well as bones, to optimise the strength of building materials, the goal is to engineer materials that minimise resource usage and maximise output, reducing costs and revolutionising design.
Spider webs reflect the rays of the sun as a warning mechanism for birds to avoid flying into them. German engineer Arnold Glas has reproduced the effect by glazing their Ornilux brand of glass with a web-like pattern of UV reflective coating to prevent birds from flying into windows, just as they would spider webs.
Clams and geckos have provided insight into the creation of new adhesives for a number of industries, including construction and medical. On the flip side, research has also been undertaken to mimic the microscopically rough surface of the lotus plant, to duplicate its water repellent, self cleaning properties, developing the next generation of paint, glass and fabric finishes.
Sharkskin is also used in this way, to provide surface materials for hospitals and medical settings, restaurants, kitchens, and public restrooms, to repel bacteria and keep microorganisms from attaching to the surface. This natural technology has also been used in the construction of boats to reduce drag.
Textures and the finer details in nature are helping elevate human design capabilities. Fireflies, for example, amplify their light using their sharp, jagged scales. These features were adapted for LED lights, building a similarly textured structure to maximise the light’s brightness, thus improving output and using less energy in the process.
Efforts are also being taken to improve our power systems, maximising energy creation and distribution and being mindful of the environment in engineering and design. To reduce energy use and improve efficiency, researchers have looked to the ocean to improve not only the aesthetics, but also the functionality of fans, turbines, and the production of wind energy. Humpback whales, especially considering their size, enjoy great dexterity and heightened aerodynamics as a result of large irregular tubercles on the leading edges of their flippers that allow them to move seamlessly through the water. This technology can be used to improve safety, performance, lift and drag, reducing friction in fans and turbines.
John Dabiri of Caltech has also gone underwater to find inspiration. As wind turbines are criticised for their unsightly size and the potential harm they cause the surrounding environment, Dabiri studied and mimicked the wakes of vortices of schools of fish to create 30 foot tall turbines, uniquely positioned to use less land area, developing vertical twirling blades to take advantage of the wind’s behaviour and flow.
Though these materials are not available commercially, the potential for such innovation exists and has had a significant impact on design and construction. By focusing on innovation to increase social and environmental wellbeing, environmental designs and biomimetric solutions establish harmony between nature and the built environment.
One of the most impressive instances of biomimetric design is the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe. The office complex has an air conditioning system that has been modelled after the self-cooling mounds of termites (Macrotermes michaelseni), which maintain the internal temperature day and night, even while external temperatures vary.
As a result, the building uses 90 per cent less energy for ventilation, saving the building owners a total of $3.5 million in air conditioning costs thus far. As buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of humanity’s total energy use, biomimetrics may present the solution that will allow humanity to continue to develop with a more sustainable, effective, efficient and cost-savvy approach.