Natural Solutions Hidden in Plain Sight
by Vicki Wolf, February 2005
Some call it arrogance, the way human beings believe it is possible to out-smart nature with science and technology. Now, Houston and other large cities deal with excessive water runoff as a result of cutting down forests and paving over prairie. The fish in most Texas lakes and in many lakes and rivers around the world are not safe to eat. Scientific evidence increasingly links heart disease, stroke, cancer and asthma to air pollution from petrochemical refineries, power plants and chemical plants. Global warming looms as a serious threat to all life on earth.
Biomimicry offers solutions hidden in plain sight for many of the modern world’s environmental problems. The natural world is teeming with models for energy production and conservation. Models are there for strong, durable, flexible materials. Designs for air conditioning and recycling waste can be found.
What is biomimicry?
This new science, called biomimicry, studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems. It is a new way of viewing and valuing nature based on what we can learn from it rather than what we can extract from it. Biomimicry takes advantage of nature’s wisdom gleaned from 3.8 billion years of evolution to determine what works, what is appropriate and what lasts.
Janine Benyus, renowned author and biologist, opened the door to this new science with her book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Scientists working in biomimicry foresee nature-based innovations that will change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information and conduct business.
Biomimicry comes naturally
Human beings have been learning from nature and using nature as a model for a very long time. The Wright brothers copied the vulture’s wing; Bell’s original idea for the telephone speaker and receiver came from understanding how the human tongue and ear drum work; Alaskan hunters still mimic the polar bears way of stalking seals.
Nature’s way is beautiful and practical
Nature provides beautiful examples of elegantly simple and sustainable engineering, chemistry, manufacturing, architecture and agriculture:
From digested crickets, beetles and other bugs, the orb-weaver spider weaves a web of silk thread stronger and more flexible than any man-made material.
The blue mussel attaches to a solid surface by creating a collagen/silk mix that provides both toughness and flexibility.
Photozymes, like chlorophyll and enzymes, are molecules that show us how to use absorbed sun energy to do chemistry. For example: when photozymes are scattered in sunny water they can break down pollutants, such as PCBs, into harmless compounds.
The green leaf of a plant converts sunlight into energy.
Prairies hold the soil and prevent erosion, fertilize themselves, and protect themselves against pests.
Learning from nature is easier than ever
As the understanding of biology rapidly expands, myriad ways to learn from nature are unfolding. “For the first time in history, we have the instruments – the scopes and satellites – to feel the shiver of a neuron in thought or watch in color as a star is born,” said Benyus in an interview with the Boston Research Center (www.biomimicry.org). “When we combine this intensified gaze with the sheer amount of scientific knowledge coming into focus, we suddenly have the capacity to mimic nature like never before.”
Biomimicry blossoming in Houston
In Houston, where economic vitality is very dependent on the petrochemical industry, hopeful signs are blossoming. In fact, the tops of Houston’s public buildings will be blossoming if Carl Hacker, PhD, has his way.
Hacker is an ecologist and an attorney on the faculty of the School of Public Health at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHSC). He says, “Every public building should have a vegetated roof.”
Working with UTHSC to create a more ecologically sustainable campus, he is establishing and studying “ecological research gardens” on campus and has planted a vegetated roof on the Reuel A. Stallones Building (http://www.sph.uth.tmc.edu/course/maps/hacker/).
Hacker has been researching and writing on the relationship between humans and urban ecosystems for more than 30 years. “The easiest way for Houston to use biomimicry is to provide tax incentives to deal with vegetation,” he says. Houston’s original ecosystem has been paved over by expanding development. The combination of prairie and forest handled water pretty well, according to Hacker. Replacing vegetation with concrete has increased flooding problems and created a heat island in summer. Planting diverse vegetation would help reduce water runoff during heavy rains. It would help cool the city as well as improve air and water quality.
Nature as a model for cool buildings
Climate is a problem in Houston as well as the southern United States, from Atlanta to Mexico. Heat, humidity and rainfall all present challenges for building design. Energy costs skyrocket in the summer. Sealed buildings trap air in, and most building materials are susceptible to mold and mildew. Plastics deteriorate rapidly.
Rives Taylor, architect and consultant for Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), says biomimicry can help solve climate-related building problems. “Nature avoids excesses and overbuilding, taps into the power of limits, and runs on the sun and other natural resources,” says Taylor. “It uses only the energy and resources it needs.”
Taylor worked with UTHSC in the design, specification processes and project management to build the UTHSC School of Nursing and Student Community Center. Many features of the new $57 million facility imitate sustainable principles found in nature.
Much of the building façade is concrete made from fly ash, recycled from a plant within 50 miles of the school. Less cement is needed with this type of construction; it is less expensive; and it is stronger.
For air-conditioning, the School of Nursing is designed to take advantage of the physics of air – hot air rises and cool air stays lower. With a raised floor, low-powered fans and high ceilings, the air is circulated to keep the building at a comfortable temperature while using less energy.
Large, double-paneled glass windows with UV coating provide natural lighting and lower energy use. Using natural light rather than artificial light enhances the beauty and comfort of the facility.
“Biomimicry in building design can help us make materials stronger, self-assembling and self-healing, like the spider’s web,” Taylor says.
“Biomimicry also encourages us to use natural processes and forces for basic building functions. It allows buildings to produce resources by integrating natural systems.”
For example, The School of Nursing collects rain water in cisterns to flush commodes and irrigate the small green space around the building. The school is able to store three months of rain water for the dry season.
Both Hacker and Rives believe there is an urgent need to protect nature and fund research to learn from nature.
“I’d like us to think beyond our generation,” Hacker says. “Look at who’s coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. There’s someone from a younger generation related to you in some way. Think about what the world will be like for them. Make sure they have a world at least as good as yours is now.”
“Some progressive thinkers say it’s far too late to think about it; just do it,” Taylor says.