Biomimicry: What eco design can learn from nature?

As a designer, there’s really no greater inspiration than the marvels of nature. Increasingly we’re seeing science taking its cues from the natural world in an effort to solve complex design issues in a more organic way. Hopefully creating better spaces for us to live in.

 

In a nutshell (nice idiom right?), biomimicry or biomimetics is the examination of nature – emulating or being inspired by its models, systems, processes and elements in order to solve human problems. The term Biomimicry was first coined  by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book called ‘Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by design’. Her ideas have since spread into the worlds of product design, interiors and architecture, with some truly inspirational ideas.

 

 

Now if you’ve ever seen a lizard climbing a wall and wished you had the same ability then your dream might not be far away from becoming reality. For years the secrets behind the extraordinary climbing prowess of the gecko baffled scientists. Eventually they discovered millions of tiny keratin hairs, called setae, on their feet. The hairs work at an intermolecular level, providing incredible grip and allowing the gecko to support its own weight using just a single toe. Gecko Tape has been made using the same principles and researchers say it could allow humans to walk up sheer surfaces and even across ceilings (Lionel Richie will be delighted). “Our ‘Geckskin’ device is about the size of an index card and can hold a maximum force of about 700 pounds while adhering to a smooth surface”, says Alfred Crosby, Associate Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

 

 

From the ceiling to the floor, InterfaceFlor Transformation carpeting works by mimicking the random colours and patterns found on a forest floor, r a pebble beach using different coloured carpet tiles. Rather than having a uniform colour, the tiles embrace random design, making it easy to replace a single tile rather than replacing the whole carpet, if one gets damaged or worn. It also offers fantastic creative opportunities.

 

 

At its best, biomimicry allows designers to create more sustainable and intelligent products by finding solutions in nature. A guide to biomimicry has been created in the form of ‘the design spiral’, which helps to “bioligise a challenge, query the natural world for inspiration, then evaluate to ensure that the final design mimics nature at all levels”.

 

 

As a symbol of nature, the butterfly is hard to beat, which is why I really like Lotusan Paint. In the same way that butterflies keep their wings clean with a complex surface interacting with the physics of water molecules, Lotusan exterior coating uses the same micro-structural idea to regain cleanliness after a light rinse with water. Just think how easy washing the car could be in the future.

 

 

We might think of termites as building destroyers, but in Zimbabwe an air-conditioning system has been designed modelled on self-cooling termite mounds. In nature, these can maintain temperature to within one degree despite massive fluctuations in the temperature outside.

 

 

Also using nature to keep buildings cool is HOK’s San Francisco ‘Battery Park’ design. It cleverly uses a coating of algae on the building for waste heat recovery. Combined with solar panels it means the building can produce it’s own energy while minimising its carbon footprint. Perhaps the best feature, however, is a wind energy generating system that mimics sea sponges in the way it takes in and expels water. It grows the algae on the building’s façade generating further energy, absorbing CO2 and filtering grey water.

 

 

Finally, in an age where infection and epidemics are a real issue, Florida-based Sharklet Technologies have engineered a surface technology product that controls the growth of dangerous bacteria, such as E. coli. It’s perfect for use on door handles and taps in the workplace and, perhaps more importantly, hospitals.

 

We can really learn a lot from nature. Millions of years of evolution have created some pretty extraordinary solutions to the problems of physics and biology. It’s certainly time we started learning some lessons from Mother Nature to make the world we build, a better place to live.

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