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Buildings and butterflies

Biomimicry: Nature meets human innovation for sustainable living

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They may not seem to have much in common or have anything to do with one another, but if ever there was an appropriate catch-phrase for the world of biomimicry, “buildings and butterflies” might be it.

Biomimicry is the marriage of nature’s design with human innovation. As the founder of a company involved in energy and daylight modeling for high-performance buildings, Beth Brummitt has taken a particular interest in biomimicry and even delivers presentations on the topic.

“Nature makes color in two ways,” said Brummitt, who founded Brummitt Energy Associates. “It makes color as pigment and color as structure.”

Designers of technology have focused on the wrong type of color, she suggested. Take the display of a computer or phone outdoors in the bright sun.

“You can’t see anything,” she said. “But if you go outside and you look at what’s outside -- butterflies or leaves or colors of so many things -- one of the ways that nature creates color is with structure, so it’s the structure of the cells and the sunlight reflecting off of those cells …”

That concept is being used today to improve display screens, Brummitt said, and she believes it similarly can be used on a larger scale to more efficiently design lighting in buildings.

“So what happens is they can get better color -- much less energy required.”

Advancements in lighting are but one aspect of how biomimicry is expected by some to change how sustainable building is approached.

In May 2009, the Cascadia Green Building Council, a nonprofit group and chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council in the northwestern United States, founded the International Living Building Institute. The ILBI mission is to create living buildings, sites and communities with the encouragement of biomimicry principles.

Out of the ILBI came the Living Building Challenge, which Brummitt, a board member of San Diego’s USGBC chapter, said is the expression of biomimicry principles in the built environment. She hopes to engage the challenge in San Diego.

“Right now, we tend to create destruction when we’re making things,” Brummitt said. “So what if we were doing everything in a life-friendly way and not having any pollutants, not wasting any energy, not making any water dirty …?”

According to Doug Kot, executive director for the San Diego chapter of the USGBC, biomimicry is just starting to pick up steam among local businesses.

Through conscientious design, Kot said, differences can be made in how buildings impact the environment.

The USGBC’s LEED system, which awards buildings showing leadership in energy and environmental design, is not yet incorporating biomimicry into its standards, Kot said, but the idea is being discussed.

Across the country, a project dubbed Mannahatta has been undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society to put together the pieces of New York City’s pre-Henry Hudson past. Through the project, Mannahatta creators believe they’ve accurately mapped out what Manhattan looked like before mass civilization, what animals fed there and what plants grew there.

In February, the San Diego Zoo hosted the event “Bio-Inspired Architecture” as part of a full series on biomimicry. The event brought together members of the USGBC and Bill Browning, the founder of Terrapin Bright Green, an environmental strategy and planning consultant group with offices in New York and Washington, D.C. At the gathering, Browning spoke of how biomimicry has changed the face of green building, and how Mannahatta --and other similar biomimicry-inspired endeavors --can have a lasting impact on building design and urban planning.

Mannahatta, Browning said, allows building owners and designers to see what was going on at their site in the past, so they can, in a sense, re-enact what nature had in mind -- be it through understanding natural, more efficient water drainage patterns or creating green roofs that mimic the old ecosystems.

With the knowledge of a site’s native animals and plants, its geology and hydrology,, comparisons can be made, Browning said, to what sits there today. Among the information that can be found, he added, is a site’s pre-built ability to store energy and carbon.

“All these sort of ecosystem services,” Browning said, “now can become performance metrics for our site,” and provide insight into what can be introduced to improve what’s discovered.

Browning also introduced several examples of how biomimicry has otherwise impacted building design.

He pointed to termite mound-inspired building, water treatment systems modeled after coral algae and the functions of the human intestine.

“This is a giant thermoregulation structure,” Browning said of a pictured termite mound in Zimbabwe, which he said needs a regulated temperature to sustain the growth of mushrooms the termites feed on.

Browning, who was also a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s board of directors, described how the multiple-chamber strategies employed by the termites to control temperatures and humidity levels within their mounds were used to create the Eastgate Centre office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe. The complex, he added, uses one-tenth the energy of a conventional office building as a result.

Kot thinks that’s just the beginning of what can be realized.

“As we learn when we study natural systems, we know that buildings are a part of systems as well, and there are lessons to be learned … as we’ve learned from learning about animals and how they solve problems in nature,” Kot said.

The San Diego Zoo’s biomimicry series will conclude next month with the 2011 Biomimicry Conference, April 14-15.

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Brummitt Energy Associates

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Beth Brummitt

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