As climate change threatens rising urban costs, is biomimicry the way forward?
It is well established that urban environments will house the majority of the world’s population in the coming decades. Although extreme weather conditions cause floods, droughts and wildfires, they will also have significant effects on urban life. Rising temperatures reported in the media, heat waves in India, the United States, Spain and Germany, Doha at 49°C or Jacobabad at 51°C, mean we need to find new ways to protect city dwellers from the worst impacts of a changing environment.
According to Lauren Sorkin, executive director of the Resilient Cities Network, cities have the potential to tackle climate change, but they need to rethink how they keep people safe and build equity and resilience. Sorkin argues that we also need to agree on a common set of risks – and be honest about the level of risk we face. It is important to remember that cities themselves are major investors and consumers of infrastructure and are to some extent able to set their own agendas on how they meet the challenges we face. confronted. Sorkin says, “together they can create waves of change.”
Such changes obviously come at a cost – it is now estimated that around 2-3% of global GDP will be needed to effectively transition to a low-carbon future. A recent report by C40 Cities warns that more than 7 million people in the world’s largest cities face flood-related costs of $64 billion a year. Health and energy systems are at risk of flooding, while across the C40 cities, cities could lose more than 16 billion m3 of surface water per year due to drought, which is equivalent to drying up Sydney Harbor 30 times. The cost of replacing that water could be $111 billion a year.
The C40 Cities recommendations for action are not surprising, since they cover a range from large-scale investment to local behavior change. Businesses need to pay attention to this, as they both operate in cities and depend on their people. In many ways, a city is an ecosystem, and all economic operations exist within and depend on ecosystems. That said, perhaps the best way to address city resilience is to change the way we think about cities, and buildings in particular.
The built environment is already responsible for up to 40% of global emissions (with cities responsible for 70% of these emissions), through heating and cooling, lighting, transport and embodied carbon. Addressing this means thinking about cities and how we live there in different ways. According to Jamie Miller, Director of Biomimicry at B&H Architects, what we need to do is center biomimicry at the heart of new construction, master planning and regeneration.
Formerly of his own consulting firm Biomimicry Frontiers, Miller has focused since 2007 on mimicking natural processes to address building and environmental challenges and sees his work with B+H Architects as an obvious next step in bringing biomimicry to a wider audience. He believes that by introducing the philosophy of biomimicry into our way of thinking about the future is our best hope of solving some of the “hard problems” (hard to define, interrelated, sometimes contradictory and ever-changing problems) that we face, climate change, poverty, sustainability, inequality, hunger and more.
Indeed, biomimicry is an important lens through which we can reconnect the natural and the built or designed – creatively extracting knowledge from nature and finding new solutions to problems. What biomimicry does is draw on the lessons of billions of years of natural evolution, drawing on ideas that have already been proven to work from forest canopies, mangroves and even the spider silk. Bees, for example, gave us the idea of swarm thinking that underpins many artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) approaches.
In construction terms, Miller refers to a residential building in India where the company designed a hyper-localized building. In India, a critical element is to ensure that the building is cooled. When thinking about the elements of nature, elephant skin came to mind, as it is full of tiny cracks where tiny water droplets stick, to allow continuous evaporation and cooling. This led to the design and integration of a rock wall, providing passive cooling for the building. Termite mounds, with their air-moving tunnels, provide a template for drawing in cooler air and expelling warmer ones.
It is not only the structure and materials that matter, but also its processes. B+H designed a permaculture strategy for the garden that underpinned overall ecosystem support. The planters have been connected to support the natural symbiotic relationship of plants – reducing water and maintenance, the need for pesticides and supporting greater system resilience. Measurements of air pollution, carbon sequestration and even temperature regulation improved after the project ended.
In terms of the built environment, biomimicry is about rethinking our approach to planning, building and renovation. It’s about exploring new processes, new approaches and new materials, as well as thinking about what we want our buildings and cities to do, in terms of function, safety and support for their inhabitants. Biomimicry is already widely applied in building practices, from dynamic facades that open and close like skin pores to “flashing” glass that shades as the sun moves. In Vietnam, a 101-story tower was built with foundations inspired by mangrove roots to provide stability in a dynamic delta environment. Ornilux windows, for example, mimic spider silk to reduce bird strikes while Carbon Cure makes CO2-consuming cement, bricks can be built from mycelium and innovations continue apace. .
These technologies are available and scalable and although locally adapted ideas, such as the building in India, may be less scalable because they are suited to a specific space, the thinking behind it is not – it is that such thinking needs to be explored. The key term to consider is resilience. Forests last thousands of years longer than cities – so what can we learn from how a forest works to make a city work better. Miller advocates the use of a biomimetic lens saying, “In a forest we see passive design, circular economies, additive manufacturing, green chemistry, carbon solutions and a model for really living long term on that planet. “
One of the big challenges, as with climate change, is timing. There is often a disconnect between the life of a building and the interest of an asset owner (unless it is a legacy building) but, as Miller points out, “biomimicry is a resilience strategy, if you want long-term building success, that’s where you’ll find it.” He adds, “There’s nothing new about biomimicry, that’s its beauty. it’s just about thinking differently and outside of the dominant paradigms that drive traditional development.
At a time when the media is full of climate doom and governments are failing to act to implement the laws and frameworks needed for change, what is exciting about biomimicry is that it is about ‘a way of looking at the world that’s both hopeful and practical, as well as something anyone can do. As Janine Benyus, founder of the world’s first bio-inspired consultancy, once said, “We’re not necessarily a bad species, just a very young one.” Nature is all about balance and Miller says a lot of work with biomimicry is about gradient, developing small-scale adaptations and iterations that can have a dramatic impact if scaled and replicated. . He says, “We already have mentors and role models to help us. We are here and we have to figure out how to live here long term.