AT FLIPSIDE LESSONS FROM NATURE
PICTURE the scene: two people are sitting opposite each other, one is the head of a company, the other is an innovator. “I’m really impressed with your idea,” says the head of the company, “but we can’t do anything with it - it hasn’t been done before!” Michael Pawlyn has often heard this response to his proposals for sustainable and regenerative building designs.
“They like what I’m saying, and they’d like to do it, but they’d rather someone else did it first because it’s just slightly outside their comfort zone.”
Michael was a member of the team that created the stunning Eden Project in Cornwall, the huge biodomes which reinvented horticultural architecture. Ten years ago he formed his own company, Exploration, to focus on environmentally sustainable projects. He speaks and write as a pioneer in ‘biomimicry’.
“This is design inspired by the way functional challenges have been solved in biology,” he explains. This might mean seeking to replicate the remarkable structures of termite mounds and spiders’ webs, but it is also about applying biological examples of, say, fire suppression and detection to buildings.
“It was quite a revelation for me to see just how broad the range of solutions is,” he says. “I think there is still a very common perception that humans are all-knowing and all-powerful, that we are above nature, but I think when you look at some of the amazing adaptations that biology has evolved, it’s hard not to feel a sense of humility about what we still have to learn.”
For Michael, biomimicry – a term first coined in the early 60s – combines passions he has held since childhood for biology, design and the environment, and he hopes that people are gradually recognising the benefits of this approach.
“There is a fear of the new,” he says, of the slow take-up. “And people are pretty comfortable. The government doesn’t have the courage to bring about any significant change and companies are happy making money, doing things the way they have for decades.”
But the time has come for seeking positive solutions to issues we are facing locally, nationally and globally, and Michael can cite numerous inspirational concepts which take a completely different approach to a problem.
In Singapore, a hospital designed around biophilic principles is filled with plants and is achieving a measurable improvement in recovery rates.
“It presents a compelling case for designing hospitals in a more holistic, joined up way,” he says. Working with his company, Exploration, Michael has helped companies, like the Zero Waste Textiles Factory in India, improve their environmental performance. The Biomimetic Office, when it’s built, will be one of the lowest energy office buildings in the world.
So how should we, in Suffolk, be thinking creatively about affordable housing or coastal erosion, perhaps? According to Michael there’s a company which has created a 3D printer that can create elaborate and efficient forms using mud, which could be used to build houses. Currently we transport materials long distances to build things.
“Nature tends not to work that way,” he says. “Biological organisms are ingenious with available materials. There are elegant birds’ nests constructed from thin blades of grass, lichen or even spiders’ webs. We need to look at what materials exist locally and build from that.” In protecting our coastline, instead of building concrete barriers, perhaps we could
‘ It was quite a revelation for me to see just how broad the range of solutions is,’
follow the example of mangrove swamps.
“They bind together sand and soil, and reduce the power of the waves with their massive network of roots. There is a whole ecosystem which thrives within the root structures of mangroves,” says Michael. “When we are responding to human challenges, we need to think about soft technology to deliver engineering solutions.”
But this approach requires a completely different mindset.
“I think, as a society, we need to get better at thinking positively about how to solve problems rather than just complaining about what’s wrong.” When a council in the Midlands, for example, could no longer pay to remove the fly posters that were littering and defacing the town, it decided to post ‘cancelled’ on the illegal notices.
“It was such an elegant solution to a problem,” says Michael. People removed their own posters, worried that word would get around that their events weren’t taking place.
“I think we spend far too much time arguing over opinions,” says Michael. “These are more likely to divide people than unify them. An opinion is no more than a statement of a position, whereas an idea tends to have the seed of a solution. Opinions can bring about change very slowly, they can shift public attitudes over time, but if you want more rapid change, it is much better to work with engaging ideas.” It is a more positive way of considering our future, too.
“Part of my motivation is to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye and say that I did everything I possibly could to prevent the disaster that is unfolding,” says Michael. He hopes we will increasingly consider an intergenerational view of construction. Michael Pawyln has written ‘Biomimicry in Architecture’ and will be talking about ‘Building from the Natural World’ at FlipSide on October 8. www.flipsideuk.org
The Biomimetic Office by Exploration inspired by a wide range of light-gathering examples in biology Photo: Exploration Architecture