AT FLIP­SIDE LESSONS FROM NA­TURE

EADT Suffolk - - Flipside -

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

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