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Greener Design by Imitating Nature

Article by Amy Hengst appearing courtesy of Matter Network.
Termite mounds may look like ugly piles of dirt, but they provide important clues for architects designing energy-efficient buildings.
Termite mounds are built six to 30 feet high off the ground in hot ecosystems and are riddled with tunnels at their peaks that provide passive ventilation, allowing cool air to flow through. Architects in Zimbabwe have used the termites’ model in building a large, beautiful building with a similar ventilation system.
By imitating nature’s model, they were able to save 90 percent in energy costs because they didn’t need to install any air conditioning, according to designer Jeremy Faludi.
This process of emulating nature is called biomimicry. Speaking at the West Coast Green conference last week in San Francisco, Faludi said biomimicry could help us create products and buildings that are more material and energy-efficient, robust, flexible, and long-lasting.
“Nature uses sophisticated organic chemistry that we’re just beginning to understand,” he said.
Where natural systems tend to use simple and readily available components like hydrogen and carbon, human structures use bulk metals that are stable over time and resist fatigue but that require too much energy to produce.
“We’ve started using Kevlar, carbon fiber, and other composites in the last 20 years, but our processes are still too energy intensive,” Faludi explained.
Organic structures tend to be more flexible and bendable than human structures, and many living systems can repair themselves or reclaim wastes in ways that our creations can’t.
Faludi explained ways that designers and enthusiasts can incorporate biomimetic principles in their upcoming design projects, for example by inviting biologists to provide insight at the design table, attending workshops, or hiring expert consultants who can help them do research. Designers should compare and contrast at least a dozen different strategies, find common solutions, and translate them to a design strategy relevant to their project, he said.
Faludi warned that designers should carefully define their problem before embarking on research. In some climates, most of the costs for maintaining cool buildings are focused on dehumidification rather than temperature, so a designer who looked only at temperature concerns could miss critical information.
Further resources for designers are available through the Biomimicry Guild and the Biomimicry Institute and through, an open source resource that provides examples from the natural world and explores how they might apply to designers.
[photo credit: Flickr]

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Derek lives in southwestern New Mexico and digs bicycles, simple living, fungi, organic gardening, sustainable lifestyle design, bouldering, and permaculture. He loves fresh roasted chiles, peanut butter on everything, and buckets of coffee. Catch up with Derek on Twitter, Google+, or at his natural parenting site, Natural Papa!


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