Lessons in Biomimicry - Part 1 Natural Forms

Exploration river douglas bridge photo

This week I am reporting from Schumacher College in south west England. Here, I am taking part in a course called Biomimicry: New Directions in Sustainable Design lead by the architect Michael Pawlyn, he of the incredible Sahara Forest Project. This is my introduction to Biomimicry and in the excitement of learning something radically new I thought I should share the experience with you all.

Biomimicry is the study of natural forms, systems and processes in nature in order to find more effective and sustainable ways to design and engineer products, buildings and service systems. The first thing I learned yesterday was that Biomimicry is definitely not the same thing as Biomorphism...Biomorphism is the imitation of nature's shapes in design, which often develops beautiful outcomes, but lacks the analytical approach that can help revolutionize the way we think about design.

The River Douglas Bridge
The project pictured above is a proposal by Pawlyn's studio Exploration Architecture, for a bridge crossing the River Douglas in Lancashire. The design takes its inspiration from the internal pressures seen in nature which create self supporting structures. For example the osmotic potential in leaves where the water in the cells creates a stiffness which allows the leaf to hold itself up.

Dematerialised Structures
Using inflated Tensairity airbeams, created by the Swiss company Airlight, Exploration designed a bridge that was supported mostly by pressurised air contained in a thin membrane. This resulted in a dramatic dematerialisation of the traditional bridge structure. An added design delight was the 'maximum infestation clause' inserted by Pawlyn with the planted biodivirsity corridor along the bridge created to link up the two sides of the river and combat the habitat fragmentation that is normally seen in this situation.

schumacher college opening circle photo

The Opening Circle of the Biomimicry course
The Eden Project
Another example used was the iconic Eden Project on which Pawlyn was a lead architect for Grimshaw. The forms of the biomes were inspired by soap bubbles and the hexagonal frames by cellular structures. Through the use of inflated ETFE membrane panels, which are 1% of the weight of double glazing, other benefits were seen such s lighter steel frame, letting in more sunlight and adding solar gain. Finally, the air contained in the large tropical biome weighs more that the envelope enclosing it.

eden project biomes photo

Cradle to Cradle
Michael Pawlyn started by referencing McDonough and Braungart's statement from Cradle to Cradle "Being less bad is not the same as being good." Should we adapt systems and improve them? Or should we start from the beginning and create a new paradigm? I think you can see from just these two projects that Exploration Architecture, through the use of biomimicry, is achieving the latter.

Schumacher College baked bread photo

Schumacher College creates holistic learning by asking all students and staff to take part in group work sessions everyday, including cooking, cleaning and gardening.
Schumacher College
Exploration Architecture

More on Schumacher College:
Biomimicry Course: Learn About The Amazing Potential of Design
Schumacher College Connects Sustainability and Business Leadership

350: Bill McKibben Inspires UK Audience to Join His Campaign
More on Biomimicry:
Better By Design: A Guidebook to Biomimicry in Product Design
TreeHugger Picks: Biomimicry in Product Design
Biomimicry Lectures: Janine Benyus Down Under

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