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Ideas by Nature

Biomimicry looks to 3.8 billion years of evolution for solutions to human problems.

By Wendee Holtcamp

A group of Houston architects gathered at the American Institute of Architects biomimicry workshop were given a challenge: design a home capable of surviving a Class 4 hurricane that is both affordable and harmonized with its environment. This may have seemed a tough task even for today's savvy designers, but there was an additional caveat. Instead of relying on human innovations and technologies, the group had to look first at how living organisms that live in windy and flood- and hurricane-prone habitats have solved these same problems.

"Biomimicry is purposely going out in the natural world and looking for models and adapting them to human needs, as opposed to coming up with an idea that is based on things we already know and then retrofitting it in the natural world," explains Rose Tocke, a biologist with the Biomimicry Guild, the Montana-based consultancy facilitating the AIA workshop.

Mussels use waterproof, air-tight seals to close up their shells during twice daily inundation. Coastal live oaks' domed shapes allow them to withstand intense winds. And a seven-layered silica skeleton allows glass sea sponges to survive the extreme pressure under deep seas. How can nature's 3.8 billion years of evolution be used to solve a design dilemma?

Such challenges comprise the daily work of the Biomimicry Guild, co-founded by biologists Dayna Baumeister and Janine Benyus, author of the 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus didn't invent the field, but she did coin the term biomimicry, "the conscious emulation of life's genius." Her book reviewed cases where scientists and innovators had modeled products and technologies after nature's innovations. Examples include a bat-inspired sonar cane for the blind and Velcro, which was invented after studying how burr seeds get caught in people's clothing. Biomimicry has even been extended to larger-scale processes. In eco-industrial parks, modeled after the ultra-efficiency of an ecosystem, the output of one manufacturing process gets used by another. Ideally, nothing gets wasted. Two such parks even exist in Texas – a zero-emission park in Midlothian and a prototype being developed for Brownsville.

"Humbling are the hordes of organisms casually performing feats we can only dream about," Benyus ponders in her book. "Bioluminescent algae splash chemicals together to light their body lanterns. Arctic fish and frogs freeze solid and then spring back to life, having protected their organs from ice damage. Black bears hibernate all winter without poisoning themselves on urea. How do they do it?"

The guild, whose clients range from Nike to NASA, urge innovators to move beyond shallow biomimicry – merely copying nature's forms – and to delve into deep biomimicry, which also imitates nature's sustainability. She contrasts how we make tough Kevlar (using high energy and pressures and ending up with toxic byproducts) with spider silk. Using insects as their input, spiders create a product that is, ounce for ounce, five times tougher than Kevlar without any toxic byproducts.

The architects at the workshop sketched prototypes ranging from a sculptable house made from sand and an organic adhesive to a domed home lifted above the water on stilts like mangroves. These were merely exercises, but scientists and companies around the world are taking up similar challenges to find practical solutions to meet the challenges of human survival in a changing world.

Colleagues from the guild and their partner, the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute, teach around the globe about how biomimicry can lead the way to a sustainable society – meeting present needs without compromising the needs of future generations.

In 2007, 10 years after the publication of her book, Time honored Benyus as one of their "International Heroes of the Environment."

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