a somewhat occasional blog

‘Materials are expensive design is cheap’ – Biomimicry

‘In nature materials are expensive and design is cheap’ was one of the profound things that came out of the Radical Nature workshop I was fortunate to be involved with last week. I was joining Michael Pawlyn of Eden Project fame, at his invitation to help work through the ideas of Biomimicry adopted  in his design work for both Grimshaw’s and his own practice.

With over 30 people in the audience, the workshop consisted of a couple of presentations by Michael on biomimicry and past and present projects, a group ‘ecosystem’ game and biomimicry game.

Biomimicry is different from biomorphism, which is more to do with form and ‘looking’ like natural forms. Biomimicry sets out to mimic both the form, systems and processes in nature. To demonstrate this Michael talk us through three projects, Eden, the Rainforest Centre and Water Theatre.

Form was an important feature of the design of the Eden Project. They needed a lightweight structure and panels that let as much light into the exhibits spaces below. Pollen and the eyes of insects were the inspiration behind the domes. Using a very light weight material the architecture of the Eden Porject has become quite iconic.

Although I have been irritated and frustrated by the egos and vanities of architects, who seem to feel that their designs are more important than the function of buildings, this form provided an important function allow as much light as possible into the buildings. It was a shame that of all the buildings Michael talked about the Eden is the only one, albeit a small one, with a green roof.

What followed was really inspiring. Systems -traditional architecture deals with linear systems. However during the design competition for a new building by a landfill site in north England, Michael whilst at Grimshaws used the idea of the first carbon neutral pineapple greenhouse to come up with a truly inspiring project. Pineapples were all the range in the C17th. To grow them gardeners came up with novel ways to keep the greenhouses hot – using thick double walls filled with manure!

Therefore take the organic matter form the landfill site put it in giant double walled units [make from construction matters from the landfill site]. These biogenerators would provide the energy to keep the rainforest exhibits hot and humid.

This was also inspired by the ‘cardboard to caviar project’, where by cardboard packaging waste from a restaurant is shredded and used for bedding for horses, which is then used to produce worms, which are then fed to sturgeon. This produces caviar that the restaurants then use. A close loop system that actually produces and doesn’t waste.

The “fog-basking” beetle  taps the fog for drink. Although it is ordinarily diurnal, it emerges from the sand on foggy nights and climbs to the dune crest, where water condensation is greatest. Head lowered and posterior raised in a kind of handstand, it faces into the fog-bearing wind, to let moisture condense on its back and trickle down to its mouth-parts. This little beetle is Michael’s real hero. And this process has inspired the creation of desalination plants in dessert regions. Michael used this idea for a competition to create an inspiring building in Las Palmas – a Water Theatre. The open air theatre would have a back drop of solar panels arranged to act as a giant desalination plant – providing energy and clean water from the sea.


All this highlights how we are relative nimo’s when it comes to designing. Nature has been doing it for millions of years and we are relative newcomers. Ecosystems can be both at the building and global scale. Understanding balance and patterns not only puts us back in touch with the world but also provides a mechanism to create green buildings that actually put something back into the environment rather then merely taking.

The delegates were then asked to play a game using some ‘top trump’ cards Michael is designing. Each card featured a plant or animal. Through a process of elimination the workshop had to come up with a winner. Emperor Penguin, Resurrection Tree, Blue Imago, Mangrove tree, Fog basking beetle and the Thorny Devil were among the species. The semi final found the Emperor Penguin, the Blue Imago and the Mangrove up against it. The Blue Imago won.

Finally Michael gave an overview of his latest scheme – the Sahara Forest Project.

A great evening. Inspiring

Michael will l be doing a full lecture on this project later in the year at the Barbican.

I hope I get a free ticket.

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