All around us, organizations focused on everything from information technology to scientific research are continuously reinventing the nature of what they do.
Yet design and construction firms — those of us charged with imagining and building the environments that help the creative people in these organizations remake the world — are largely approaching the design and construction the way we have for centuries.
One could argue that the last fundamental innovation in the built environment was the mid-20th century introduction of large-scale central air conditioning. It’s time for the design and construction professionals to support our creative clients by revolutionizing the way we build our world.
An emerging approach for sustainable solutions to human challenges is to emulate nature’s time-tested phenomena, patterns and principles. This process, often referred to as biomimicry, seeks out and incorporates lessons learned over nature’s 3.8 billion years of innovation.
I believe that emulating biology will propel our profession forward. Like nature, we need resilient, zero-energy, zero-waste, regenerative environments that are aware, responsive and can learn to adapt to their occupants and surroundings.
Designers can’t do this alone. Nature is a model of inspiration and efficiency and shares lessons that provide us key design principles. Although surrounded by a resilient and regenerative natural environment, we often struggle to meaningfully implement nature’s principles into our projects and often revert to full reliance on mechanical systems. A couple of examples of applied biomimicry within our practice are NOAA’s Inouye Regional Center in Honolulu, and the adaptive reuse of the landmark San Francisco Museum at the Mint.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Honolulu is the most environmentally innovative national historic landmark in the U.S. It involves significant adaptive reuse of two historic World War II era aircraft hangars, using lessons drawn from the ecology of Hawaii. The project team used the lens of nature’s principles and resilience to create an innovative net-zero ready building that is fully reliant on available resources to provide thermal comfort, air, water and light.
For example, the morphology of native Hawaiian trees provides lessons for passive lighting and cooling systems:
Trees protect themselves from hot temperatures by pulling soil moisture through the vascular structure of the tree and out into the leaves. With moisture released as water vapor, a cooling effect is created around the tree canopy. This lesson was used as a design principle in the building: A hydronic system pulls water from deep below the sea bed into coils atop the roof of the building. There, the prevailing sea breezes pass over these cool coils and create a system of natural ventilation that drops the cooled, fresh air supply into vertical “thermal chimneys” and through a displacement system of raised floors. The result is a building that ventilates its public and private spaces using no mechanical fans and using 100 percent outside air.
In the NOAA project, daylight is driven deep into the building using specially crafted light lanterns that capture and reflect sunlight down into the space with zero use of artificial lighting. Translucent reflectors below glow like light fixtures, distributing sunlight and reflecting it back up to the ceiling. The presenters will share the tools, discovery process, and analysis used to transform and capture daylight and distribute it deep into the space.
Another relevant example of applied biomimicry is the adaptive reuse of the landmark San Francisco Museum at the Mint. HOK used nature as a model for innovation to investigate how native Bay Area plant life captures precipitation. We discovered that, to collect this water, many are covered in tiny nodules that give them more area to capture water. The design response was to create a glass canopy floating above the Old Mint’s existing open-air courtyard.
This canopy captures rainwater and moisture from the fog through a ceramic dot screen raised above its glass surface. The ceramic frits soften the daylight and provides 100 percent more surface area for moisture to collect. When the water drains off the glass, it is captured by rooftop cisterns. Together this water in combination with reuse wastewater from the building is filtered through a wetland ecology of plants and beneficial bacteria on the roof to create clean potable water for the building, resulting in a net zero water building — no consumption from the city water supply.
This type of creative problem solving, in which nature inspires true innovation, could give birth to the next renaissance in design and construction — but only if the industry professionals are willing to embrace these new collaborations.
Paul Woolford is the design principal for HOK in San Francisco. HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm celebrating 60 years of design and innovation in 2015. Through a network of 25 offices worldwide, HOK provides design excellence and innovation to create places that enrich people’s lives and help clients succeed.