By Kiley Jacques
Biologist and author Janine Benyus shares sustainable, nature-inspired solutions to some of the challenges facing today’s green building professionals.
Were it not for biologist Janine Benyus’s keen interest in nature’s systems, the term “biomimicry” may not have been coined. Defined as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies,” biomimicry can be applied to any number of situations in the fields of science, architecture, and engineering.
Janine Benyus, biologist, author, and founder of consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8.
A natural history writer, Benyus has published multiple books about the ways in which plants and animals adapt to their habitats. These “ecosystem-first” field guides are intended to help people find nature-inspired solutions to challenges facing the green building industry and beyond. “That adaptation to place always has to do with these amazing technologies,” explains Benyus, citing examples that include UV-resistant animals living in high altitudes and thriving with thin air; and those living at the bottom of the ocean, withstanding enormous pressure. It is their ability not only to survive extreme conditions that fascinates her, but also their ability to enhance their environment—perhaps by making the soil more fertile or the water and/or air cleaner. Benyus describes the phenomena as “nature creating conditions conducive to life.”
Noting these adaptive characteristics, Benyus wanted to know whether or not all organisms have such “technologies.” She began thinking in terms of physics, chemistry, and “ecosystem strategies.” Being a researcher, she collected volumes of scientific studies pertaining to this idea of emulating nature for the sake of innovation. Her findings revealed that there was no name for the notion. And so, in 1990, the term “biomimicry” was born, as was another book by Benyus.
The book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature received some unexpected attention. Architects and urban planners began calling. “I really had no idea that the design community would pick up on the idea,” she recalls. (Incidentally, the book did not include an intended chapter on architecture, which she omitted for space.) Yet the first person to contact her was Jane Jacobs, the writer and activist whose work revolutionized the way urban planners think about the built environment. “Architects read outside of their field,” notes Benyus, adding that their understanding of the Fibonacci sequence makes them sensitive to the natural world.
Next came sustainability champion and founder of BNIM Bob Berkebile, and before long, Benyus found herself giving a talk at an American Institute of Architects (AIA) conference in Toronto hosted by Jacobs. “The architectural committee was very excited about the possibilities inherent in the idea,” says Benyus. Soon after, large corporations like Boeing, General Electric, Herman Miller, Nike, and Interface started inviting biologists to their design tables.
The buzz led to Benyus’s founding her consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8. She and her team started working with inventors on things like desalination. “We would tell them how mangroves work, or how the nasal glands of seabirds work to take salt out of water, and how kidneys work to do the same. And then we would help them translate that into new products,” explains Benyus.
Examples of biomimicry at work in the built environment include bone-inspired lightweighting of structural beams, based on the work of Jeff Brennan. Benyus explains: Bones are constantly forming and reforming throughout a given life span according to lines of stress, to which they react by removing mineral from elsewhere to support areas of weakness. Brennan’s OptiStruct software—found in computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs—assesses solid beams in terms of how much stress they need to handle, then removes mass where it isn’t needed. The beams end up looking like bony structures. “Lightweighting has incredibly high sustainability potential,” remarks Benyus, “because less material is used.”
Another application: self-cleaning façade paint inspired by the lotus leaf. Lotusan paint—widely used in Europe—mimics the leaf’s bumpy structure, which causes water molecules to ball up; as they roll off, they pick up loose dirt on the surface. It is an excellent alternative to sandblasting.
Designers are also starting to use “structural color,” which replaces potentially toxic pigments with structural properties. The study of peacock feathers has revealed a lack of pigment; in truth, they are straight brown. The colors seen by the human eye are created when layers of keratin, which is transparent, allow light through and then bounce it back, amplifying, say, the color blue. Move a few millimeters over and the structure changes, resulting in the color yellow. A few more millimeters in another direction and yet another color appears. This kind of coloring is four times brighter than pigment. Paints containing mica chips—in lieu of pigment—mimic the finding.
Consider, too, imitating marshlands to treat wastewater, resulting in what Benyus calls the “whole living machine,” comprising different genomes of bacteria, crustaceans, plants, and animals that are cleaning water in a series of tanks, “basically mimicking the entire ecosystem.”
Benyus and her cadre devised the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge, sponsored by the Anderson Foundation, as an opportunity for professionals of all types to go through a biomimicry training that includes an intensive, seven-week MBA program. Contestants create small businesses with the goal of addressing real-world problems; this year’s theme is global warming. “I believe that climate change is the biggest thing that we have to get right,” says Benyus. “And the built world contributes so much CO2.” As a biologist, she sees carbon dioxide as a building block. “It has always occurred to me that we are missing a grand opportunity,” she says, noting the way in which plants sequester CO2, and how that process can be applied to the built environment by turning CO2 into sugars and starches, which are essentially long-chain polymers, that is, plastics.
California-based New Light Technologies is now using CO2 as well as methane—another greenhouse gas—as food stock to make plastics. Benyus marvels at the possibilities inherent in carbon-sequestering plastic products. Ikea is jumping on the bandwagon; they have signed a contract to make all of their products out of methane. And The Body Shop is planning to use it for packaging. “This is really starting to happen,” enthuses Benyus.
Asked which biomimetic solution has impressed her most, Benyus cites the mimicking of coral reefs to make a concrete-like material. Reefs (and the shells of crustaceans) form when CO2, calcium, magnesium, and carbonate are dissolved. “There is a recipe . . . very similar to concrete—the most widely used building material on the planet.” Biomineralization expert Brent Constantz’s company, Blue Planet, makes carbon-negative concrete by taking CO2 from smoke stacks, running it through saltwater containing all of the minerals used in the making of coral reefs, and precipitating out the raw materials for concrete. “People should be thinking about all of the materials that go into a built environment that emit carbon dioxide to see whether or not there’s a way in which to sequester it,” says Benyus, who sees sidewalks, roads, and entire cities built of CO2-sequestering concrete.
But biomimicry goes beyond the individual technologies. Benyus wonders what a biomimetic city would look like. “If biomimicry is about function,” she notes, “then a city should function like an ecosystem.” She advocates for “ecological performance standards”—metrics for tracking ecosystem services, meaning, environmental benefits. Pollination, for example, is an ecosystem service for which a building with a green roof might receive credit. “We call it a generosity score,” she explains. “How many ecosystem services is the building producing? It’s ‘generous’ by giving away these services.”
Today, biomimicry has burgeoned into a field for which a master’s degree program is now available at Arizona State University, as is training through the Biomimicry Institute, a nonprofit founded in 2006 by Benyus and Bryony Schwan. Online resources include asknature.org, a deep pool of cutting-edge biomimetic applications.
Benyus’s mission is to accumulate performance-based data to determine a building’s functionality as an ecosystem. With that information, comparisons can be made between buildings, between developments, and between cities. Those findings, she believes, will lead to the production of more ecosystem services, which, in turn, will result in sustainable, resilient design on a global scale. “The goal is to build cities that are functionally indistinguishable from the wildlife around them. That’s true biomimicry.”