Biomimicry: nature is the best engineer w/ Jamie Miller
Nature has been engineering for billions of years, so why do we think we can do better than her? Biomimicry is taking that ancient evolutionary design process and using it to build buildings and design systems. Jamie Miller is Director of Biomimicry at B+H Architects and he joins Jen to talk us through how we can go further than just minimising harm to the environment, we can have a positive impact on the natural world, if we just mimic and work with it.
Building Good is back. And this season we’re discovering the awe-inspiring innovation and radical ideas within the AEC sector that completely fascinate us.
I’m talking about simulated cities, and holograms that can plan for weather disasters, and mass migration.
I’m talking about wind power inspired by whales. And how smart Smart Cities can really be.
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I’m Jen Hancock. And this is Building Good.
Every so often, I’ll find myself in a conversation like this: someone is describing how chaotic and anxiety-inducing our world seems to be; and suddenly either myself or the person I’m talking to will take a big breath, let out a huge sigh, and say, “I just need some time in nature. I need to touch grass.”
We feel stress levels go down after spending a weekend camping, or at the beach. We Canadians flock to patios the second the sun is out after a long winter—just like turtles do, perfectly perched on a log.
Our connection to nature is innately human. We can feel it in our bones. So how do we bring nature back into our built environment? We can’t go back in time or control-Z generations of humanity’s impact on the natural world but what if, instead, nature could influence the design of our future?
Jamie Miller (preview):
We need a new model. We need a new paradigm. And biomimicry gives us one—one that’s based on time-tested solutions. It—it makes it very hopeful that we’re not that much in trouble as a species.
Biomimicry isn’t a word most people are familiar with, but Jamie Miller thinks the engineering section should add it to their lexicon. It makes sense when you unpack it: “bio,” as in nature and biology; and “mimicry,” as in to mimic or copy. It’s this idea that we can copy nature, that we can model our designs after it and create sustainable, creative, and forward-thinking solutions.
To Jamie, and to me, it’s totally fascinating.
I can pinpoint to a day. It was back in 2004. And I was in a class called Math and Poetry while studying Engineering at Queen’s University. And the professor had us walk through the Fibonacci sequence. And it was at that moment when the professor asked us to explore where we have seen that spiral before. And we realized, you know, it’s in the packaging of sunflower seeds. It’s in the spines of pine cones. It’s in the vortex when you pull the plug in your bathtub. It was this ubiquitous shape or spiral that you saw in the natural world. And—and that moment was really the time when I realized nature could teach us about design—that it was solving some of the same problems that we were trying to solve in engineering, like packaging, or transportation, or movement, or flow, or fluid dynamics.
In its simplest terms, I call it a lens that you view the world with. Janine Benyus, the woman who popularized the term “Biomimicry” in her book, she defined it as innovation that’s inspired by nature.
Jamie Miller is the Director of Biomimicry at B+H Architects. And he’s spent the majority of his professional career studying and advocating for the genius of Mother Nature.
Jamie says our cities could be like forests: a fully circular economy, and a part of nature themselves. It’s an exciting and sort of sci-fi thing to picture. But Jamie also says that if we don’t start working with nature instead of against it, nature will win.
So what does a world designed with biomimicry look like? And where do biomimicry designs even come from?
The most classic examples are velcro, which were invented in the 1940s by a man named George de Mestral, who took his frustration of those burrs that stick to your pants when you’re hiking through the woods, and he turned his frustration into fascination and just copied that hooking mechanism—to make velcro, which is one of the most successful adhesives of our time.
There’s a company in Toronto, I worked with for a bit, called WhalePower, who emulated the bumps of the humpback whale fin. And the bumps were on the leading edge of the fin. And they realized, you know, that’s an interesting place to put bumps. And they found that copying that shape actually improved efficiency by 20 per cent, and created a wind turbine blade that ran at slower wind speeds and was quieter than traditional blades.
And so biomimicry is about understanding that nature has been refining design for billions of years, and that when we adopt this lens—this biomimetic framework or frame of reference—you can see that nature could teach us all about design.
And when I look at a wall—and we explored this with our students back at OCAD University—you know, we started to unpack what a good wall in engineering was. And it’s one that is predictable, it’s stable, it’s something you don’t want to think about, it maintains a separation between environments. But if you think of a wall in nature, you might think of skin, which is porous, it’s permeable, it expands, and it sheds, it sweats.
And you start to see that when you adopt this biomimetic lens, the language you use is different about how to design and what—what design functions you’re trying to achieve. So it allows a much more imaginative creative space to explore design solutions.
Some of the examples, like they to some extent seem like a bit of a stretch to connect. Like how does the wind turbine designer connect, like, a whale fin? How did people do that? How did designers—did they have to go and do a bunch of research with nature and science and find examples? I would just be curious about your take on that.
There are biomimicry methodologies out there but I feel like, as a species, we’re still just scrambling to figure out how to do it. The most effective way I find it to be done is to identify the function: what is it that you want your design to do.
In the turbine blade example, it’s like you want to cut through the wind more efficiently, or you want to cut through a fluid more efficiently. And then you can say, “Well, where in the natural world is that function achieved?” And you can think of wings. You can think of like owl feathers, which are silent. You can think of humpback whale fins.
So when you identify the function, that function becomes the bridge between the design problem and the natural inspiration. You just ask simply, “How does nature do that function? How does nature achieve that?”
Very interesting. So do you actually see a design world where we have scientists as part of the team helping to bridge that gap between design problems and how nature is solving them currently?
Yeah, absolutely. And we’re seeing it more and more. Janine Benyus again, she calls it biologists at the design table. If we keep trying to iterate on old ideas, we’re not going to solve the wicked problems that we’re facing today. In resilience literature they call today’s problems “wicked” problems because they have no precedent for how to solve them. And so you have to adopt a broader kind of lens or perspective for your solutions.
And that’s what biomimicry does. It invites us to step outside this house of technology that we’ve created, to realize that nature has been refining designs and could inform our designs, and ultimately nature could be our model and our mentor for really creative solutions.
Biomimicry is best achieved with a real diversity of perspectives. So not just scientists; not just biologists. But having, you know, such a weird diverse range of people coming in to the design table, or coming to the solution, really gives you that breadth of—of perspectives that opens up the conversation and….
And it doesn’t even have to be biologists. I—I tell my students and people I work with that you don’t have to have a biology degree to do biomimicry. I dropped out of biology because I hated it. But everyone has, you know, a story of the natural world.
And not only that, it’s from your perspective. It actually creates much more creativity when you look at it through your own lens. So as an engineer, I look at nature in a very specific way. I have my own bias. And it allows me to unpack that biology from that bias. Whereas a dancer might look at organisms totally differently. And an economist will look at a forest differently.
And it’s each of those lens that give this—this richness to the story. And as we pull out that richness, as we have that conversation with nature, we can start to see how does that—or how that could be applied to our design solutions as well.
Right. And biomimicry is not a new—it may be a new word but it’s not a new concept.
Yeah. I’m glad you brought that up. It’s a relatively new term for a very old idea. In fact, one of, umm, my good friends—an indigenous Elder, who we’ve worked with and was the original, umm, advisor on my board—when I told her what I did, she said, “Well, Jamie, we’ve been doing biomimicry for thousands of years.” For me, personally, that’s—that’s what I find really exciting about this—this concept is that it’s opened up a new relationship with the natural world.
And it’s really having me question the biases, the paradigm that I’ve been using for the majority of my life. And it makes me question the paradigm that we, as a collective species, are using to design and develop. And—and that’s really what I’m interested in, is how do you shift that mindset of a collective? How do you get them to start to adopt a biomimicry frame of reference?
I think why it’s so valuable now is because we’re being faced with challenges, like I said, that have no precedent, so we need a new model, we need a new paradigm. And biomimicry gives us one—one that’s based on time-tested solutions. It—it makes it very hopeful that we’re not that much in trouble as a species.
Where do you see biomimicry already in play, if at all, in design of buildings right now?
Where it’s getting exciting is the deeper levels of biomimicry, which is emulating process or emulating systems. So not just copying how nature looks but actually how nature behaves and how it fits into a larger system.
So if I just point to process, for example, we’re seeing emergent technologies, like 3D/4D printing, or additive manufacturing, or computational architecture, where we’re starting to use information to build more efficient buildings. And we’re allowing information to inspire more efficient processes.
There’s also, you know, at a systems level, what we’re—we’re trying to do is—is see how our buildings could become a contribution to their place. So one thing we’re doing is we’re measuring ecologic performance of our buildings and seeing does our building contribute more ecological services than it did before the building was there. Are we actually becoming a contribution? And so that systems level biomimicry is where we’re incorporating these principles from nature to build a system that works with the larger system, works with the larger environment.
I could talk about circularity. That’s a biomimetic principle. There’s no such thing as waste in nature, and so how our buildings can create circular economies. Using benign materials, benign manufacturing.
There’s concrete that emulates coral reefs. And so, coral actually absorbs carbon in its manufacturing, whereas our traditional concrete emits carbon.
There’s windows that we implemented in Toronto in a building that emulated spider silk. And spider silk is interesting because it reflects ultraviolet light. And humans can’t see the ultraviolet light but birds can. And so when a bird is flying through the forest, it’ll avoid the spider web. And so this company made a window that has this striation—this pattern on it—that birds will see because it’s reflecting ultraviolet light.
Would avoid strikes. Cool.
Yeah. And so it’s—it’s been shown to reduce bird collisions by 70 per cent.
Hmm. Interesting. One of the other form-based ones that I’ve heard you speak about before. So. it’s in simplest form, and one of the actually older examples, would be igloo—use of igloos, and Inuit people using igloos. That’s—that’s a prime example of a basic kind of form-based biomimicry. Yeah?
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, the other example that I’ve—I’ve used is, you know, copying Arctic Hare feet to make snowshoes. So the Inuit were looking to the local genius to figure out how do you survive in this harsh condition.
And then process-based, what’s a—a simple example of something we can see on the building side right now, where we’ve sort of mimicked a process in nature and we’ve kind of seen that on the building side?
So, there’s a—a building called The Eastgate Building, in Harare, Zimbabwe. And they learned how to copy the way that termite mounds will effectively use wind patterns, and passive cooling, and the tunnel, the stack effect, to passively cool their building. And ah, Mick Pearce, the architect, copied that to make a building that was using 10 per cent of the energy of a building of that size in that location. And so that is an example of process-based. It’s how do you leverage free energy, and how do you create forms that exploit that free energy?
And we’re see a lot of that now with passive design. Passive house, you know, you could say that that’s a biomimetic framework, because nature is constantly using and leveraging the free cycles of the environment.
Do you think people lack an understanding and connection to existing design in a world around us? So velcro: I would guess most people don’t actually know that that came from burrs. Is there a way we need to connect people with the design choices? I would assume that’s like it’s a marketing problem, right now, a little bit.
This is what’s exciting is that biomimicry invites us into a conversation with nature. And so I love telling stories, because in the same way it happened for me. When I learned about biomimicry technologies, when I learned about the Fibonacci sequence, I started to see nature in a new way. I started to see it not as something to take from but actually something that could teach us.
Nature is much more effective left living rather than cutting it down and using it as a resource, and as lumber, or chopping it down to make way for engineered systems. Biomimicry, you know, really inspires us to—to see that nature could teach us a lot about how to thrive on this planet.
And like I say (laughs a little), you know, a lot of people are talking about saving nature. It’s like: nature was fine without us, and it will be fine without us if we leave. So it’s not about saving nature; it’s about recognizing its genius so that we can save ourselves.
Do you think that building codes and requirements put constraints on us thinking with the nature-based and biomimicry design lens?
A little bit. So, the codes allow us to maintain predictability. It allows us to ensure that we create safe environments. And I understand the inspiration behind that; I understand why we do it. But when you have top-down governance like that, it does kind of restrict creative freedom. Some of the principles of nature is, if you think about it, everything grows from the bottom up. It self-organizes. It emerges based on its local context. And so it’s much more contextual than top-down driven. You know, there’s no building code in nature. Every system, or every organism, has the opportunity to creatively and freely adapt and evolve.
And so there’s this kind of challenge between an engineering paradigm—which is about, you know, resisting controlled predictability—and the natural paradigm—which is about emergence, creativity, freedom, and semi-autonomy. But I find it to be, you know, invigorating, because we just have to be creative. We just have to learn how to communicate with each other. It forces us to problem-solve. It forces us to work with the code to figure out how you can creatively move within it, and around it, or how you can evolve it. So, to me, it—it’s a barrier but I don’t see it as—as that disruptive as a barrier as maybe others might.
What we’re playing with on an experimental level is: what if your buildings were designed to fail? It’s interesting because that, from an engineering paradigm, is like, “Well, no. We design for fail-safe.” But nature is more safe-fail. It’s, you know, the failure is the evolution. The failure is the important part of change.
And so we’ve done experimental designs and—and design competitions where we wanted our building to fail. And—and what I mean by fail is to degrade in certain areas and in certain circumstances, to allow evolution. And that’s, I think, might be tricky for some listeners to understand. It’s like, “You want a building, you know, a 20-storey building, to fail?”
And it’s like maybe not fail in the traditional sense, but what if—what if the façade could shed? What if it could change over seasons? And again that might trigger a thought in your mind, “Well, I don’t want failing, I don’t want shedding, I don’t want more waste.” But waste is a human concept. Like I said, there’s no waste in nature.
So what if the skin of a building was benign; what if it was manufactured using green chemistry and where it actually contributed to the soil or to the—the system around it? But what’s amazing is that there are technologies that are making this real—so that what I’m saying right now is not far off. And I believe this kind of building will happen in my lifetime, where it can shed, it can fail, it can expand, and it can contribute to its environment.
Like I said, this isn’t far off. We can’t design long-term the way that we’re doing it, because it’s unsustainable.
We’ll be right back.
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One of our biggest challenges is we have so much existing building stock. Where do we go with building retrofits and biomimicry?
Yeah, this is a great question, and a great challenge. And I don’t have a good answer for it. We have this existing infrastructure and so how do we evolve it? It could be through small-scale technologies.
You know, there’s a company called Encycle that uses swarm logic to connect all of the mechanical and electrical devices in a building. And it uses bees as inspiration to inspire better communication amongst those technologies, so that one will shut off, one will turn on; they’re more responsive. And, you know, it’s saves—they say they save 20 per cent on electricity—on electricity charges.
So at a very small scale we can implement new technologies to adapt these buildings. But the structure of them, like the roots or the bones of them, they’re harder to move, and they’re harder to adapt, and they’re harder to change.
But the way I see it, it’s like a volcanic island. You know, you have this rooted structure. You have these rocks, I’d call them. And what would nature do? Nature would create a succession—this ecological succession where nature would slowly take over. And so my mindset is like, “Okay. How do we use this—these robust cities, the infrastructure in the city, how do you use that as the biomass, the bedrock for a new ecosystem to emerge?”
And so you could take that metaphorically or you could take it literally. It’s like how do you plant more life on these—these structures? Or how do you plant pilot projects, or inspiring technologies, that have people think about buildings and the way they behave in different ways.
And so that’s how I imagine it. It’s really about evolution and it’s using ecological succession as a model of small-scale changes that—that lead to an environment—a built environment that really blurs the boundaries between nature and engineering, and nature and design.
Right. Do you sort of, in your day-to-day, pragmatic, someone wants to build a building, do you have people say, “Oh, biomimicry sounds great but it also sounds expensive and difficult to do”?
Yeah, it is common. And it’s okay. Because again I think that’s my job is to prove that it’s cost-effective. I deal with it in multiple ways.
I look at different time scales. So, for example, when we do master planning, we’ll design in a way that’s harmonious with the natural landscape that we’re designing into. And by doing so, we prove greater resiliency. So it—it’s expensive to fight nature; and so if we can showcase strategies that we’ve created that will save money down the road, people are like, “Okay. I got that.”
To give you a practical example, there’s a project in Alberta we’re working on where we helped locate a specific building and part of their infrastructure to avoid overland flows, and major rain events would eventually cause flooding. And actually, one of their buildings that—that was already built before we got there was experiencing that flooding. So we were able to save them a lot of money from that risk management from that potential flood.
Another example, at a more architectural scale, is we learned from elephants and the way that their—the cracks in elephants’ skin capture moisture and is a part of their passive cooling strategy. We took that metaphor and we ideated a solution which is a very simple façade structure that uses rocks, like rock piles, and is hooked up to the rain-harvesting system so that the—the rainwater can trickle over those rocks, get trapped in the cracks of the rocks—just like the elephant skin, offering the same function—and will allow the hot air to be passively pulled from the building through evaporation, evapotranspiration. And in that case, the design would cost such minimal amount of dollars.
So my answer is: if you do it right, biomimicry will be much less expensive than traditional engineering, both in the short term and in the long term. But the challenge is to find those creative solutions, and to leverage existing technologies to make—to make it real. That’s fun to me.
So elephant skin and the façade of that building—how someone came up with that means that you need to understand how an elephant generally cools itself and functions and how their skin works in the real world, to translate that idea. And maybe that’s a bit more of an example, too, of that contextual. Like you’re taking something that might be a bit more local, like, and how an animal or an organism has adapted in that local environment and bringing that into the, like, design space, and then actual building space.
Exactly. And I’ll tell you our process. Well, we talked to the landowner, and we studied the context, and we identified two or three key challenges that this design will have to have—achieve.
One is: how do you cool in this space? How do you capture water? So there’s major monsoon seasons and then periods of an intense drought. So how do you capture water and then maintain it for 100 days of drought?
These are the design challenges that we started with. And then we went to the local genius, because if you want to know how to design in-site or in-context or in situ is you go to the organisms that do it every day, or have been doing it for centuries or even millenia.
And that’s where we look to the elephant. And, like I said, I don’t know biology. I didn’t know anything about elephant skin before this process. But we did a quick design charrette, and we unpacked an elephant skin as a passive cooling inspiration and came up with this idea. It wasn’t dependent on a knowledge of biology, or knowledge of the organisms; it was more about exploring biology through a specific functional strategy that we’re trying to achieve.
I’ve always thought that the challenges of the design and construction world is the variability and the uniqueness. So every time we work on a project, there’s all these different variables: whether it’s site conditions, different sets of plans, materials. It’s interesting now listening to you talk about biomimicry because now you’re throwing a different lens in there which is much better for the building and, you know, whoever is going to inhabit it after, and the environment around it, but it also just adds this other variable where you have to factor in this like uniqueness.
Yeah. It’s a mental, like drain. It’s a mental exercise to really think outside the box, or to think from this paradigm. Because it does challenge a lot of the status quo. And, like I mentioned earlier, our brains are hardwired to be efficient. They’re hardwired to be simple—like to work in simplified environments. It’s our brain uses so much energy, that’s why we like to simplify things. And so adding complexity is—is annoying (laughs a little) and energy-intensive but, I mean, if—if we’re all committed to the purpose of, you know, really translating, ah, into a sustainable species, like this is the kind of thinking that we’ve got to put the energy into.
You mentioned that buildings, instead of them just being maybe like neutral or less harmful, that they should be more restorative, and fit it, and may—there’s a bit more of that systems idea of having cities be more like forests where they’re a bit more circular. Can you talk a little bit about how do you encourage people to think about buildings being more restorative versus just like being less harmful?
Yeah. Well, in all of our projects that’s the mentality, is we’re not trying to do less harm. And I don’t like that term because it—it implies that humans are just a bad species, that everything we do is destructive.
There’s great research coming out that shows indigenous populations that contributed to their ecosystems, that were active participants, resulted in healthier, more diverse ecosystems a hundred years later. And they’re more diverse and healthier than an ecosystem, for example, that had no human interaction.
The other idea is like our breath feeds trees, our bodies feed soil. We are nature. We have to see humans as a part of nature. And as a contributing part. And so what we’re trying to do in our projects is to prove that—to show that our designs can be contributions. And we do that by measuring ecological performance before we do a design. So if a—if the site is just a greenfield beautiful forest, we’ll measure what that forest is doing. And then we’ll measure afterwards. Do our buildings contribute to carbon sequestration more than what was there? Are we capturing more water? Dissipating more storm events? Producing more oxygen?
So we’ll measure the ecological performance to try and show that we’re a contributing species—that our designs are actually supporting more ecological diversity or more ecological services.
And we’re even looking at the economic—the economics of—of ecological services. You know, we know that nature provides a ton of free services for us, incredible amounts. And I don’t know the stats offhand but it’s billions and trillions of dollars in America alone that it would cost to try and replace ecological services with engineered infrastructure.
So like the carbon sequestration—this idea that we need to build carbon sequestration technologies kind of makes me scratch my head, because plant a couple trees, it’s the most effective carbon sequestration tool.
Or support more ecological diversity, even for storm events. You know, nature is designed to dissipate storm events. You think of a raindrop falling from the sky hits, you know, a bunch of leaves to dissipate that energy before it hits the ground, and—and allows that water to be spread apart and—and permeate, and head into the aquifer.
So there’s—there’s just a frame of reference and seeing nature in this different way that is, I think, really important for us to evolve as a species.
Thanks for checking out this episode of Building Good. If you found inspiration here, please be sure to tell a friend about the show. And make sure you’re subscribed on your favourite podcast app, because we have so much more in store this season.
Building Good is a Vocal Fry Studios production, supported by Chandos Construction and Bird Construction. The executive producer is Jay Cockburn. Our producer is Kattie Laur, with production assistance from Jessica Loughlin. I’m Jen Hancock, thanks for listening.