Project Haiti courtyard
Courtesy HOK Project Haiti courtyard

When America’s economy hit crisis mode in 2008, many architecture firms had to cut staff and re-evaluate business models. But the Great Recession also became an opportunity for some forward-thinking practices to re-educate themselves. Serving sustainable needs, as the thinking went, was one strategy that could help sustain profits in a time of economic—and climate—change.

For example, just when the stock market crashed five years ago, architecture firm HOK had formed a strategic partnership with Biomimicry 3.8, a consultancy in Missoula, Mont. HOK wanted to explore how design could learn from the natural world beyond the mimicking of superficial forms.

Project Haiti systems
Courtesy HOK Project Haiti systems

One of the firm’s bio-inspired designs is Project Haiti Orphanage and Children’s Center, which replaces a structure destroyed in the 2010 earthquake. The 6,000-square-foot structure cites Haiti’s native kapok tree as the inspiration for its proposed net-zero-energy and water usage. The kapok’s heat-dispersing bark led the architects to design exterior shading that helps block walkways and vertical surfaces from direct sunlight. A below-grade water storage area and bio-digester—an anaerobic tank that processes waste biologically—mimic the kapok’s root system. While many of these measures could be ascribed to ordinary sustainable design, biology helped create a hierarchy for HOK to root design decisions in local ecosystems. Construction of the orphanage will begin once HOK, in partnership with the USGBC, completes fundraising.

Beyond the Formwork

What Project Haiti doesn’t do is boast any bold forms that visually ape nature, which is a common, oversimplified understanding of biomimicry, in part because the media gravitates to publishing these readymade images. “We look at emulation on multiple levels: form, material and systems,” explains Jamie Dwyer, a biologist and design strategist for Biomimicry 3.8 who co-authored the report Genius of Biome with HOK principal Thomas Knittel, AIA. “In some ways form is the least important.” 

Project Haiti
Courtesy HOK Project Haiti

Dwyer agrees that successful bio-inspired design isn’t always the most photogenic. “Things that are emulating processes and systems don’t make a pretty picture,” he says. Yet bio-inspired design at a systems or material level can lead to more widespread market transformation because the systems, unlike one-off designs, can be replicated.

Evolution may lay the groundwork for a host of untapped opportunities in design as well as in the development of a new generation of smart materials, says Skylar Tibbits, a designer and computer scientist who heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Architecture’s Self-Assembly Lab, which combines experts in architecture, biology, and engineering to explore transforming and adaptable building materials. “Nature evolves for super specific reasons with super specific conditions,” he says.

For example, the Self-Assembly Lab, in partnership with Atlanta engineering consultant Geosyntec, is developing programmable water pipes made with 3D printers that expand and contract to move the flow of water as needed, more efficiently than traditional pipe systems. Other researchers exploring the creation of smart materials that emulate biological processes include David Benjamin, director of the Living Architecture Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Decker Yeadon, a building design and research firm in New York.

Opportunities to Grow

Biomimicry gives architects not only opportunities to innovate, but also entrepreneurial opportunities, says Kasper Guldager Jørgensen, a partner at Copenhagen firm 3XN. “You can actually start the design process in the materials stage—asking questions about performance” and increase the potential for buildings to improve indoor quality and generate energy, he says.

Proposed Green School Stockholm by 3XN
Courtesy GXN / 3XN Proposed Green School Stockholm by 3XN

On 3XN’s forthcoming Green School Stockholm project, which seeks to integrate food production into its curriculum with vertical hydroponic farming systems, the firm has partnered with engineering giant Arup to implement a dynamic façade based on biology. The glass façade panels are embedded with a cavity of algae that provides different levels of shading depending on the time of day and amount of available sunlight. Now installed on the BIQ House project in Hamburg, the algae in the panels may be harvested and used as biofuel.

Jørgensen believes that material science is experiencing exponential growth in knowledge comparable to what the computer industry saw in the last quarter of the 20th century. He speaks excitedly about a generation of new materials from plant sources, including mushroom-based insulation and spider silk, which is several times stronger than steel on a per weight basis. “You can really capitalize on these potentials and design smarter materials and ecosystems,” he says.

Proposed interior of Green School Stockholm by 3XN
Courtesy GXN / 3XN Proposed interior of Green School Stockholm by 3XN

Yet MIT’s Tibbits believes architecture firms haven’t committed enough to research and development on exploring the opportunities, perhaps due to lingering economic uncertainties. “The reason other industries—automotive, aerospace, manufacturing—innovate is to be more profitable: to do things the others couldn’t do, to push the limits of their industry,” he says. “For architecture and construction to be afraid to innovate because of small margins, that’s the opposite mentality.”

However, Jørgensen says, through collaboration architects can still benefit from advances made in other fields. “Right now, it’s looked at as an add-on expense,” he says. “When you integrate this expertise into your team, you’re creating value with green solutions. That’s when you can make a difference.”

Are architecture firms missing an untapped market for development and opportunity? Join the debate in the comments below.