Category Archives: Biomimicry

Austere Gardens

I received a little gem of a book from Oro Editions entitled Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint, & Attending.  Written by Marc Treib, the book (at a slim and image-heavy 100 pages) is a meditation of a sort.  Having been immersed in some much heavier reading recently, I sat down and absorbed (reveled in?) this book in one sitting, and it was a breath of fresh air in contrast to much more academic writing.

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The word garden means implies form-making, so Treib contrasts the Edenic model, which aims “… to surpass our given environment in abundance and delight,” in contrast to that of simple “…landscapes of reduction and compression,” (10) which embody the idea of the Austere.

From the publisher’s website, a bit of the background:

The word “austere,” as used in this essay, does not imply asceticism, but merely modesty and restraint. Austere landscapes may first appear devoid of interest if noticed at all. To those who do not look beyond their surfaces, these sites, and the world outside them, usually appear plain and uninteresting, or even lacking of the very properties by which we define a garden. But there are sensual, aesthetic, and even philosophical, pleasures to be gained from these seemingly dull fields should we attempt to appreciate them. These qualities, normally associated with abundance and complexity, may be found in a different way, and at a different level, in austere terrain.

Many of the examples used in the book come not from traditional landscape architecture, where formal quality is typically the main driver, but from environmental artists like Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Robert Irwin, and others.   The idea here is that austerity can emerge from both the unplanned, what Treib refers to as Traces, “the marks of human existence and its activities… result from wear, removal, and erosion.” (22) Artists use subtle clues but add the concept of Intent, or “considered action.” (24)

Using the example of Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking where he “walked back and forth in a meadow until he had trampled a recognizable line in the grass…” with the intent to “…produce a trace to be apprehended aesthetically.” (24)

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::  image via Richard Long

Another example is Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field – seen below, which is the culmination of a long passage in the book that explores the idea of geometric patterning, constructed compositions such as grids, bands, figural fields – popularized by Peter Walker and inspired by the work of minimalist artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd.  The simplicity of Walkers work can be considered austere in a way, “landscapes appear primarily in lines, extruded vertically as places that define spaces or trace streaks across the terrain.  In their repetition they create visual rhythms, playing the individual element against the repetition of the field as an entirety.” (80)
This is one of the few times in the book where actual works of landscape architecture are discussed, owing to the fact that much work in the field is not ‘austere’ but more garden-like, perhaps?

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:: image via PWPLA

The result is described by Treib through the example of Edmund Burke’s “artificial sublime”, where he “suggested that a man-made creation of sufficient length and repetition might induce a similar effect…”  to that of the true sublime.  In De Maria’s work, this repetition is present but less distinct (perhaps due to the size and space in the landscape), where the steel poles “…fade into the landscape as the light changes or with any shifting in viewing position. The promenade through the field and the awareness of subtle changes in the surface, skies and the distance mesas equal in significance the precision of the stainless steel forest arranged mathematically.” (80)

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The idea of the connection of simple moves on the landscape that have been installed for functional reasons, such as hedgerows (and example from Jutland, Denmark below) which “make evident what to many had been only latent, with the rows of trees demarking the contours of the land.” (29) This hints at a powerful opportunity to mark space, as well as controlling wind and sunlight, that could be employed at large and small scales using very simple means.

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The influence of Japanese gardens, particularly the spare minimalism of the form and it’s simple palette, seen in Saiho-ji garden in Kyoto, the banner image above and repeated below.  For Treib, “Austerity does not always connote deprivation, however, but is user here to suggest a restriction in means.  Richness within austerity is a hallmark of Japanese visual culture, and pairing the words ‘austere’ and ‘beauty’ is no anomaly within its aesthetic thinking…”  He continues, “Austerity her lies in the acceptance – or adoption, if consciously made – of few prevailing materials, or even only one: in this case moss.  It also requires restraint. By restricting the palette to water, trees, and moss, one becomes more aware of each constituent element.” (17)

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A different Japanese form is the torii, or a gate without a fence, where it serves as a place-marker.  “Although one may physically pass through it, the gateway functions more as a sign and a mental stimulus… Figures like the torii gain presence from their contrast with the surroundings.” (46)

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Plenty more examples abound in the text, many that were new to me.  The simple tools of observation such as Trace, and the intervention using Intent, provides some interesting ways of looking at design in a new way.   Simple rules of Addition and Subtraction (Figure and Void) can be employed artistically in environmental art, but also give us opportunities to incorporate into more function-driven works on landscape architecture. The clues in the landscape (the ordinary and the functional) that are not explicity trying to capture the Eden-like garden of transcendence, but rather look to ways of making relevant austere spaces.

It’s interesting to note that, although often simple, it’s not just about removal (of materials, ornament, etc.) as Treib mentions was a possible flaw of modernist architecture where “simplicity was commonly achieved by elimination… what is experience close in is rarely greater that what can be seen at a distance.” Instead positing that: “Compression, in contrast to reduction, brings into seemingly simple surfaces and spaces constellations of details revealed only through movement and over time.” (63)

This can happen with erosion, patina, as well as playing on seasonality and light, even with few elements, as long as they are employed with the goals of experiential quality in mind.

It’s heartening to see a simple (austere) work that is so full of inspirations.  I’ve always been drawn to work of environmental artists, and this has reinforced the idea that there is much for designers to learn from to enliven their work.  The ordinary and functional landscapes also provide inspiration not just in development of contextual design, but in how they provide form and manipulate space and microclimate.

There’s also the biophilic and the concepts of inspirations of nature through biomimicry, which Treib mentions comes with an “economy of means”, with beehives, spider webs, birds nests and termite mounds representing “the transformation of minimal materials into an efficient and functional configuration.  Maximizing the minimal.” (91)

The book is a no-brainer, easy to access and inspiring on multiple levels. It will not make you work but will make you think.  About design.  About inspiration.  About purpose and what he calls Attending, or “in what way do we view, process, and evaluate what is before us?” (94)  As we focus on environmental sustainability as a means and an ends, Treib’s final words perhaps gives the reason to engage in the book: “Following the directives of environmental responsibility provides only the basis for our designs; an appreciation of the austere landscape can direct its making and enrich our experience of the garden that results.” (100)

All images via Oro Editions unless otherwise noted.

Marc Treib is a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, a practicing graphic designer, and a noted historian and critic of landscape and architecture. He has been published widely on modern and historical subjects in the United States, Japan, and Scandinavia. 

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Treescrapers

A recent post from CityLab delves into an on-going.  Entitled ‘Are ‘Treescrapers the Future of Dense Urban Living?’, explores the concept beyond the fantastical and thinks about this type of work in terms of reality and the more pragamatic elements.  Weird Dune references about Passive House designers (?) aside, having some critical evaluation the points that were brought up by the architect in the story are valid.

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Tour des Cèdres, Lausanne, Switzerland. (Boeri Studio) – via CItyLab

I do think that the focus of the comments maybe relied a bit too much on the particular type of work (i.e. hyper efficient building envelope).  If you see everything through the lens of Passive House, and energy envelopes and embodied energy for structural upgrades, you may miss the trees and the forest.

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Bosco Verticale – via CityLab

Admittedly, I am both a supporter and critic of the idea, which I’ve been referring to as Vegitecture (not Treescraping, for hopefully obvious reasons) for some time now.  Beyond being an aesthetic choice which has strong biophilic connections, there’s ecological and even, yes, energy considerations with integrating vegetation into buildings.  It’s definitely a key strategy for a less building centric idea of passive heating and cooling, which has to me has always included vegetation surrounding structures as part of the equation – using evergreen vegetation to block colder winter winds and shade for cooling and deciduous to provide summer shading and opening up during winter for additional heating/sun after leaf drop.  That diagram I think i first say in first year intro to landscape architecture.

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Of course everything comes at a cost, so an accounting of cost to benefit is necessary, but that cost also much include other items in the ledger, like health benefits of access to nature, additional passive cooling and heating benefits that could be integrated with exterior and interior system integration.  The opportunity is to make these projects work and think of new ways to better integrate them into the buildings in artful and functional ways.

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One Central Park, by Jean Nouvel with Patrick Blanc (Sydney, Australia)

I’ve discussed typologies before, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the types, from building integrated living walls above, to terrace planters, roofs decks, more traditional green roofs, and much more.  The possibilities in photoshop, alas, are endless.  But in reality, there are some additional considerations, all of which should be taken into account.  Some more images of green on buildings – nothing new here on this blog.  More at the original post on CityLab as well

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Vijayawada Garden Tower, by Penda Architecture and Design (Vijayawada, India)
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The Diamond Lotus, by Vo Trong Nghia Architects (Ho Chi Minh City)

And these definitely trend towards the fantastic, which is part of the reconciliation between what can actually work and what looks cool in a rendering.  So, yes, that involves messy practicalities the additional structural loading, and how to incorporate thermal breaks, and many others like how to maintain vegetation, how to irrigation, issues of wind uplift, leaf litter, structural capacity, and many more.  Great discussions, and necessary ones, as we grow and evolve the concept.

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Asian Cairns, by Vincent Callebaut (Shenzhen)

 

Bioclimatic Design

bioclimatic-design-feature3Good article in the USGBC+ magazine related to Bioclimatic Design and some projects that focus on the integration of vernacular strategies (and forms) to increase responsiveness to the local environment in which they are built.  This is nothing new for many designers, and builds upon centuries of knowledge, but I’m mostly interested in how it incorporates landscape and buildings in inventive new (old) ways.

The ability to transcend climate came with “…the advent of modern technology in the 20th century, contemporary design trends shifted away from being responsive to natural conditions and emphasized instead isolating buildings from nature to try to overcome those conditions.”  As mentioned, this opened up new frontiers for where we could live, but also lead to homogenization and reliance on heating and air conditioning (or maybe even overbuilding in climates ill-suited for development).   That said, bioclimatic design can include both the vernacular as well as rely on significant technological knowledge to realize – through modelling and other modern design tools.

bioclimatic-design-feature5-300The grass covered roof is a simple and archetypal form of the landscape and building integration – used for cooling and made from locally available, regenerative materials.  Plus, goats for roof maintenance is pretty sustainable.   This pre-cursor to the modern green roof was borne of necessity, but also perhaps can also aid in resilience and climate adaptive building strategies that start to creep into the vocabulary of designers – through the guises of biomimicry and biophilia.  Both work hand in hand as there are inspirations from nature revealed in design, and the planet, as well as building/city users benefit in multiple ways.   It’s a full circle of building based on our innate traditions beginning to feed our innate need for access to this nature.

A really stunning example of the process ( Autorité de Régulation de la Poste et des Télécommunications by Mario Cucinella Architects) is outlined in the article so i won’t go into detail, but has a subtle integration of landscape with building form.

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The shape of the building is scooped to capture cooling winds, but the indigenous shape has additional benefit:

 “Another influence on the shape of the building was a desert structure used in antiquity in many arid parts of the world, called a tu’rat, Bruno says. These crescent-shaped structures, made of stones piled without mortar, captured moist winds and fog, which created condensation that percolated down to irrigate protected gardens.  “In the early morning, you can collect a little bit of water, and this allows you to grow plants,” he says. The tu’rat-inspired structure includes the enclosure of a small oasis of palm trees and other vegetation on the south side of the building.”

The relationship of water in the desert is key, and additional elements like  rainwater collection and phytopurification, using a constructed wetland), will dramatically reduce water use while providing comfort and verdant respite.

A more urban example is RB12, a building in Rio de Janeiro design by Triptyque.  Drawing from the bioclimatic concepts popularized by Ken Yeang, the building uses “Suspended gardens integrated into the façade, along with a green rooftop, also help control lighting.”

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While ostensibly a form of climate control, in this case it is less successful, as there is supplemental systems for cooling, as mentioned, which makes it less of a bioclimatic model than one that is merely inspired as such.  My thought looking at renderings is that they didn’t take it far enough, or integrated the vegetation thoroughly enough, to make it more than a few plants on terraces.

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bioclimatic-design-gallery-01 2The ability to integrate buildings and vegetation – as i’ve called it vegitecture, is a key element for bioclimatic architecture, and offers many potential opportunities for designers to collaborate.  The potential spans beyond the building-centric to also include potential for habitat development in the urban ecosystem, refuge for birds, and pathways for pollinators.  All while cooling buildings and making cities more livable.  Not bad.

Bio-inspired Design

The latest issue of Zygote Quarterly, an online journal with a focus covers Bio-inspired design, and offers another opportunity to explore this topic (and the back issues as well).  A really beautifully illustrated online magazine, ZG is worth delving into in depth, but also sitting back and and in this case, getting into a bit of depth on the topic.

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An essay that gets me excited about the concept is the opener from Tom McKeag, Case Study Auspicious Forms, which tracks the process of engineering a Japanese bullet train to attain high speeds with less noise on the track and when entering tunnels.  The breakdown of process looking both at the serrated wings of owls in creating ‘quiet’ air flow, to the specific beak orientation of a Kingfisher influencing nose shape to lessen sonic booms in tunnels is a fascinating exploration of how traditional engineering can look to nature for solutions.  The concept of natures patterns applied to the unnatural is the major benefit of bio-inspired design.

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The nature inspired engineering is relevant to Buckminster Fuller and the application synergistic patterns, and notably his calling card, the ultimately scalable and strong modular geodesic structure.  These geodesic structures area also found in nature, such as the eyes of insects (below) or the bones of birds – nested, scalable triangular structures that can be combined build infinite structures with stability and strength far greater than their perceived mass.  As mentioned, Fuller the biological provides not a pattern to mimic but the answer:

“Unlike many biologists, Bucky insisted that his “energetic-synergetic geometry” was ‘natural’ in the sense that it was there, all worked-out, as a mathematical principle employed by Nature to give optimum advantage to the system.”

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Fuller would be ones of the forerunners, obviously, of biomimicry, due to his understanding and application of natures rules and strategies.  This continued a long-line of thinkings throughout history who have looked to nature to inspire them, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or Antonio Gaudi, to name a couple.  The engineering/product angle is what i think is most applicable and successful biomimicry path, with the gecko-foot inspired fasteners (above) being perhaps the touchstone of that nature to useful product transition.

Outside of the realm of the mimic is the concept of blending of art and science, which is captured perfectly in the work of and featured prominently throughout ZG such as the biological art of David Goodsell, who captures scientific processes in beautiful and simple illustrations.

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The challenge then lies in the differentiation of the biological (ecological) from the biomimicry and the bio-inspired, all of which inform and apply to design but existing in gradations from actual nature to abstract nature.  The one essay that focuses more on the design side is an interview with Thomas Knittel from HOK, a firm that has been intimately nested in the Biomimicry world more than most firms.  His work on Project Haiti, below, is indicative of the bioinspired approach.  “Bio-inspiration is in the variable second skin forming a building boundary layer to reject heat and harness natural ventilation.  A wooden branching support structure facing the courtyard is based upon patterns in nature and observed by da Vinci and Fuller and, more
recently, Bejan’s constructal law. I will admit our solution is not pure, but it serves the building
functionally and metaphorically. What better place to display mother-daughter branching?”

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The other notable element that HOK has done is the Genius of Biome design resource, which desribes “…how lessons from the temperate broadleaf forest biome, which houses many of the world’s largest population centers, can inform the design of the built environment.”

Additional essays touch on topics such as Biomemetics, the connections between Engineering and Biology, and additional study on Bucky Fuller and his nature-inspired design strategies, but i will leave you to explore on your own.

Perhaps because these essays aren’t trying to over-reach and frame Biomimicry as a new approach to landscape ecological design and urbanism, they are more inspirational and less frustrating in this way.  Can biomimicry really truly be a methodology for landscape architecture and ecology?  I’m not sure, as the medium and the method are too closely aligned to make the jump to mimesis – so perhaps the concept of ‘bio-inspired’ is perhaps a better metaphor with less baggage, and a truer sense of the concept of design with nature.

A Bit on Biomimicry

Since reading Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry back in 1997, I’ve been simultaneously fascinated and frustrated by the conceptual positioning and posturing of the proponents of biomimicry. Don’t get me wrong, i think the idea of biomimicry has much potential in design, particularly product invention, industrial design, and architecture. What i have a hard time wrapping my brain around is how to differentiate biomimicry (emulating nature’s processes for application to objects – products, buildings, etc.) with the seemingly similar ecological design (emulating nature’s processes for application to the landscape).  The former is a new and exciting field or inquiry that can expand our thinking about solving problems.  The latter is an older and exciting field that continues to expand our thinking about solving problems.

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I often struggle with the inherent conflict in determining the specifics applications in a landscape setting.  Beyond the idea that ‘everything is nature’, we’re talking about a broader idea of applicability to the practice of landscape architect that includes context.  The goal of landscape architecture is broad, but the tools we use, and the products we create, are often so closely aligned as to blur the boundaries between agency and ecology.  The continuum of built work goes from the very natural (restoration) to the very urban (plazas), and means we construct everything from systems to objects, and often, much of both simulateously.

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It’s hard to separate process from product, and the use of living elements in designs (rather than static materials) complicates this further. It’s hard also to separate scope – as the milieu of landscape is vast and sometimes all-encompassing. This dilemma is perhaps less of an issue in the very urban, but as we expand sites to provide multiple overlapping functions of ecology and utility, it becomes harder to, particularly as we get into restoration.  The on-going discussions about the pastoral mimicry of Olmsted (and Picturesque English Gardens)  that was highly constructed, such as Central Park (below) or the Back Bay Fens (above) and is now mistaken for ‘nature’ as elaborated by Spirn (and covered in an old essay of mine here).

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This isn’t to say that biomimicry is not relevant to the profession and context of the landscape.  To me it’s a given, but the language to explain the connection is still escaping my grasp.   It is more of a stretch to say ‘I used biomimicry to determine the natural flow patterns of this site’ rather than ‘I used biomimicry to make glue inspired by the gooey outer layer of a slug’.  One to me is clearly biomimicry (nature process inspires biological approach to product design).  The difference i think is that the leap from natural precedent to ‘product’ is easier than from natural precedent to natural analog as landscape.  The natural flow patterns of the site are there for the revealing and part of good site context/analysis, and looking to historical origins for inspiration is just good design (or competent design i should say).  Restoration, if that is the goal of a site, uses other models and precedents of successful healthy waterways, functions, vegetation.  It is a form is mimicry in a sense, but isn’t that was all landscape architecture is?  Or is it not mimicking nature when your output IS that same nature?

Background

I’m also not saying that the proponents of biomimicry don’t willfully admit this nuance, but it’s often the case as someone positioning this ‘new’ and ‘improved’ process as some improved methodology, when in fact it’s not new or improved. I dug up some info that seems relevant for some context in furthering this understanding. Per the Biomimicry 3.8 website.

“Biomimicry is an innovation method that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, e.g., a solar cell inspired by a leaf. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”

The 3.8 stands for the “more than 3.8 billion years that life has been adapting and evolving to changing conditions on the planet since the very first life forms emerged.” The other informational website from Biomimicry 3.8 is AskNature, which, according to the site, is an “online inspiration source for the biomimicry community. Think of it as your home habitat—whether you’re a biologist who wants to share what you know about an amazing organism, or a designer, architect, engineer, or chemist looking for planet-friendly solutions. AskNature is where biology and design cross-pollinate, so bio-inspired breakthroughs can be born.”

biomimicry_primerThe looking to our long history for ideas and inspiration is great.  The difficulty for me is resolving the idea of looking to nature for process and patterns (which has been happening for milennia and is inherent in site observation, i.e. genius loci) to this ‘new’ science of emulation (which to me is what designers have also been doing for milennia using nature as model). The proponents of biomimicry have done a reasonably good job of communicating the concept and some of it’s limitations. They’ve also done a great job of marketing what are age-old concepts into a ‘new’ discipline or approach (or at least a money-making endeavor).

Benyus has a Primer on Biomimicry with some more concrete discussion and examples, as well as connections to other disciplines and movements.  The language of learning from nature and humility are good reminders to think outside our anthropocentric viewpoint.  As mentioned:

“The core idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with:  energy, food production, climate control, benign chemistry, transportation, collaboration, and more.”

As we look for inspiration and ‘new mentors’ to guide us, we can bring in other methodologies (such as Cradle to Cradle design or Living Building Challenge), and that all of the interwoven theories are complementary.  The difference in emulation vs. copying is mentioned as well by Benyus:  “Biomimics may study a spider to learn about sensing, fiber manufacturing, adhesion, or tensegrity, but we are not actually trying to recreate the spider.  What we’re trying to emulate are the design principles and living lessons of the spider.”  Again, this brings up context – as in landscape the system and materials are the product of the design – so it’s more difficult to reconcile this, because we are actually trying to recreate the spider in that case.

There are three levels that are mentioned as well, which is instructive.  The first is mimicking of natural form.  The second is to mimic natural process, or how something is made.  The final level is to mimic natural ecosystems, which brings in the larger context and connections with other systems. The end result is essentially a determination of fitness, where the outcome is more self-sustaining and regenerative that other options.

Other distinctions are made between biomimicry and the subjects of bio-utilization (harvesting and using biological products) and bio-assisted technologies (which “involve domesticating an organism to accomplish a function”).  Biomimicy is to consult, not to co-opt, and to contribute to, in the words of Wes Jackson, “a deepening conversation with the organism.”  The concept of precedent is vital as well, and acknowledged by Benyus in the primer.

“…biomimicry was not new to the human species; in fact there was a time when our very survival depended on noticing and mimicking successful organisms… this latest appearance of biomimicry is not an invention, it’s a remembering.”

There’s a history of this work past the indigenous, to include designers like da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frei Otto, Gaudi, Olmsted, and Bucky Fuller.  The lack of a coherent body of scholarship and study meant this was singular geniuses working in isolation, one-off cases rather than movements.  The goal and the desire now is consolidation of thought, framing biomimicry as a force and cultural meme.  It is also relevant and perhaps more appropriately interwoven into landscape architecture and urbanism because it deals with many of the same issues, namely the nature/culture dialogue.

Application

One specific element that i remember loving from the original book, is the concept of perennial agriculture (a la Wes Jackson), and the ability to ‘grow food like a prairie.’ This makes a lot of sense and is exciting as a biomimicry project – and perhaps has analogs in landscape architecture through outputs like permaculture that can be applied to provide productive sites and more self-sustaining plant palettes. vk_polycultureOther examples, such as the Nature’s Strategies for Managing Stormwater in the Willamette Valley: Genius of Place Project Report provide more context for this – but in execution don’t really capture (or at least only scratch the surface of) what the potential is.  I’m going to post separately on this report later, but it’s instructive on the gaps between determining ‘functions’ that exist in nature and translating them into solutions – rather than just employing them.

One case from the workshop was the function of downed wood,  and the function that it provides for water management.  If you study the function, as seen the diagram from the report below, you get a good sense of what’s happening in nature as a baseline.

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There was a perceptual disconnect between the idea of adapting this to a new thing (perhaps a in situ filter using the ideas of long-hollow cells) rather than just justifying why we would place or keep in place downed wood as part of a design.  there’s no need to mimic something when it’s possible to use the actual thing – which is again part of the issue of applicability in landscape settings.  The conversation spun around this (let’s place wood in cities) but was harded to get to new ideas generated from the discussion.  You probably won’t propose laying  dead wood laying around an urban plaza… but perhaps you could add the additional storage and transport potential into a bio-inspired piece of site furniture.

To say that we’re trying to mimick the function of the pre-development condition, in this case temperate rainforest.  If that’s the case, is it biomimicry to look to the function of a forest for evaporation, infiltration, etc. and try to capture this – much as is done in pre-/post- engineering calculations?   Would the concept of say, a green street bioretention facility be ‘biomimicry’ for using a wetland metaphor in an urban context?  Does a green wall mimic a vegetated cliff face to provide shading and cooling?

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I think the direct connection of biomimicry to landscape architecture is the next step – so finding case studies specific to the scale and context appropriate to our work.  The root of bios (life) and mimesis (imitation) is a simple analogy that can be integrated into a number of processes – so i think the issue is that the concept has now become the brand (as things will go).  So maybe it’s just semantics and we’re all, as landscape architects or bio-inspired designers, scientists, inventors and engineers, biomimics?

(RE)Building Coastal Dunes

The goal to stabilize coastal dunes impacted by development is not a new endeavor, but has been made visible recently with the recent impact of Superstorm Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard.  The dunes are vital to the overall integrity of coastal zones, elimination of vegetation is often the result of development and other disturbances, and is exacerbated by strong storms and surges that are the result of climate instability.  We’ve impacted these naturally resilient ecosystems to the degree where they can no longer self-heal, and thus require our conscious action to return this to functional integrity.

A slideshow in the Cape Cod Online shows a project by a group of professionals and students to use ‘biomimcry’ principles to help restore coast dunes.  As noted in the BEN Blog“Harwich High School Environmental Studies students learning about how natural vegetation stabilizes dunes, and how they can mimic natural vegetation’s structure and patterns by placing cedar shims in the sand.”

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The students are working with a group called Safe Harbor, which takes an interesting approach to dune restoration a “simple system mimics the matrix profile of native vegetation to collect and stabilize sand. Like native vegetation, this system demonstrates performance inversely proportional to it’s profile.” 

There’s a fair amount of research on the Safe Harbor site, including a PDF of of their Biomimcry work (30.9 MB PDF File) and in an interesting twist, they are offering the results in the public domain in the hope it will be used broadly for dune restoration.  A video of the approach is found below:

The original article was published on the BEN Blog (from Biomimicry 3.8) and it begs the question of dune stablilization and whether the establishment of plants is considered biomimicry?  Replanting the original species isn’t really mimicking anything, but is rather restoring the ecosystem to it’s reference state that is considered to be analogous to a natural, self-replicating system that would have been present pre-disturbance.  From late 1800s restoration of the Back Bay Fens by  Olmsted to 1960s dune restoration documented by McHarg in Design with Nature, to much restoration work today, the idea isn’t new.

Biomimicry, it seems, comes in with the intermediate ‘cedar shim’ installation that holds sands in place to allow berms to be shaped and re-established, prior to the planting of vegetation.  The BEN Blog takes up the question at the end.

Is habitat restoration considered to be biomimicry? This can be a tricky question. If we are learning from the local organisms and ecosystem and mimicking natural processes, structures, and patterns, then the answer is yes. We want to learn what functions different organisms play and how they provide those functions. Usually this is done by planting vegetation, preferably native vegetation if it’s available. Sometimes an intermediate step is needed. Use of cedar shims on this beach is a short-term effort to mimic the sand-holding function of the dune vegetation. According to Safe Harbors’ website, “Biomimicry uses the same storm wind energy which eroded the resource area to rebuild it.” If this works and they can stabilize the beach, then the vegetation should get a chance to grow back and resume its role in stabilizing the dunes and creating conditions for other dune inhabitants to thrive.”

For this to be biomimicry, we need to make the leap to insert this intermediate stage into the ecosystem to create berms through use of the shims and active management (configuration, adjustment of depths, demarcation of paths).  The question is, then, why not just skip the stage of cedar shims and use vegetation, which is the planned eventual end condition and the material that is being ‘mimicked’ rather that use an alternative material (such as this dune restoration in Louisiana, below)?

white-sands-planning-co-6653cb47b805cfa0

One answer may be cost, as plantings would cost more and be prone to die-back in interim stages of dune development as sand aggregates.  The other may be time – as the plantings establishment and subsequent colonization may be accelerated through use of analog (cedar shims) along with strategic plantings, with greater survival and more vigorous dune establishment as a result.  As i mentioned, the thrusting of the idea into the public domain, and the monitoring of existing installations for viability will be interesting to see how they do, and compared to more traditional berms established by just planting, or perhaps landform manipulation (imported or graded sand) and plantings.

A continuing conversation on this to happen for sure, and more upcoming on Biomimicry later this week.  3.8 billion years of background is a lot to cover!