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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Buildings Inspired by Nature Absorb Pollutants, Collect Water, Keep You Cool

Nature has inspired all kinds of innovation – from Ford looking at geckos’ sticky toe pads to improve adhesives to Airbus building a stronger, lighter-weight galley partition that mimics cell structure and bone growth. Biomimicry is also influencing building design across industrial, commercial and residential projects.

On the industrial side, companies such as Blue Planet have looked to carbon-sequestering structures in nature like coral reefs and rainforests for their projects. Since 2011, Blue Planet has worked with DeepWater Desal, a combined desalination plant, power plant and data storage facility in Moss Landing, California. The facility mixes carbon dioxide waste from its natural gas power plant with the calcium produced from water desalination to produce calcium carbonate, or limestone used in the construction industry. Thus, it addresses several market needs in California by providing fresh water, data storage, and the limestone.

“Rather than mimicking a beak or a chemical or a process at the organism level, we’re looking at mimicry at the system level,” Blue Planet’s CEO Brent Constantz told The Guardian. “Ecosystems are, by definition, structured around efficiency and balance.”

Across the pond, UK-based Seawater Greenhouse takes its inspiration from the Namib desert beetle for water collection. The company builds greenhouses with condense water vapor from seawater to produce fresh water which can be used for agriculture. For each project, they must analyze a variety of climate data, including humidity, wind patterns and air temperatures, to adapt the solution to each individual area.

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“[The Namib desert beetle] positions itself on a sand dune to catch humid air coming off the sea,” explained Charlie Paton, managing director of Seawater Greenhouse. “Water condenses on its shell – much like on a cold beer can – and runs into its mouth, giving it all the liquid it needs for the day.”

Seawater Greenhouse imitates nature’s use of water vapor and focuses more on creating humid environments than on generating water, since humid environments use water more efficiently. “A molecule of water can evaporate and rain six times in the time it takes to work its way through the Amazon from the Atlantic to the Andes,” Paton told The Guardian. “Raising a kg of tomatoes in a hot, arid climate, can take 300 liters of water or more, but in a humid environment, that drops to 20-30 liters.”

Seawater Greenhouse isn’t the first to look to the beetle’s bumpy shell – researchers at Harvard University recently created a hybrid material that mimics the bumps to improve condensation, while researchers at Virginia Tech have used the shells’ patterns to control and prevent the spread of frost.

The concept behind Nemesi & Partners' Italy Pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015 was that of an urban forest with a “branched” outer envelope. Both its aesthetic design and building materials mimic trees: Its entire outdoor surface was made of biodynamic concrete panels that, when in contact with sunlight, allows it to absorb pollutants present in the air, “thus contributing to free the atmosphere from smog,” explains the Expo’s website.

The building is based on four architectural volumes around a central ‘empty’ gathering space. The designers describe it as follows: “[The internal piazza] - the symbolic heart of the complex - is the starting point for the exhibition route, in the midst of the four volumes that make up Palazzo Italia. These four volumes house the Exhibition zone (West), the Auditorium and Events zone (South), the Office zone (North) and the Conference and Meeting zone (East). The volumes are symbols of giant trees, with massive bases that simulate great roots plunging into the earth. Seen from the internal piazza, they open up and become longer as you look up, visually forming a canopy beyond the giant glazed roof.”

Meanwhile, a passive solar home design took inspiration from the California poppy. “Casa Del Sol,” an energy-efficient, solar-powered model home designed for Southern California’s climate, was designed by one of the 15 collegiate teams that competed in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015. Team Orange County, an undergraduate coalition of two universities and two community colleges, crafted the home with the state’s drought and affordable housing crisis in mind.

“The California Poppy is orange, the state flower, and thrives in SoCal. Being a team representing Orange County and the larger swath of SoCal, the Poppy worked in color, scale, and regional significance,” engineering student and project manager Alex MacDonald told PSFK.

“Beyond that, the flower opens and closes to the sun and is drought-resistant; two design principals we embraced as our home makes best use of the sun path and associated cool ocean breezes to passively maintain resident comfort and minimize water consumption. And thus, Casa Del Sol, was born.”

The home follows the patterns of the sun, adjusting in the winter and summer months to regulate temperature by allowing more sunlight or creating more shade. It also features a veranda with a retractable sun roof and a brise soleil to protect the home from wind, as well as an edible vertical garden and a rainwater collection system for safe re-use. To accommodate Southern California’s demographic shifts, the home includes a flex room with a collapsible divider and a studio suite for multi-generational living or for use as a rental.

The top prize in the 2015 Solar Decathlon went to another design, SU+RE HOUSE, which was built “as a new direction in storm resilient coastal housing,” by students from the Stevens Institute of Technology.


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