November 6, 2008

Are we ready for hyper-efficient biologitecture?

  • In the future, buildings may use biology as a model to function more like a living organism.
    zero plus Architects



    Looking out over a noxious river of black tar then witnessing the dramatic transformation of an agrarian village to a contemporary urban skyline in what appeared to be an instant city, China was a wake-up call to both the problem and the possibilities. The river was a reminder of the reality of our impact, of our irresponsibility and ever-increasing population, and the city a stunning example of our capacity for change and how rapidly change could be achieved. Why couldn’t an ecological architectural evolution be as monumental a transformation as the city was and in the process detoxify the river?

    That visit to China changed our preconceptions about what was possible and made shockingly clear its importance. A great leap in the evolution of an ecological architecture is not only possible but also essential. Architecture often seems to make steps into the future while facing backwards. This is understandable since the complexity of building favors tried-and-true methods and systems that ensure conformity to the strict requirements of budget, schedule and client. But evolution requires an understanding of the future, taking steps into the unknown while remembering lessons from the past. And though Zero Plus has always been inspired and influenced by nature, after this visit, a new more truly biological architecture seemed not only more viable but also more vital.

    Throughout history, architectural evolution has followed science and technology. Industrialization gave rise to modernism, which in part was driven by mass production that in turn expanded the use of new materials including plastic, glass and steel. So how does the current biological revolution and discoveries in evolutionary development, genetics and nanotechnologies change architecture and influence the work produced? Where does the balance lie between technology and nature?

    The idea of taking design inspiration from nature and applying it to technology is not a new one, it propelled the creation of the airplane a century ago and most recently motivates many through the biomimicry movement which looks to nature for more responsible solutions to design problems. But our recent investigations are searching for ways that buildings can be biological in formal and functional ways.

    Photo courtesy iStock
    The world’s largest greenhouse, the Eden Project in England, was built in the lightest and most ecological way — with polymer-based air pillows supported by steel tubes and joints.

    Developing a biomorphic, biomimetic or bionic system may at times seem either overly ambitious or like science-fiction fantasy. It was prompted by contemplating how architecture can look 20 years into the future, envisioning beyond what is familiar or presently achievable to lay the groundwork for this development. How can architecture move away from inert passive static objects to approach nature’s ideals of interconnection and responsiveness? How does it become a symbiotic and interdependent organism that evolves and transforms itself as required, feeding as much as it is fed? This is essential as population increases and efficiency with resources and conscious control of our by-products are no longer options but requirements.

    Lightness, operability and responsiveness are three key components of this biological model. Although they are described here as three separate ideas, they are inextricably linked, inseparable from one another, enhancing, supporting and giving purpose to each other.


    Lightness incorporates two aspects: first material and second structural.

    Material is weight and mass but equally important it is where and how the material comes to us and where and how it goes when we are finished with it. Therefore, a material that comes from the site and returns to the site is an optimal material.

    Lightness embodies ideals of low waste, low impact and low energy in production, fabrication and final assembly.

    “To make the most of immaterial elements I started out in an ingenious, even rather primitive way, from lightness. Anyone can build using a lot of material: if you make a wall a metre thick, then it is going to stand up. Taking weight away from things, however, teaches you to make the shape of structures do the work, to understand the limits of the strength of components, and to replace rigidity with flexibility. When you’re looking for lightness, you automatically find something else that is precious and that is very important on the plane of poetic language.”

    Renzo Piano

    Structure is central to this proposal; it not only describes how our buildings stand up but it has the ability to re-tool the entire process. Reduction of structure will become increasingly important. The engineer Cecil Balmond describes a way of lightly organizing structure:

    • Instead of line — surface

    • Instead of equa support — scatter

    • Instead of fixed center — moving locus

    • Instead of points — zones

    The structure of an architecture of biology is made of more and smaller pieces than we are used to.

    Imagine a swarm of bees working together to form a flexible and highly adaptable cellular network. Typically nature uses shape, not material, to overcome stress and respond to forces by adapting instead of resisting. Ultimately, this adaptiveness reduces the energy input into the structure.


    Structure relates directly to the second mode of this biological architecture, namely adaptability. This brings life to our structures, in the simplest terms doors and windows, or in our biological model a transformative one including growth and reconfiguration. This operability is a response to a given condition — be it a condition of the site, a function, or simply the sun, the wind, the water or waste generated by its inhabitants.

    Operability is simply applied to two major components — the skin and the bones — again inseparable but individually unique. The bones are the structural system described above and the skin is an active filter, aspirating, breathing, modulating external conditions and reconfiguring itself according to smart response.


    Photo courtesy of Festo Corp., Walter Fogel
    The AirJelly robot was designed to glide through air, thanks to its helium-filled balloon controlled by an intelligent, adaptive mechanical system.

    The last component of biological architecture is responsiveness, which is governed by three main components: sensors, smartness and actuators. Each of these aspects works together to create an efficient adaptive response.

    Sensors work to register fluctuations of internal and external conditions to detect change. Smartness is determining how and what to change; the ability to learn and adapt, to generate informed prediction and response rather than a programmed pre-engineered response. Finally, actuators make it happen, create appropriate response to change.

    A new architecture

    There is a gap in the ability to realize these ideas of creating a building that truly simulates a living organism: Biology has an inherent complexity that current buildings do not.

    While modernism embraced minimalism, contemporary architecture has attempted to emulate nature’s complexity. Today, there is a trend in architectural shape-making that uses algorithms to generate complex organic forms. Although these are generally stylistic exercises, they may ultimately be a way to unravel the geometric complexities of natural systems and lead us closer to a complete symbiotic system.

    Smart technology is evolving, but still is limited to application of current building systems. Ultimately, a biological model may not prove to be the exact solution, but a willingness to explore more visionary, experimental thinking is the only way to evolve beyond our limited and familiar applications of sustainable technological advancements and “green” products. Innovation and evolution require an interdisciplinary commitment to reaching beyond the current confines of technology into new possibility.

    While we may not be able to predict this biological model, or even suggest that it is biological, in order to create a built environment that will support us, we must drastically change the way architecture is practiced. Our current model consumes 40 percent of our energy and produces 40 percent of our carbon emissions. Without an exploration of the possibilities that the future brings, we will continue to patch and repair our current model, slowly driving our evolution into that stinky ditch of black tar.

    Joshua Brevoort and Lisa Chun are licensed architects and partners at zero plus, an architecture firm that is rooted in the creativity and practicality of building and also continues to explore the possibilities that are not yet known.

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