When buildings breathe: Nature meets architecture

A Pine cone sits on a floor.

3 May 2018


Architecture has been borrowing from Mother Nature for millennia. The first structures were made from natural materials; wood, straw, stone and soils. Many common objects that we use today are inspired by plant life too – burdock burs inspired George de Mestral to invent Velcro in 1955, and wind turbines are inspired by the fins of humpback whales! Today, as engineers face the issues caused by climate change and high energy consumption, they are drawing on nature again to change the way we build our homes and offices. Modern architects can draw on both natural structures and natural materials for their designs.

A team of scientists at the Technical University of Munich are using the humble pinecone as inspiration for how to keep offices cool. A pinecone is made of overlapping ‘tiles’, with different materials on the inner and outer edges, which react to water. When a pinecone gets wet, the inner material contracts, closing up the cone for protection. When it is dry, the pinecone slowly unfurls again. The team are now looking to mass-produce tiles mimicking this process and speed up the rate at which they open and close. One day, whole skyscrapers may be able to react to the sun as it passes overhead, using only responsive materials rather than generated power.

This is more than a fancy trick; the use of buildings accounts for 40 percent of total energy consumption, with half of this used for climate control. The results of the 2018 Evolo competition for skyscraper design give an interesting preview into how natural structures and climate change are inspiring architectural engineering.

UK designer Ryan Gormley gained an honourable mention for the “Urban Lung Timber Skyscraper,” which allows cities to ‘breathe’ by filtering carbon and other pollutants. The materials used to build the lung are also carefully sourced and chosen specifically to address a natural disaster. The outbreak of ‘Phytopthora remorum’, a disease that affects Larch trees in Europe has lead to a mass felling off the trees to stop it spreading. This excess of timber can be used in the lung as locally as possible, reducing the pollution caused by transporting materials to sites.

Gormley, and members of the Timber Research and Development Association, hope to use structures like this to start a ‘Timber age’ in architectural design - inspiring a new influx of designers, engineers and architects. Other designs also addressed the effects of climate change. The winning entry, designed by Polish architects Damian Granosik, Jakub Kulisa, and Piotr Pańczyk, used origami-inspired structures to create a ‘tent skyscraper’ that can provide shelter for refugees following a natural disaster. There are still challenges to working in this way. For a designer to truly address the challenges of climate change and energy consumption, they must consider where their materials are sourced and which methods are used to build and transport them.

They must also address issues of structural performance, environment, functionality and appearance. Are there any other projects that you have come across that are addressing the climate challenge in their design, materials and construction? What do you think the future of natural-inspired architecture will look like? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook.

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