Using Biomimicry to Rethink the “Wall” – Design Project

Lauren Dynes: sketches of the design context, what is a wood frame wall?

Lauren Dynes, who is now doing her Masters of Architecture in Calgary, explored the redesign of the internal wall for her biomimicry project. It might sound dry to some of you, but the wall was an interesting choice because of how fundamentally unchanged and standardized it is as both a concept and a product. When we think of walls, flat white surfaces generally come to mind, along with drywall and studs, bricks and mortar or maybe concrete.

When we compare the subdivisions of space within architecture to similar metaphors in biology it is clear that our designs lack the multifuncional complexity as the membranes that occur within nature.

Bridging Design to Biology

The above design spiral is the methodology we structured this project around, which will explain the key titles Lauren uses in her images. Note: that the design spiral I use has slightly different language than those you may have seen at other workshops.

For this project the first stage of the design process was articulating an understanding of the design challenge and translating observations into questions of nature. The core challenges at this stage being;

  • What are the core challenges or opportunities within the design project? (IDENTIFY)
  • How to start researching natural models. (TRANSLATE)

For those of you that are yet to try this process it can be very tricky trying to word open ended and yet specific questions of both design and nature.

Image by Lauren Dynes: We asked the students to identify 5 core challenges or opportunities they saw in their project, and translate those to "biologized" questions.


Image by Lauren Dynes: note that some of the questions sound broad and naive, we are deliberately challenging the students to ask open ended questions...


Image by Lauren Dynes: This is a question that has a lot of opportunity as humans tend to insulate dramatically different to nature, but did not end up being the focus of this project.


Image by Lauren Dynes: these questions became a little clunky... perhaps questions that explore how nature transitions between different material properties might make more sense.

Biological Models

Image by Lauren Dynes: This page highlights a lot of solid design thinking in one dense space. This page includes comparisons between design and natural models, observational sketches and more abstracted diagrams. This is one of the pages that made me want to share this case study.

In the biomimicry design spiral, the next stages are observe and abstract. We deliberately have these as two stages as they represent different modes of thinking. One focuses purely on observation and truly “seeing” the inspiration; which involves observational drawing, while the other requires synthesis of the research and therefore diagramming and abstract sketching.

We encourage our students to collect a broad palette of natural models around a specific starting point in their project. In this case, Lauren focused on structural integrity, as you can see in the images above.

Synthesizing Research

Image by Lauren Dynes

The image above highlights the moment when things get really exciting. Lauren did a presentation in class that had all the different natural models, design definitions and a few design examples. It was complicated, messy and her process was beginning to get lost. It was clear that Lauren was suffering from too much information.

We pulled out the blackboard and began looking for the core differences between her design research and her biology research. The resulting table, seen in the top left hand corner of the page, was an enormous insight and outlined where the biomimicry design opportunities existed within the project.

If only we had more time…

Image by Lauren Dynes

Unfortunately, as with all projects, we run out of time as soon as it begins to get really interesting. The end point of this project was a series of playful “what if” questions, that were unfortunately never answered. On the plus side, this has been a topic that continues to re-emerge, and some of the students this semester might have stumbled upon some interesting continuations of this thinking.

Image by Lauren Dynes: I really want to explore the answers to these questions... what if?

Design Process

In regards to the biomimicry design spiral, the above proposals would be the very beginning of the “apply” stage. Realistically, it is more like a continuation of the abstract phase, bridging back into the design context.

Going through these projects over many years, I continue to recognize how difficult it is make the transition from biology to design. Often the deepest insights are disruptive, such as a wall system that biodegrades, or unfeasible at first glance. Therefore deep synthesis of research, and highly experimental ideation is required to bridge this gap, which requires a lot of time. Next semester we will have the luxury of one project that spans the full twelve weeks, and I look forward to sharing the outcomes with you!

Many thanks to Lauren

A huge thanks to Lauren Dynes for letting me share her project, if you wish to get in contact, or look at her final graduating work from OCAD U, please have a look at her work here.


5 Comments on “Using Biomimicry to Rethink the “Wall” – Design Project”

  1. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks Lauren and Carl for sharing. This is a great project, with wonderful insights and excellent set of challenges identified for walls!

    Some of those insights are extremely powerful and begin to hint at the kinds of massive changes we need to begin to make in our technology. One material instead of many materials is of particular interest to me, and already know that I could devote all my energy to that one insight and have a very full career!

    Can’t wait to see this years students build out more insights like that!

  2. […] our designs lack the multifuncional complexity as the membranes that occur within nature.”Via Uncategorized    STORY | Tree of Knowledge Memorial […]

  3. Kris Callori says:

    Love this post, Carl. I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of walls, and expanding the thinking to “wall as boundary layer”, and what that looks like in how we layout the floor plan of a building. Right now I’m playing around with movable spaces and how that might impact temperature balance. I gotta start a blog so I can upload some images. Til then. Nice work Lauren!

    • Carl Hastrich says:

      Hey Kris, send me some pics and thoughts and I’ll Post them here! Would love to see more of the ideas you are exploring… Perhaps an exclusive interview?

  4. […] broad concepts in order to approach them through a variety of lenses.  As discussed previously, we challenge the concept of a wall by questioning it as a membrane or a shell, using language to unlock low-associative thoughts. Tom […]

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