How is the Eastgate Building NOT like a Termite Mound?Posted: January 3, 2012
Why is biomimicry superficial?
Back at the beginning of this blog I wrote an entry commenting that biomimicry does not guarantee sustainability. It was not meant as a critique against biomimicry as a methodology, but rather at those who only wish to learn superficial insights from nature. A recent comment highlighted the complexity of this conversation, when Jamie Saunders commented that “biomimicry” as a term might suggest non-systems thinking;
Might this be supported if ‘ecomicry’ rather than ‘biomicry’ was initially considered ? Co-evolution and ‘ecomimicry’ – drawing a conceptual understanding and insight from the ‘whole’ ecosystem’ – ‘the interwoven systems that can provide “life support” for current and future multi-species inhabitants.’
My answer, in full here, explains that “bios” has always been interpreted by those pioneering biomimicry to incorporate all of life sciences; including biology, ecology, evolutiona and much more. In other words, at all scales and at multiple levels; form, process and ecosystem. Unfortunately, most stories celebrate a form based level of inspiration; velcro for example, and skip over the deeper, more complex stories; such as Paul Hawkins using redwood forests to evolve business models.
Should the Eastgate Building be a Lung?
In a poorly titled paper, “Beyond Biomimicry“, researchers dive into the Eastgate Building case study to analyse it from a biological perspective. The insights are fascinating as the research of J Scott Turner and Rupert C Soar suggest the termite mound might not be functioning the way it does due to temperature management, but rather to encourage the flow of oxygen. In other words, it is not a passive heat exchanger, as much as an extension of the organisms’ lungs.
Turner and Soar’s research process is fascinating as it clearly outlines why the Eastgate building is like a termite mound, and then why it is NOT. While they suggest the next step is to move beyond biomimicry, I argue it is in fact time to move further “into” biomimicry. And we need more researchers like Turner and Soar to help designer’s understand what we’ve missed.
Perhaps it is even common knowledge to biologists that a termite mound functions like a lung, but for designer’s who have only “discovered” ant hills through comparative diagrams to the Eastgate architecture, this is eye opening.
Note: I really recommend the paper for some fascinating insights and quotes such as these in the final discussion:
Indeed, the possibilities may be more than large: they may be vast. This is because the termite mound is not simply a structural arena for interesting function. It is itself a function, sustained by an ongoing construction process that reflects the physiological predilections of the myriad agents that build and maintain it. The mound, in short, is the embodiment of the termites’ “extended physiology” …
Iterative Research = Iterative Design
I love this paper on many levels, but primarily because it fuels an iterative design process. This paper allows designers to look at successful projects such as Eastgate and go further. As pointed out in the paper, there is a lot of room for improvement. Our buildings do not “breathe” like lungs and they are not living, adapting structures. The opportunity exists now for a designer to begin to unwrap the complex diagrams of stigmergy and translate them into a building’s program and construction.
I want more research papers into biomimicry case studies that follow the process of J Scott Turner and Rupert C Soar that discuss:
- How is this [insert case study here] like the natural model(s)?
- How is this [case study] not like the natural model(s)?
In my ideal world, this would fuel design projects that would experiment and apply the subsequent insights of biological systems that would in turn encourage further scientific research. This is not a step beyond biomimicry, but actually genuine integration of the biological research into design process. And it is not impossible to imagine, considering the diversity of information and interest on termite mounds stirred up by the Mick Pearce and OVE Arup; designers and engineers.