From leather to sheepskin to grasscloth, design has always borrowed from nature. Patterns, textures and colors adapted to ensure the survival of a species also add grace to bodies and buildings. When the real thing isn't affordable (or desirable), reasonable substitutes, such as Naugahyde® or nylon, can be produced to mimic a coveted look from the wild kingdom.
The emerging design science of biomimicry, which goes beyond reproducing a natural aesthetic, is a far cry from cheap imitations. Biomimicry probes beneath superficial first appearances, sometimes down to the molecular level, to discover the design genius of biology itself – borrowing not just the looks of nature, but the lessons.
"You can study a design challenge and look to nature to learn how nature solves it," explains John Mlade, a green-building researcher for Perkins + Will. "Or you can be walking through the woods and stumble over a solution to a problem you didn't know existed."
In either case, with nearly 4 million years in research and development "nature knows what works, what's appropriate and what lasts," Mlade says.
Janine Benyus, credited with launching the movement with her 1997 book, "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," puts it in starker terms: "99 percent of all species are extinct. If something has survived, we should look at why it has. Natural selection works."
For example, architects and engineers could learn something from the oak trees of New Orleans, says Benyus, who is co-director of the Biomimicry Guild. What is it about the design of those old trees that kept them standing while buildings around them were obliterated last year by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina?
The much-maligned cockroach beetle might hold the secret to reducing mold in wet places such as New Orleans. One African cockroach beetle species even has an uncanny ability to pull moisture out of the dry desert air. The blue mussel's astonishing ability to adhere to the ocean bottom has provided us with a blueprint for the production of industrial adhesives. The white lotus leaf stays clean even in the muddiest swamps – an inspiration for self-cleaning coatings that could be applied to cars and textiles.
When it comes to color, Mother Nature is equally inventive. Textile manufacturers currently are applying technology derived from the Morpho butterfly's iridescent blue-green wings. The stunning colors come in handy for attracting mates and perpetuating the species.
But, in the South American rainforest where the butterflies can be found, their brilliant color is also a handicap, making them more visible to prey. To avoid detection, the Morpho butterfly changes color with the flap of a wing – from provocative blue to a drab brown that lets it conveniently disappear against a backdrop of trees and foliage.
Remarkably, the butterfly wing (like the peacock feather) has no pigment. Rather, a complex structure with multiple layers interacts with light, producing only the appearance of color. The reflective effects of such structural color, says Benyus, make it four times brighter than pigment.
Engelhard Corp. mimics this process with its Aurora® ShimmerSilk™ thread used in fabrics, which, like the butterfly's wings, pick up the color tones around them.
Such simple elegance inspired textile designer David Oakey to send an entire design team into the woods. Consulting for Interface Inc., the group left the design table to ponder the forest floor, looking for biological clues for a better carpet design. What they discovered was "organized chaos" – a pleasing mosaic of textures, colors and shapes. The result of their field trip is Entropy, modular carpet tiles of which no two pieces are the same, just like the forest floor. With Entropy, everything from installation to repair is simplified, since there is no set pattern; would-be scraps are simply installed wherever they are needed or saved for future repair.
But carpet design also needs to sell. Here, too, nature inspired Entropy. "People feel good walking on a random pattern because that's what has been under us for millions of years," says Mlade. The wisdom of biomimicry is enhanced by nature's visceral effect on humans. "If you ask people to describe where they would most like to be, most say 'outside, in nature.'"
A savannah, suggests Mlade, makes a nice model for an office design. Like the savannah, office design can succeed by providing encompassing views of all the action as well as secure places to huddle.
Stephanie Watson Zollinger, a professor of interior design at the University of Minnesota, says such proportion systems can make buildings more inviting. Watson Zollinger points out that mathematical formulas, such as the Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio, which are ubiquitous in nature from flowers to seashells, have appeared in such architectural landmarks as Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon and Hadrian's Pantheon. Frank Lloyd Wright's works included them, and they can be applied just as effectively in humbler interiors.
"Research has found that when we embody ourselves in spaces that utilize these systems, we just feel more comfortable," says Watson Zollinger.
Biomimicry principles return the favor to nature through the sustainable designs they inspire. After all, nature itself, says Benyus, is inherently sustainable. The leaves on those oak trees in New Orleans are capturing solar energy while producing life-sustaining oxygen, or when they fall to the ground, nutrients for nearby organisms. "They've optimized survival while enhancing the place that is going to take care of their offspring," she says.
Benyus believes that architecture and design are on the critical, cutting edge of environmental sustainability. "When I look at where biomimicry could make the most impact, the built world is it," she says, pointing out that the building industry is a leading producer of industrial waste. In fact, architects and designers, many of whom are interested in green design, were among the first nonscientists to grasp the vast possibilities of biomimicry. "They had a hunch, and I agree with them, that our buildings should be more life-like," says Benyus. "At that point they had the imagination to say we need biologists sitting at the design table."
The built environment, says Benyus, contributes our largest, and some of our most important, human artifacts. "Nature will judge" our success, she says, just as it has the Morpho butterfly and the Parthenon. "If we can make these artifacts better adapted to life on Earth over the long haul, we will hopefully have a chance of squeezing through this evolutionary knothole."
What Would Nature Do?
To tap the infinite knowledge of Mother Nature, architects and designers can soon access her solutions with the click of a mouse. Part Google, part biology class, part nature networking, the Biomimicry Database will provide biomimetic solutions to design and engineering challenges, contact information for experts and others interested in similar challenges, as well as biomimetic models and detailed information on biomimetic products available worldwide.
"It's a catalog of nature solutions organized by architectural and engineering principles," says Janine Benyus, whose Biomimicry Guild is developing the database with the Rocky Mountain Institute. For example, type in "glue" and nearly 100 records will pop up, including challenges and strategies, citations for scientific papers, a list of experts and products – all directed toward biomimetic solutions for glue.
Though still in testing, the database may be available this year. In the meantime, designers can bring their conundrums to www.biomimicry.net.
Animal coloration in nature generally evolves to fulfill one of several biological needs:
Concealment. Animals can avoid predators when their coloration matches the natural background of their habitat, such as white species in arctic snow-covered environments, pale species in desert climates, red and gray species in rocky habitats, striped species in grasslands, and dark species in closed environments or dense forests.
Communication. Patches of color help animals maintain visual contact, such as that between mothers and young. Colored markings also may signal subordination, dominance, reproductive condition, health or even genetic quality to potential mates.
Regulation of physical processes. Color can help regulate body temperature by reflecting or absorbing radiation or by providing a surface that enhances or reduces evaporation. For example, white faces and rump patches help reduce heat load in open desert or grassland habitats.