Biomimicry, Climate Change & Architecture: an interview with Michael Pawlyn – Biomimicry Institute

In this series, Megan Schuknecht, the Biomimicry Institute’s director of design challenges, is interviewing the world’s foremost thought leaders in biomimicry and sustainability to explore nature-based solutions to the world’s most pressing climate change issues. With each interview, we’ll delve into the top three areas where climate and sector leaders think we should intervene to affect the most change, take a deeper look at the most promising solutions on the horizon, and explore where they think the next big opportunity will be. Look for new interviews here on our Asking Nature blog every Monday for the next month. 


 

Megan: What’s one surprising thing about climate change that most people DON’T know?

Michael: I always find it kind of absurd when I meet some property consultants in London who insist that buildings have to be air-conditioned and that increasing temperatures will make that even more the case. When they do that, I point them to the example of the Eastgate Centre, the office building that’s pretty close to the equator and works without any air conditioning.

The Eastgate Centre. Image: Kiva

Megan: Within the built environment, what are the top three areas where we need to intervene in order to truly impact climate change?

Michael: A lot of people would argue that it’s refurbishing existing buildings, and I think that is a pretty strong case because in the U.K. we only rebuild about 1 percent of our building stock every year, which means a hell of a lot of the buildings that will be standing by 2040 or 2050 are the ones that already exist. And by 2040 or 2050, we need to almost completely decarbonize our economies and our built environment. So that makes it clear just how big the challenge is, and of course, the sooner we do it the better. So that’s definitely one.

 The context for which we are designing is becoming more and more demanding of radical change.

The other thing is, I’m constantly frustrated that the pace of change is so slow. We have nearly all the solutions we need to make buildings much more efficient for new build or existing buildings, and yet this stuff is just not getting implemented. And that’s a serious problem. If anything the construction industry in the UK is getting more conservative, when the context for which we are designing is becoming more and more demanding of radical change.

The whole aspect of transport and the public realm in cities needs some urgent rethinking. That can, and should, have a big impact on climate change, and thankfully, most of the changes we need to make will actually improve people’s quality of life as well. So it shouldn’t be too big an ask to bring about those kind of changes. And of course the kind of changes I’m referring to are shifting away from single-occupancy private cars towards much more sustainable forms of transport – walking, cycling, and forms of mass transit.

Megan: Is there a nature-inspired solution out there that makes you hopeful, related to climate change?

Michael: Well, one of the projects we’ve been working on, which is perhaps the most radical in a way, is one that’s called the Biorock Pavilion. The starting point for that was the Vostok ice-core graphs. The part that everyone focuses on is the bit showing how CO2 and temperature have risen exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution. That’s the bit that people tend to focus on, for good reason, because it does look alarming. But in many ways I find the earlier part of the graph more interesting, because that shows how for nearly half a million years, and probably for much longer still, the CO2 and temperature levels varied within a fairly steady band, which raises the question of — what is the controlling mechanism that used to maintain that equilibrium?

The conclusion you could draw from [James Lovelock’s Gaia theory] is that the way biology would solve the challenge of climate change is to make more things from atmospheric carbon.

The most persuasive explanation I’ve heard is the one that is related to James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which says that it is coccolithophores and other marine microorganisms that have boomed during periods of higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations. So they make their skeletons partly out of carbon in the form of calcium carbonate dissolved in the ocean. Because they’ve got quite short lives and they fall to the ocean floor as what’s called “ocean rain” when they die, they build up layers of limestone, and by doing that they transfer carbon from the atmosphere into the lithosphere and restore the balance. The conclusion you could draw from that is that the way biology would solve the challenge of climate change is to make more things from atmospheric carbon.

Inspiration for Biorock Pavilion

So we’ve been looking quite a bit at the idea of how you can grow materials.  Wood is an obvious example. But biorock appealed to us because it allows for greater control of the forms that you can create. It’s a way of growing structures in seawater using electrodeposition of minerals. It’s mainly calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide. And it’s simple – you put a steel frame in the seawater, you pass a very low-level electric current through it, perfectly safe for wildlife, and you get fairly rapid deposition of minerals on that steel frame. After about a year, it can be 20-25 mm thick and it can be as strong as reinforced concrete. So we’ve proposed growing a whole building that way.

We’re also looking at other ways of making materials out of atmospheric carbon. Some of the things that Neri Oxman is doing at MIT are very interesting, basically 3D printing with biologically-derived polymers. If we could really scale that up as a proposition, then we would be doing what we need to be doing, which is taking carbon out of the atmosphere and turning it into building materials.

Megan: So the Biorock Pavilion is something you’ve made using the mineral deposition technology?

Michael: Not yet. We experimented with Biorock in our Sahara Forest Project in Qatar where we grew some structural elements. And we’ve done a design for the Biorock Pavilion, but we haven’t gotten as far as actually doing any prototyping work yet.

Megan: Going back to something you said earlier – basically, I think you were referring to the fact that we also need a shift in mindset – the science is there but you’re frustrated that we aren’t implementing things more rapidly. Do you think there is a role for biomimicry in encouraging implementation of existing solutions?

Michael: Yes, I do, and probably in a number of ways. But the way that comes most immediately to mind is the way that biomimicry helps tell persuasive stories. And when I say that, I don’t mean that in any kind of belittling way at all. Telling stories is becoming increasingly important, or at least the importance is becoming increasingly apparent. We’ve seen in recent years that there are a lot of people who just aren’t interested in data. You can talk to them about numbers until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t actually change their minds. You need to communicate on a slightly different level. What I’ve found can be very useful about biomimicry is you can start off with a story about a biological organism that does something pretty fantastic, and then you can show how you can translate that solution into something that suits human needs. So one example would be, if I were to get up in front of an audience of people and say, “Yeah, this thing’s called the Sahara Forest Project, and we thought we would make water in the desert and turn the desert green and make energy” and so on, I think most people would be crossing their arms and looking at their watches and thinking, “How long is this guy on for?” Whereas if I start with describing how the fog-basking beetle harvests water, then people are immediately grabbed and they’re leaning forward thinking, “Well, if a beetle can do it then we ought to be able to do it because humans are ingenious,” right? So I’ve found that biomimicry can be very useful for grabbing people’s attention and then getting them over a kind of skepticism threshold so that they are receptive to a new way of looking at things.

Neri Oxman with 3D-printed material. Image: Architizer

Megan: I think you just addressed this in a small way, in terms of helping people get over some skepticism and possibly thinking about doing things in a new way, but do you have any advice on how to get more people involved in addressing climate change issues? We could also limit it to your sphere, how to we get more people in the built environment engaging with climate change issues?

Michael: I always try to get people excited about positive possibilities, rather than getting them depressed about gloomy realities. In truth we need a bit of both. But, at least in this country, people have heard all of the gloomy stuff. They know that biodiversity is plummeting. They know that climate change is happening. And what we need is a much more lively conversation about solutions. In my talks and when I teach students and so on, I always try to get them to think positively about how you can shape the future. So rather than thinking about the future as something that just happens to you, think about it as something you really can shape. A bit like the way Hans Rosling said you should be neither an optimist or pessimist, because both of those positions imply some sense of inevitability. What you should be is a serious possibilist. You should decide on the kind of future you want and then you set about creating it. Be deliberate about shaping the future. I think that kind of call to action does address one of the problems that a lot of people – this is less true of students, but still some students – are rather lackadaisical when it comes to grabbing hold of something and implementing it.

Biomimicry can be very useful for grabbing people’s attention and then getting them over a kind of skepticism threshold so that they are receptive to a new way of looking at things.

Megan: Along those lines, we do work with a lot of young people who are very excited about shaping possibilities. But they don’t always know how to get past or work through or stay excited in the face of doing things in a very different way and becoming young inventors or young entrepreneurs. Do you have any particular advice for young biomimics?

Michael: In the second edition of my book [Biomimicry in Architecture], I did include an expanded sort of primer on how to actually apply biomimicry. One of the things I say to students, and to architects, is when you’re doing these biomimetic approaches, you can run into difficulties, particularly if you’re trying to mimic ecosystem levels. It can get really complicated, and there’s often a strong temptation to just go back to something that is simpler and more familiar. I’ve noticed this particularly with ecosystem models, where you’re trying to get a number of different elements to be synergized, so the output for one becomes the input for something else. You’ve actually got quite a lot of interconnected flows and interdependencies, and sometimes it’s quite difficult to see what’s going to happen if one link in the chain gets broken and so on. There’s a lovely quotation from an author called Ben Okri who said, “Adversity is not the end of a story, but where there is courage and conviction, it’s the start of a new story, a richer one than existed before.” So if you run into difficulties, I always encourage people to try to apply the same level of ingenuity and imagination as you did at the start rather than feeling defeated. Think about what you can add to the system to solve the problem rather than simplifying it.

A good example of this would be the Biorock story. On Sahara Forest Project in Qatar, one of the key inputs to the whole system is seawater. We were told that our seawater pipe would get encrusted with scale very quickly, and our industrial partner said that they would have to use large quantities of bleach to keep the pipes clean. We thought that sounded insane, but they were serious about this being a problem. So we thought about this. The scale is not a problem per se, it’s quite a hard, useful material. It’s just forming in the wrong location. So we proposed the idea of actually growing structural elements in the sea pipe that is supplying the project using biorock. That would take the scale out of the seawater and it would accumulate on these elements of steel structure rather than on the pipe itself. Then the seawater within the pipe downstream would be slightly more acidic, which would be enough to prevent scale formation on the rest of the pipe.

Think about what you can add to the system to solve the problem rather than simplifying it.

The serendipitous discovery was that the Biorock process also releases very small amounts of chlorine into the water, enough to suppress biofouling, which was another one of our concerns about the pipes getting clogged. There was something very nice about being able to grow elements to expand the project within the pipe that is supplying the project. And it showed that by being imaginative about problem solving, we were able to add a significant new element to the system.


Michael Pawlyn

Michael Pawlyn established Exploration in 2007 and has built a reputation as a thought leader in biomimicry.

He has lectured internationally on biomimicry and innovative approaches to sustainability. In 2007 Michael Pawlyn delivered a talk at Google’s annual ‘Zeitgeist’ conference and, in 2011, became one of only a small handful of architects to have a talk posted on TED.com.

In the same year, his book Biomimicry in Architecture was published by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Prior to setting up the company Michael Pawlyn worked with Grimshaw for ten years and was central to the team that radically re-invented horticultural architecture for the Eden Project. He was responsible for leading the design of the Warm Temperate and Humid Tropics Biomes and the subsequent phases. He initiated the Grimshaw environmental management system resulting in the company becoming the first firm of European architects to achieve certification to ISO14001.

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