Learning from Nature

Each strategy nature has invented to protect organism from hot or cold could be employed in separating a solar heat load on a house in Arizona from the space inside the house. Building designers and engineers have had their own favorite design and construction approaches, but the question now is, if global warming and peak oil are real challenges of the 21st Century, should the old favorite approaches be continued? Is there a new model for construction that can transform the way human habitations interact with the changing environment?



How you would design a house “skin” with any of those strategies is the question for your innovation. Can you design both a new functionality and a new aesthetic?

5 Responses to “Learning from Nature”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    Building a house in Arizona to be more sustainable would most obviously replicate designs of the bygone eras before the time of fossil fuel consumption (can that really have been only a few hundred years ago in the case of coal?). The Zuni and Hopi tribes adapted and expanded caves with thick protective walls and high small windows for heat exchange and protection. In Tibet the homes are built around a central courtyard both upstairs and down so that ventilation and heat exchange happen naturally. This same system of increased wall area for heat exchange would work well in Arizona. The abundance of sunlight would make solar cooling systems a real benefit and highly sustainable, while moving underground like the smaller desert animals would conserve both coolness in the summer and the warmth in the winter. There are already designs available for underground housing that are very interesting and sustainable in a desert environment. I have always liked the central courtyard designs of the old Spanish architecture in Florida and California and was reminded of it again on my recent Tibet trip. The addition to this style of architecture in Arizona would be some type of retractable sunshade for the central area to ensure proper shading during the heat of the day, perhaps with solar power assist to track the progress of the sun throughout the day and adjust automatically. Having a moisture containment facility is very much a vision out of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but really is the only responsible and sustainable means of living in the desert regions where water is naturally scarce and dependence on municipal water systems into the future is pure foolhardy.

  2. Michelle Audas says:

    Ian and Matts entries left me with the thought ” be comfortable in your own skin” and so often comfort is defined by temperature. Our climate is one of seasonal extremes. We range 35C to -35C between winter and summer. Comfort requires some significant management given these swings. So how do we model nature to adapt to these drastic shifts, which often occur quickly?

    I was thinking about how human skin is tougher in hotter climates, and how some animals shed there skin during different times in their lifecycle, and how some living things morph into new living things (caterpillars and cacoon’s (sp??) ) How do we create a skin for our home that has the ability to morph and adapt?

    The more I think about it, the more I think about how important it is to optimize the “natural potential” of your space. Identifying a position for your home, given its ability to capture light, with an ability to harness the energy from nature is key. So position and functionality. Nature has the awesome ability to facilitate systems that cycle and function with a built in mechanism for optimization. The skin of our home should reflect this capacity, and make the most of what it has.

    Since water has the ability to cool and heat, a skin that can move water around could have high functionality in regulating temperature. Thinking this through, having the ability to have both hot and cool storage for water, and cycle the most appropriate through the skin without changing its storage temperature would be pretty neat. A skin that can cycle water when required, and allow sunlight to permeate would be ideal.

  3. Monika Derrien says:

    The overarching idea of environment-specific design is that every aspect of design and construction should have a function. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in nature. Every landscape has different attributes that can be cultivated for their maximum utility, without degrading them as a future resource. Many of the ideas of permaculture can be utilized – looking at how the different pieces of the environment interact in order to increase efficiency, reduce waste and maintain the interconnectivity (and subsequent health) of the system. When relationships are observed and understood, they can better help design the rest of the environment for human habitation.

    In the video clip we watched at the beginning of the semester, Janine Benyus talked about having man-made objects and structures be able to develop from the inside out, much like organisms do. Instead of whittling the things we make down from a huge mass of materials, creating more waste than the desired object, design can allowing structures to grow into their use, building themselves as needed. How can housing do this to be more efficient and properly suited for their environments, but at the same be affordable and be achieved by ordinary households? These are expensive features, and they have to be individualized to each house and landscape. It will take major investment for these designs to reach efficient and economic methods of site-specific supply. There has to be somewhere between one-size-fits-all construction and perfectly micro-designed houses. Certain principles are more generalizable than others. As the technology becomes more widespread, it will become more cheaply specialized. And as energy becomes more expensive, the demand will encourage the market to invest in these ecologically-driven heating and cooling solutions. By using these principles, design can focusing on reducing human and energy input, and using of an understanding of ecology to encourage the interactions that will best serve humans needs to live in climates that their bodies haven’t evolved to

    Methods of heating/cooling:

    -Positional strategies – Organisms choose their habitats on their environmental qualities that will fulfill their needs for temperature, food, and water. Humans have other competing factors that dictate location (jobs, stores, aesthetics), but in an energy constrained future, people will have to give more consideration to the manageability of climate. In hot place like Arizona, the positioning of entire house for minimum heat gain during the day and maximum cooling at night is important.

    -Cool roofs, cool paving (if paving is necessary at all), strategically placed windows and plantings can reduce heat. The heat trapping effects of pavement covered cities can be avoided by choosing land covers that absorb and disperse heat more appropriately for the landscape.

    -Heat can be trapped passively or actively and used to heat water or generate electricity. -Choosing the material barriers that have the right degree of climate sensitivity is essential for maintaining temperature with fewer inputs.

    -Organisms that sweat remove heat from their bodies by releasing hot water through their pores. How can houses “sweat” when they’re hot, or vasoconstrict or vasodiliate to maintain temperature? How about new forms of evaporative cooling?

    -The use of gravity, the sun, colors and surfaces must be maximized.

    -Day and night cycles should be exploited for collecting/diffusing heat. It doesn’t make sense for a house to be static, not adjusting daily temperature changes.

    I found a lot of examples of cooling systems in my review of the biomimicry ideas for cooling. I don’t know a lot about the HVAC systems used in modern buildings, but I imagine they are not as finely tuned as a termite mound or beetle’s bumps that capture water and can be used to capture water in cooling towers, the heat reflecting shape and surface of a cactus, or an insect’s muscle cooling systems. From what I’ve read, it seems like experimentation with new “learned-from-nature” techniques is underway, but is still very expensive because it is so site specific and needs to be individually engineered. A critical mass needs to be reached in order to push these design ideas onto a bigger playing field. I would imagine that peak energy prices (or the their imminent threat) could be the tipping point.

  4. Matt Sayre says:

    I just wrote a very detailed blog entry for this and then the internet connection failed when I tried to post it and lost everything. I’m very frustrated so I am going to only summarize the key points of what I had written.

    1. I agree with Ian’s comments above.

    2. I want to stress that I think aesthetic considerations are very important to design, especially for homes which serve as human dwellings and expressions of human identities. Human wellbeing is based upon one’s health and health is connected to emotion. People’s sense of place is grounded in their emotional connection to a place. Sense of place is necessary for people to feel “at home” and healthy. So in my opinion for one to be most comfortable and healthy in one’s home one must feel that the home’s skin is attractive.

    3. New designs must be “green” and sustainable. Existing facilities must be retrofitted to be “green” and sustainable. This will not happen unless the innovations that will make them green are also attractive to people.

    4. We must either proactively work to change people’s perceptions and redefine our ideals of beauty and/or incorporate technological innovations into traditional designs that people find beautiful. This means that maybe as much effort should be put into changing people’s thinking and mindsets as their is being put into technoligical innovation.

    5. There are some many approaches to passive cooling that we could learn from nature and/or “primitive” communities. Some examples include architectural design using trellises and/or living walls, reflective roofs, window shades, landscaping to increase airflow and shade, earth tubes, shutters, radiant barriers, overhangs, convective cooling methods, and evaporative cooling methods. Biomimicry provides various examples for design including…

    1. “Termite mounds are devices for capturing wind energy to power active ventilation of the nest. They are adaptive structures, continually molded by the termites to maintain the nest atmosphere. This ability confers on the colony emergent homeostasis, the regulation of the nest environment by the collective activities of the inhabitants.” (Turner no date)

    “Heat generated by the termites and their gardens in the core of the nest flows into the collecting pipes and rises in the chimneys at a rate of about five inches per minute. As this humid CO2-rich air flows up the chimneys it draws cooler air in through the cellar area under the nest, where it begins to flow up into the various chambers…The buttresses are riddled with tiny holes too small even for the termites but large enough for the warm stale air to diffuse out while cooler fresh air percolates in.” (Gould and Gould 2007:139)

    An example where this has been incorporated is the Eastgate Centre building.

    2. Many desert animals have large ears, and the jack rabbit is no exception. It has been suggested that large ears, with their network of blood vessels, may serve to radiate heat to the sky while the animal is resting in the shade, so helping to lower its body temperature.” (Foy and Oxford Scientific Films 1982:165) Heat collectors for buildings that are raised for nighttime cooling, building designs that funnel excess heat to a single room, extendable parts to cool electronics in sleep mode.

    3. The air tubes in the insect’s body carry the air to different parts of the fly’s body. Just like the circulatory system in the body, there is an intricate and complex network of tubes (called the tracheal system) that delivers oxygen-containing air to every cell of the body…Thanks to this system, the cells that make up the flight muscles take oxygen directly from these tubes. This system also helps to cool down the muscles which function at such high rates as 1000 cycles per second.” (Yahya 2002:34) This can be modeled to design cooling systems for electronics, machinery; more efficient HVAC systems.

  5. Ian Raphael says:

    There is no way the design and construction strategies of the past 20-30 years should be continued in the future. As we confront climate change and our relationship with nature, I believe the way we go about construction will change dramatically. I have a lot of family and friends in the construction business and the move to green construction is already becoming mainstream. Little things like building orientation to maximize passive solar heat, like a sunflower moves towards the sun, or using better insulation strategies are being utilized more these days. Be that as it may, there is so much more that can be done. Ecological design and living technology is definitely the way of the future as well as biomicricy and scientific advancement. The earth ships in the south west serve a great example of design philosophy that takes advantage of nature’s resources sustainably as well as being cost effective.

    My ideal skin to a home would first be made of recycled and/or local materials. The roof would take on a form that collects water and uses gravity to filter it. Scientist are also developing organic polymer photovoltaics that are pliable and can be used in paints and roofing materials. The skin of my home would definitely be covered with it. In a way, this is like the polar bear in that there is no barrier between the skin of the house and the sun to maximize heat absorption for energy. These paints can also be in various colors that can be good at absorbing as much energy as possible while also reflecting heat away like white tree bark.

    The home would also utilize thermal mass in some capacity by being either built in mountains and hills or in the ground in some way in order to keep cool or retain heat. Homes of the future also need to be built smaller.

    I believe that new housing based on sound ecological principles can be absolutely beautiful and functional beyond what we have today. There is so much potential to utilize low tech, and old strategies that worked well in times past as well as new tech in development today.

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