Sustainability is not enough, says Michael Pawlyn, founder of the British company, Exploration Architecture.

“If you ask one of your best friends about their relationship and they said it was ‘sustainable’ it implies that it’s just about bearable,” Pawlyn told participants at the recent Green Cities conference in Melbourne. “It’s time to go from the sustainable paradigm to the regenerative paradigm.”

The path to regeneration is not as difficult as it might seem if we turn to the world’s best research and development program for inspiration – nature.

“You could look at nature as being like an amazing design sourcebook – based on a 3.8-billion-year research program and with all the faulty products removed – to address the challenge we face,” Pawlyn says.

Pawlyn describes three projects in which a biologist was part of the architectural design team.

The projects draw on a wide range of biological inspiration, from the thorny devil lizard to the Namibian fog-basking beetle, from the capillaries structure of leaves to the light-harvesting properties of the stone plant.
In a project called the Mountain Data Centre, Pawlyn’s company tackled the issue of escalating energy involved in information technology – in particular, data storage that is housed within or near cities, or within buildings (company servers).

Leaf-inspired data centre cooling

By shifting the site of the data centre to a now-defunct marble mine in Norway, which has a stable temperature of 5º Celsius, Exploration Architecture dispensed with the need for air-conditioning. The challenge was how to draw the cool air through the data blocks.

Drawing on the principles of Murray’s Law – a mathematical principle that underpins biological branching systems, such as the veins of a leaf – the team created a circular cluster of data blocks, rather than a linear one. It can be cooled by a highly efficient branched network of ducts.
Pawlyn’s company is not the only one using biomimicry in design. In 2009, Japanese researchers tested the hypothesis that “dog vomit” slime mould (Fuligo Septica) could find the most efficient route between two places much faster than we can.

“Dog vomit” slime mould

The researchers put a saucer of food in cities around Tokyo, and the slime mould spread out, located the food, and started to optimise the connections between Tokyo and these cities (watch a YouTube clip of the slime here). The paths they found exactly matched the train network system in that part of Japan – a network that had taken train engineers thousands of hours to work out.

The research suggests the possibility of using biological algorithms to connect our cities in more efficient and effective ways.
Closed-loop energy systems offer cities the opportunity to move away from the linear model of turning resources (food/energy) into waste (garbage/air pollution)

Cardboard to Caviar project

Demonstrating how valuable a closed-loop system could be, Graham Wiles, the manager of the Green Business Network, developed the Cardboard to Caviar project in Wakefield, in the United Kingdom.

The project team collects discarded cardboard boxes from shops and restaurants, shreds them, and sells them to equestrian centres to be used for horse bedding. They are paid to remove the soiled bedding, which is then fed into worm farms. The worms multiply and fatten and are fed to sturgeon fish, which produce caviar that is sold back to restaurants – at a retail price about $600 per 100 grams.
When Julius Caesar arrived in North Africa, he found a lush landscape of trees replete with nuts and fruits, plus elephants, panthers and bears.

Greening our deserts

Pawlyn says that Caesar’s extractive approach to agriculture helped bring about the desertification of the area.

In the Saharan desert, Pawlyn’s company has for the past seven years been developing a project to grow crops in a closed-loop greenhouse using seawater.

The Namibian fog-basking beetle is the inspiration for the project. The remarkable beetle has evolved a way of harvesting its own fresh water. It crawls to the top of a sand dune at night and, because it has a black mantle shell that is able to radiate heat out into the night sky, it becomes slightly cooler than its surroundings. As the moist breeze blows in off the sea, drops of water form on the shell. Just before the sun comes up, the beetle shifts so the water runs down its back and into its mouth.

“It is a fantastic example of adaptation,” Pawlyn says.

The Sahara Forest Project involves a greenhouse that uses solar energy and principles from the beetle’s shell design to grow crops.

“Our greenhouse has a double-layer roof, and we bring seawater into the growing area and evaporate it during the day so that creates a cool, humid growing environment,” he says. “This means the crops are under less stress and need less water to grow in. At night we drop the lower layer of the roof and evaporate seawater into that space. We use a high-acidity surface just like the beetle’s shell and radiate heat out to the night sky. The humidity condenses as distilled water and runs down to the bottom and we collect it to water the plants during the day.”

This project has received international funding and is being piloted in Jordan and Qatar.
To achieve the regenerative design, Pawlyn challenges architects to rethink the business model in which an iconic architect does a sexy sketch and then leaves the team to find ways to make it a reality.

Conductors, not “starchitects”

“That approach is insulting,” he says.

Pawlyn says the modern role of architects is more akin to a conductor who draws out the best in his team and unifies the whole.

William ‘Bill’ Hames, executive chairman of Hames Sharley, takes Pawlyn’s comments a step further. Hames says: “The starchitect – crashing through on the sole mantra of an ego-driven, visually exciting design, regardless of cost, time or function – has damaged the architectural profession.

“Such actions give the client community a reason not to trust the architect. Hence we now see the rise in power of the project manager, the risk-averse, builder-led managed contracts and public-private partnerships. In such contracts, the architect is not the leader of the team and design suffers.”

In Hames’ view, great design is when “a fantastic transformational building is delivered on time and on budget, expressing a structure, form and function that is totally unexpected, but loved by the client and wider community.”

Michael Pawlyn’s “regenerative approach” to design, supported by evidence and knowledge, is very much aligned with Hames Sharley’s knowledge-based approach.

Hames says: “That’s why Hames Sharley is building a knowledge-driven organisation that will deliver today the design solutions we need for tomorrow.”

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