AUTODESK U: Looking to nature for sustainable design

Stumped for fresh ideas about how to solve some a design problem?

Why not look to nature to provide the answer?

Increasingly, designers, architects and engineers are investigating how plants and animals respond to environmental challenges in order to solve human predicaments, says Lynelle Cameron, directory of sustainability for computer-aided design software company Autodesk Inc.

“In the past few years biomimicry has gained a lot of traction in the various industries,” she explained.

Biomimicry (from the word bios, meaning life and mimesis, meaning imitate) is a new discipline that studies nature’s ideas and then incorporates those in design and process to solve critical sustainable design problems, according to Janine Benyus, author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Benyus founded the Biomimicry Institute to grow a global community of people learning from and emulating nature. “This was we conserve life’s genius to create a healthier and more sustainable planet,” she said.

Just as insects and animals learned to imitate nature to develop camouflage properties that will ensure survival, people can learn to obtain cues from nature various products that can either improve our survival strategies or enhance life, Benyus explained.

For instance, Japan’s bullet train is renowned for being one of the world’s fastest trains. However, to many Japanese, the bullet train is also considered one of the most noisiest.

As the train speeds across the Japanese landscape it smashes through the air creating a assaulting blast which some say is akin to a sonic boom.

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The train’s main body was streamlined to allow it to slice through air but the design failed to account for a considerable acoustic drawback which created an inconvenience for people living along the path of the Bullet’s tracks.

Designers tried various designs iterations but it was not until they looked up to the sky for some avian inspiration that they hit upon a solution, according to Jeff Kowalski.

The kingfisher, an adept hunter which dives into the water to catch fish, became the model for the Bullet train’s makeover, he said. “Designers modeled the new Bullet train’s nose after the kingfisher’s streamlined beak which they observed allowed he bird to dive for its prey at great speed and with extreme silence.”

In Pune, an isolated hill side village in India some 80 kilometers away from Mumbai, architects set aside modern building design and instead investigated indigenous foliage to build a small community, according too Cameron.

“The main challenge was to come up with environmentally friendly, low-cost housing units that could be erected on sloping ground,” she explained. Soil stability is another problem in the area as strong monsoon rains cause the soil to erode from the hills.

Rather than drill metal or concrete anchors to hold the houses down, architects of the design firm HOK studied the root structure of a local species of taproot tree which flourished in the hilly environment. A network of roots which panned out underneath the tree kept it anchored to the ground even in steep inclines and prevented the soil from being washed away during a downpour.

Using Autodesk’s architectural design tool Revit, the architects took cues from this natural design and incorporated it in various digital models for the foundation of the low-cost dwelling units. It was from these digitally rendered models that architects chose the best design suited for their project.

The architects also emulated the crown pattern of the tree when they designed their building’s roof. The architects observed that the branches and leaves appeared to be placed in downward-facing, expanding layers which shed water away from the trunk. By using a similar design on the houses, architects were able not only to keep water away from the building but also manage to channel the water and store it for use during India’s dry season, Cameron said.

Being able to generate as many digital models as possible is essential in enabling designers to finish projects such as these in a short period, said Kowalski.

“The living things we see today are products of nature’s own design process. They are designs that proved themselves over millions of years that is why they survived.

“Architects and designers do not have that much time. But digital 3D modeling can help them explore the various ‘what ifs’ in the designing staged to determine what strategy to pursue,” Kowalski said.

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