The Q&A: Michael Pawlyn
MICHAEL PAWLYN is a British architect with an affinity for the natural world. So he is passionate about biomimicry—a discipline that looks at nature’s best ideas to inspire solutions to human problems. The Eden Project in Cornwall (pictured bottom), where Mr Pawlyn worked as a lead architect, is probably the best-known example of this approach. The pillowy and interlocking design of these biomes was influenced by dragonfly wings.
Since leaving Grimshaw, a British architecture firm, in 2007, Mr Pawlyn has concentrated exclusively on environmentally sustainable projects that are influenced by nature. One of his goals is to turn linear consumption models into cycles, whereby waste is used to fuel something else, much like the interdependency of ecosystems.
Having noticed that the boundaries of deserts shift over time, Mr Pawlyn’s latest scheme is to help reverse desertification in arid regions by growing vegetation. His Sahara Forest project (top) is an ambitious attempt to use concentrated solar power and seawater-cooled greenhouses to produce renewable energy, crops and water. Its success thus far has inspired new feasibility studies in Jordan and Qatar.
Earlier this autumn Mr Pawlyn published his first book, “Biomimicry in Architecture”. In a conversation with More Intelligent Life, he talks about his latest enterprises and his plans for the future.
Why were you drawn to biomimicry?
As a teenager I was torn between studying architecture and biology and eventually chose the former. I was also quite politicised about environmental issues in my early teens after a relative gave me a copy of the Club of Rome’s “Blueprint for Survival”. When I joined Grimshaw to work on the Eden Project I realised that there was a way to bring these strands together in pursuit of sustainable architecture inspired by nature.
You say we are entering the ecological age. What does that mean exactly?
As I see it, this is the age in which we have the knowledge, technology and imperative to formulate a truly sustainable way of living rather than pursuing approaches that simply mitigate negative impacts.
What are some of the most interesting examples, apart from the Eden Project, of existing architecture that uses biomimicry as its guiding principle?
Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport, an indoor arena in Rome, is a masterpiece of efficiency inspired by giant Amazon water lilies. Many of Nervi’s projects were won in competitions and the secret to his success was his ability to produce the most cost-effective schemes. In a satisfying parallel with the refining process of evolution, the combination of ingenuity and biomimicry led to a remarkable efficiency of resources.
The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, by Mick Pearce is based on termite mounds. It manages to create comfortable conditions for the people inside without air-conditioning in a tropical environment.
What species in nature are you most in awe of and why?
Camel’s nostrils are miracles of heat exchange and water recovery engineering. We are currently looking at cuttlebone and bird skulls to help design more efficient concrete structures for office buildings. The combustion chamber in the abdomen of a bombardier beetle mixes two high explosives from fuel tanks with valves that open and close 200 times a second—it is being studied in order to develop needle-free medical injections, more efficient fuel injection systems and more effective fire extinguishers.
Not everything in nature is innocuous. Which are the species you would not want to “mimic”?
There are quite a few species that have been studied by defence industries in order to develop sophisticated weapons using parasites, natural toxins, germ warfare and the like. This is why some people make a distinction between “biomimicry” (which is specifically about developing sustainable solutions) and the more general term of “biomimetics”.
You have said that environmentally sustainable architecture tends to focus on mitigation, when it should be regenerative and restorative. How achievable is this?
Humans are accustomed to engineering things to maximise one goal, whereas ecosystems have evolved towards an optimised overall system. We are only slowly embracing the benefits of designing the kind of synergistic systems like the Cardboard to Caviar project (a closed-loop scheme which takes restaurant waste, turns it into horse bedding, feeds it to worms who in turn are fed to fish whose caviar eventually ends up back on the plates of the restaurant) and the Sahara Forest project.
It is also partly down to conventional economics, which externalises issues such as pollution, liquidation of natural capital and so on. If we were to shift some taxation away from employment and towards the use of resources it would reward resource efficiency.
How would the construction industry have to change?
We need to get better at procuring the built environment in a way that delivers the maximum long-term value for the minimum long-term cost. At the moment, progress is hampered by short-term thinking, conventional economics and collaboration that do not lead to optimised results.
Why is getting something like the Sahara Forest project off the ground so slow? It seems like this is innovation with few downsides.
The powerful vested interests of oil and motor companies—both of which provide extensive funding to political parties—are a major impediment.
Short term ways of thinking also tend to favour solutions that produce quick profits at the expense of long-term loss. I think this occurred in the late ’80s and early ’90s when developers were fairly brazen about saying that they weren’t interested in anything with a payback period. We now need to create investment models that allow people to invest in longer term projects that deliver value far into the future.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a concept study for a biomimetic office building—essentially using biomimicry to completely rethink the workplace with the aim of producing a scheme that is as far as possible self-heating, self-cooling and self-ventilating, entirely day-lit and a net producer of energy. Plants will also be incorporated to boost human productivity. A radical new approach to designing IT servers that delivers a factor-10 reduction in carbon emissions is possibly on the cards as well.
Michael Pawlyn lectures widely on his work; his book “Biomimicry in Architecture” (RIBA Publishing) is out now.
Author: G.D. | LONDON
Photography: © Nick Veasey; © The Sahara Forest Project Foundation
Source: The Economist