Inspired by nature - Regenerative design beyond sustainability

Michael Pawlyn, pioneer of regenerative architecture, on innovation through the imitation of biology

Michael pawlyn
The atrium in the Biomimetic Office with the Spookfish light reflector /Offices with the lowest energy consumption
© Michael Pawlyn

Michael Pawlyn is a British architect known for his innovative and nature-inspired objects. Be it a fish bone, mussel or tree branches, through his return to design options from biology, he perfects optics and functionality in his projects. In his view, sustainability only mitigates negative influences, which is why he is focusing on so-called regenerative design for the future. He is a visionary in his industry.

M. P. speaks about regenerative design and biomimetic architecture

Michael Pawlyn

Architect Michael Pawlyn © Kelly Hill

Importance and main elements of regenerative design

Regenerative design in its simplest sense means striving for a positive impact. It generally involves a broader and deeper understanding of place. Architects and urban designers have often demonstrated a good cultural understanding of place. However, it is less common to find projects that respond as intelligently to the ecology, hydrology, geology and climatic aspects of the site. Regenerative thinking can influence design at every level: from large-scale landscapes to urban design, buildings and materials.

The US-based consultancy Biomimicry 3.8 argues that when designing a new piece of city, we should start by analysing how a pristine ecosystem in that part of the world functions. How much carbon does it sequester, how much wildlife does it accommodate, how much oxygen does it produce, how much water does it store, filter or evaporate? These ‘ecological performance criteria’ should set the standards for what is to be built, so that the city can be a stable entity within a larger system.

Sustainable design is only 100% less bad

The key difference is that sustainability, all too often, has simply involved mitigating negatives. The implication is that fully sustainable simply means “100% less bad” as Bill McDonough characterised it. For those of us, who have been involved in sustainable design for thirty years or more, it is painful to accept how badly sustainability has failed to prevent the multiple environmental crises from worsening. We have to set our aspirations much higher if we are really to address the challenges of our age.

regenerative design

Biomimetic offices with 30% less concrete, 50% less glass, 75% less aluminum and far less energy than conventional offices. Such an architecture increases people's well-being. 

Biomimcry transfers natural phenomena to architecture and technology

The key advantage is that the living organisms on planet Earth have evolved with the benefit of 3.8 billion years of research and development. Many design challenges that we face, have already been solved in biology with far greater efficiency. If we could learn more about how materials are assembled in biology, we could make glass with a fraction of the amount of energy that is currently used and find concrete ways to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

We can also learn a lot from how ecosystems work. Ecosystems are complex, diverse, richly networked, zero waste, run entirely on solar energy and, which is of crucial importance here, are regenerative instead of extractive. We could apply the same principles to our cities to transform them from linear resource consumption to a closed cycle.

Biomimetic architecture - biology as inspiration for design and function

1. The ghost fish as inspiration for lighting systems

In the first workshop for the biomimetic office, we concluded that daylight was likely to be the most important driver of strategic form for the building. Light is a pre-condition for most life on the planet. It is therefore not surprising that there are numerous examples of organisms that gather light in intriguing ways. The spookfish for example:

It has amazing mirror structures in its eyes which point downwards and focus low-level bio-luminescence into an image on the retina. This led to the idea of a pair of large-scale reflective surfaces in the atrium to bounce light into the lower floors of the building. Under the mirrors we designed a meeting room with a dramatic quality of light and space.

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The spectacular spookfish with the transparent head and diverticular eyes. This bizarre fish has eyes that point up and down at the same time. The light from above is fairly bright because it comes from the sky but the light coming up from the sea below is much fainter because it comes from bioluminescence. The parts of each eye that point down have concave mirror structures which concentrate / focus the light onto its retina. This led us directly to thinking of ways to reflect more light into the ground and first floors of our #biomimeticoffice - it shows that not all #biomimicry ideas have to involve high technology #Futureknowledge exhibition @mao_gallery #daylightdesign #spookfish #lightgathering #explorationarchitecture # bioluminescence

A post shared by Michael Pawlyn (@michaelpawlyn) on

2. Branch systems as inspiration for energy saving systems

For the Mountain Data Centre, we had to find an efficient way to conduct air through the individual data blocks to keep them cool. We studied branching systems in biology and found that they mostly follow a mathematical principle referred to as ‘Murray’s Law’. This governs the diameters and branching angles and appears to be an evolved minimum energy solution. We applied this principle to the air ducts of the Mountain Data Centre and subsequently to the design of a wastewater treatment plant in order to achieve dramatic savings in energy.

3. Abalone as inspiration for vaulted buildings

We recently designed a house based on abalone shell. Abalone is a marine mollusc and its shell is made from hundreds of layers of calcium carbonate discs, glued together with a flexible protein mortar. We adopted a way of building with tiled vaults that is very similar to the abalone. It resulted in a form that was not only distinctive but also very efficient in its use of resources.

regenaritves design

Abalone Copyright by Michael Pawlyn

The biggest challenge for regenerative design is short-term profit

The biggest challenge is the short-term profit incentive that drives so much of contemporary life. In many cases, we are able to design solutions that are far more resource-efficient, better for people and the planet, and also cheaper in the long-term. However, because they cost slightly more at the beginning, we are told “The market is not ready for these kind of solutions”.

This is frustrating because the best science shows that we are heading for catastrophe if we carry on as we are. We urgently need more people in business and politics to demonstrate leadership and contemplate a longer-term perspective than the next quarterly report or opinion poll.

Our ancestors will regard our current way of operating as insane!

The circular economy is an essential part of regenerative design because we can only truly deliver net-positive solutions if we minimise the use of new, raw materials. We need to design in a way that stewards resources in cycles rather than extracting materials from the ground and turning them into short life products.

Renewable design would dramatically change our civilization

We are a long way from regenerative design at the moment but when it becomes mainstream, it will represent a significant turning point in human civilisation. Currently there are a lot of obstacles at a political and economic level, so we need system-change for regenerative design to flourish. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that we are close to a tipping point.

The growing public protests mobilised by Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes led by Greta Thunberg have already shifted what we refer to as the ‘Overton window’ (the boundaries to what is regarded as politically acceptable subjects to debate). There are now a growing number of clients who see that conventional sustainability is not enough – we have to strive to deliver net positive solutions.

Thank you very much, Mr. Pawlyn.

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