Sustainability frameworks can be confusing for many people. A look at what nature provides, however, can be an easy convincing message for sustainability and an endorsement for more government support for healing the earth and its atmosphere

BIOMIMICRY: The built environment’s sustainability frameworks and processes can be confusing to the general public, not least due to the many competing voices and opinions in the field.

Scientific intensity can not only help find an enduring solution faster, but a unifying theory expressed well can encourage the public to help support the effort.

The complexity of regulations, ratings and international laws is high and will increase annually due to “human misbehaviour”. A unifying theory reduces complexity and increases understanding. 

Many research fields and professions suffer from multiple definitions. Rheude et al (2021) note that this is a problem, especially in collaborative, modern, interdisciplinary built environment teams. It is an existential topic: many fields of research have pointed out a unifying theory may better direct energy, funds, and time in discovering answers even faster. 

We advocate that the earth’s biological structure and processes be a template for most sustainability research. If we are guided by nature, we can reduce man’s effect on the environment with a nature enhancing life cycle approach

In August 2021, we found 4407 journal articles in the SCOPUS database with phrases “unifying theory” or “unified theory” in the title. Its first paper was recorded in 1951, and more than half were published since 2000. 

Rapid and profound immersion is possible when a visible and long-experienced system is the primary focus. Of course, immersion is the first step to mastery. 

The chaos of creativity and multiple overlapping scientific inquiries is predictable. This is the nature of research. However, we do think that a straightforward and accurate primary model is crucial to plan, communicate, execute, and measure for advocates and sceptics. 

Additionally, using a familiar system will greatly help enablers such as the government and citizens to fund researchers’ recommendations. 

We advocate that the earth’s biological structure and processes be a template for most sustainability research. If we are guided by nature, we can reduce man’s effect on the environment with a nature enhancing life cycle approach. 

The discipline is currently labelled as Biomimicry and Biomimetics. The discipline follows nature as its guide. The earth’s natural systems are a ready artefact for all humans to view, experience and apply. 

Built environment designers, developers, constructors, and end-users can confidently direct their actions where no guidance exists. They can propose and pursue nature’s concepts immediately and for good reasons. The tests over millennia are global, with billions of iterations in significantly dissimilar circumstances. 

Examples of innovations mimicking nature

Some applications of the dynamics of nature could clarify some strategic and practical examples of this unifying theory. For instance:

Upgrading solar power – moths are an unlikely inspiration since they mostly come out at night, but their adaptation to seeing in the dark could be energy saving. Moth eyes absorb sunlight efficiently, creating a black appearance. Solar panels, meanwhile, reflect significant light, making them suboptimal in producing electricity. Solar cells surfaces are smooth, but moth eyes are bumpy. A group of researchers added similar little bumps to solar cells and found that they can absorb greater amounts of light while making them water repellent.

Living buildings – The Bullitt Center energy system was partially modelled after underground streams to regulate its temperature and minimise energy use. This building’s system reads data from a weathervane across the street and uses it to know when to change window or blinds orientation. Furthermore, the building’s roots possess 130-metre geothermal wells circulating water. The water’s temperature exchanges heat either into or from the earth for occupant comfort. The Bullitt Centre in Seattle is touted as the greenest commercial building in the world. 

Mushroom material creates more sustainable building insulationThe company, Biohm manufacturers insulation made from mycelium – the “root” structure of mushrooms. The resulting product is 100 per cent natural. In technical terms, Organic Refuse Biocompound (ORB) is composed of biowaste and plant-based binder. Additionally, this building material is more affordable and outperforms current products on the market. 

Passive and energy?efficient climate control mechanisms to cool residentsThe Eastgate Centre is a shopping centre and office building located in Zimbabwe. It is designed from the termite mound example. 

Rather than using a traditional airconditioning system to regulate the temperature within the building, the Eastgate Centre was designed to exploit a more passive system. Various openings throughout the building further enable passive internal airflow driven by outside winds. These design features work together to reduce temperature changes within the building interior as temperatures outside fluctuate. 

Fans act as a backup system for times when the wind is calm. Equipment is minimally needed in the initial construction, and energy use has been significantly reduced in building operations. 

Summary

A unifying theory is needed for solving sustainability problems of the constructed environment. The public must be a partner to reach critical goals. Other fields show the value of a straightforward framework. It provides strategic direction and actionable tasks, both of which are needed to reach transcendent goals.  

It is the responsibility of everyone to examine nature’s systems and structures closely. This will develop “eyes that see”. There is not a better framework to utilise than nature. It is readily available and tested, giving everyone confidence and clarity in their thought and action. Nature is a “ready-made” salesperson for sustainability designing and constructing practices. A well-aware public will endorse more government-directed investment toward healing the earth and its atmosphere. 

Reference:

Rheude, F, Kondrasch, J, Röder, H & Fröhling, M 2021, ‘Review of the terminology in the sustainable building sector’, Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 286.

Matt Stevens PhD and Laura Almeida PhD research and teach at Western Sydney University

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