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New Building Systems Mimic Nature and Return to a Biocentric Approach to Design

Growth is good when in accordance with nature’s own time-tested blueprint.

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By Nancy B. Solomon, AIA


Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Define regenerative design

2. Explain why sustainable design is not enough.

3. Discuss biophilic architecture

4. Discuss biomimicry’s effect on building design


We’ve come a long way from the sealed-window, fluorescent-lit, energy-guzzling buildings of the mid-20th century. With the help of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system and other green guidelines, more and more architects are meeting stringent environmental criteria. “Architects are getting good at the ‘technofix,’ ” says Bill Browning, Hon. AIA, a principal at Rocky Mountain Institute. They are becoming adept at applying technologies that deplete fewer precious resources, generate less toxicity, and threaten fewer habitats. In an industry that claims about 40 percent of the energy, 40 percent of the virgin minerals, and 25 percent of the virgin wood consumed worldwide per year, what else could we ask for?

To be built in Wisconsin's "tornado alley," the underground Kaufmann House by Eugene Tsui will have parabolic openingsto maximize light penetration.
Photo: © Eugene Tsui

Much more, it turns out. Up until now, sustainable design has been essentially an effort to minimize damage so that we can at least maintain what we still have. A worthy objective, considering the ever-mounting environmental degradation we are witnessing, but is this all we can aspire to? “It would be a pretty sorry state of affairs,” says architect Bill McDonough, FAIA, principal of William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, Virginia, “if, when asked how are things between you and your spouse, you answer ‘sustainable.’ ” Like a good marriage, good design should be uplifting and fertile.

Nature—whose designs are inherently efficient, effective, and beautiful—offers us models of abundant, healthy production. In their new book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), McDonough and his coauthor, chemist Michael Braungart, illustrate this with a cherry tree: Its fruit becomes food for animals and insects; its bounty of lovely leaves degrades naturally into the earth. Nothing is wasted; nothing is toxic. In terms of nature, growth is in fact good. So why can’t the same be said about the growth of human settlement?

It can, say those on the green frontier, if we can learn from nature. According to Gil Friend, president and C.E.O. of Natural Logic, “Nature’s ecosystems have spent 3.85 billion years building efficient, complex, adaptive, resilient systems. Why should we reinvent the wheel, when the R&D has already been done?” Increasingly, architects are collaborating with chemists, biologists, ecologists, and psychologists to learn Mother Nature’s secrets and apply them to our own mortal designs.

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