Can a building behave like a forest—by generating its own energy, absorbing naturally available water, and producing no waste? This was one of the prompts behind the design of the Bullitt Center, a six-story office building in Seattle, Washington.
Constructed in 2013, the building aims to mimic a forest of Douglas firs—trees that once covered the area now occupied by the city—by taking everything it needs from the environment around it and producing no toxins. Standing 30 meters high, the five-sided building harvests all of its water from rainfall, while all of its waste is composted on-site and returned to the soil. A tree-like canopy of 575 solar panels allows the building to be a net positive energy generator, creating about 30 percent more electricity than it consumes.
Buildings like this are exactly what the world needs to reduce energy consumption and help combat—or reverse—climate change. For inspiration, architects are turning to the science (though it’s perhaps also an art) of biomimicry: the practice of imitating nature’s ecosystems, processes, and organisms for sustainable solutions to human problems.
Humanity has always taken inspiration from nature—think Velcro and the small hooks on plant seeds, cathedral domes and eggshells, the nose of a bullet train and a kingfisher’s beak. But biomimicry in architecture has the specific intention of lessening buildings’ impact on the environment. There’s a clear need for this: Building operations, together with construction materials and processes, are responsible for 47 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.
Following in nature’s footsteps has already led to the creation of innovative building materials that are far more sustainable than traditional products. Inspired by coral reefs, the US company BioMason, based in North Carolina, grows biocement that traps carbon in the production process, a total reversal of what normally happens when cement is made (traditional cement manufacture accounts for between 7 and 8 percent of global emissions ).
BioMason takes recycled bits of granite and then adds bacteria, calcium, and carbon to stimulate activity that produces calcium carbonate, essentially recreating the process of how corals form their skeleton. The carbon-neutral biocement—whose creation emits 99.4 percent less carbon than the most commonly used form of cement—has already been applied in both government and commercial projects across the US and Europe.
Then there’s Biohm, a company that realized there’s no such thing as waste in nature. Having noted the decomposing capabilities of mycelium—the strong and flexible root fibers of fungi—it has harnessed this process to recycle non-natural materials, including plastic, using this as feed to “grow” biodegradable mycelium insulation panels in a carbon-negative process that sequesters at least 16 tons of carbon per month, according to the company.