biomimicron

The book of the mimicry of the living

Biomythology: Eastgate-gate 3 (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound)

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Termite mounds might offer so much more opportunity for biomimicrists than we currently realise. Possible the most famous ‘Biomimicry Template’ in functional biomimetic architecture is emerging as one of the most poorly understood. This situation is entirely understandable, though also highlights one of the biggest issues those following the design paradigm must surmount: How do we become an expert at everything?
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What follows is a reworking of part my dissertation. Plagiarism is not encouraged. This work is protected through creative commons licences. The suggested academic reference is:

Parr,D., 2012, Biomimicry Lessons for Building Ventilation, Submitted for qualification of Environmental Design of Buildings MSc, at Cardiff University – Welsh School of Architecture. Treatment available at biomimicron.wordpress.com

UPDATE 23/04/2013: Since this set of articles was published, I have had the good fortune to get to talk to both Rupert Soar and Mick Pearce extensively about their work, and recieved information from Dan Phillips. In being able to get EVEN MORE information from all these people, I now feel that this series of articles is still only part of the discussion. There is nothing in these articles which is outright untrue, however they miss a significant proportion of Mick, Dan and Arups good work. Look out for Eastgate Now: Redux coming soon…

In the articles posted before Christmas, I explained some issues that struck me about Mick Pearce’s Eastgate Centre, which I later found were also shared by a couple of academics, Turner and Soar. The issues they highlighted about the scientific basis of his design were founded on measured data and a clear understanding of the current Eastgate Centre design. They are highly informed commentators. The paper they published was excellent both in its criticism of the building, but also in the constructive concepts they go onto suggest.

TurnerSoarLung

Turner and Soar (2008) propose a model for termite mound ventilation which draws parallels with the human lung.

Turner and Soars dissection of the buildings Bad Science is finished with a far more current, and to my mind better founded and more complete, model of termite ventilation. The model in fact is itself biomimicry, abstracted another level. They propose a far more complex process, which is most analogous with the human lung. In brief it suggests that the termites themselves are alveoli, the bronchioles the finer tunnels and the chimney the trachea. The gist of it suggests that as the lungs/tunnels branch, actual flow of the air volume decreases, but diffusion processes replace them. While the nest itself has no diaphragm or thoracic cavity to speak of, the pressure difference that these organs create is produced in the termite mound by the naturally changing and changeable winds on the huge surface area present on the mounds. Further, they propose that changes in the frequency of the wind can accelerate this diffusive transport process. The full write up of the paper can be accessed FOR FREE here.

Block design concepts by Turner and Soar (2008)

Block design concepts by Turner and Soar (2008)

What does this mean for building design? Well, they suggest buildings made of perforated blocks, conceivably facilitated by new advances rapid prototyping and 3d printing, which can ‘breathe’. This is the most hypothetical of concepts currently, but the kind of research and thinking that biomimicry really needs. As a Redditor in a previous post and I discussed, biomimicry is currently just ‘tricks’, but it doesn’t have to be this way, however that is a conversation for another time.

Almost the most interesting part of Turner and Soars paper is the authors themselves. Turner is an American and a member of SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Soar is part of the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, at Loughborough in the UK. Mick is an architect, and definitely a good one, but he worked (as far as I can tell) on his own. In case I haven’t made it clear enough Eastgate is a good, GREEN building. It’s just not a good biomimetic one.

The more biomimicry becomes publicly visible, the more it needs to be able to hold itself up to scrutiny from every angle. Biomimetic design crosses so many borders. Just in the environmental building ‘category’, designs need to stand up when seen by Architects, Civil Engineers, Biologists, Environmental Building Consultants AND the clients. I am a (novice) Environmental Building Scientist, and in my experience, the green building field itself is already finding it difficult to reconcile 4 of the 5 disciplines above. Ironically, this fledgling meeting of minds is already looking at biomimicry to solve the problems arising from the disparate backgrounds, but also not realising that by taking a ham fisted ‘it looks like nature is this’ approach, the poorly founded decisions and misguided designs they are reaching are even more counterproductive. Seriously, what you know about that?

Bad Science is still Bad Science even if it’s ‘the best you can do’. Thankfully Janine Benyus has been campaigning under the ‘Biologist at the design table’ flag. Her Biomimicry 3.8 initiatives coupled with the collaborative PhD at the University of Akron is a strong step towards addressing these issues. Turner and Soar’s international and inter-departmental partnership is the epitome of this outlook, and thankfully becoming more common, however, these ‘early industrial adopters’ of biomimicry need to beware that you can’t just guess the science, you need to know it, and be able to communicate it cross discipline. Failure to do so runs the risk of producing ‘biomimicry skeptics’, which is yet another class of naysayers we don’t need.

References: Turner, J. & Soar, R., 2008. Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realising the living building. Loughborough, Loughborough University, pp. 1-8.

R.I.P. Aaron Swartz
“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.” – Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Creative Commons Licence
Biomythology: Eastgate-gate (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound) by Biomimicron: Parr,D is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.esf.edu/efb/turner/publication%20pdfs/Beyond%20Biomimicry%20MS%20distribution.pdf.

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Author: davergp

Environmental Geoscience BSc. Environmental Design of Buildings MSc. Bonsai Hobbyist, Landscaping Peon and Woodland Enthusiast. Founder of The Biomimicron

8 thoughts on “Biomythology: Eastgate-gate 3 (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound)

  1. I don’t get why build up so much rant on something that is on the right path (sustainable and green, maybe not so much of a perfect biomimicry), instead of idk, buildings that are unnecessarily energy consuming. I’m sure you know that ±1°C is a marketing thing, I mean, that single phrase has stayed in everyone’s and their mothers minds. Its not true, but its catchy, and that is a massive boost for people to get interested on the topic. Maybe further ahead, people will discover as you cleverly have, that it is not a biomimetic design per se, but they will design better things, taking eastgate as a stepping stone.
    Well, bottom line is, don’t hate so much, you will grow up bald.

    • Because there is a story in it, and no one is telling it.
      Also, because the *real* story behind this building and this project is amazing and doesn’t get enough credit.
      Surely any academic/scientist/interested party should seek to ‘put the record straight’ if there is a constructive conversation to be had from it, rather than accept poor information or false press?
      The second most interesting part of this is I do say in two places that Eastgate is a good environmental/green building. The first most interesting part is that publishing this sotry has lead to me meeting Rupert Soar, having Dan Phillips comment on the blog in section 2, and having a Skype conversation with Mick Pearce 2 weeks ago. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t published this.
      Further, I now know that there is even more to this story than I have put down here. PART of this story has been submited to a science writing competition, and so I won’t be reproducing it here for a few months. Other parts however I plan to put into Chapter 4 in the next month or so, so stay tuned :)

  2. Re: Eastgate. I’m late to the discussion, but here goes.
    The whole termitary metaphor did not hold for too long after the initial buzz. I believe that it persisted because the Press liked it. The design team was always aware that Eastgate didn’t function like a termite mound at all.
    And Mick Pearce has always been fond of termite mounds, so there you are.
    If the author follows up on this I strongly suggest that he looks into the part played by the client.
    Nothing short of visionary.

    • Funny you should say that…

      I did mean to follow up, and I have, but due to the fact I am no longer just writing for myself, the process has been slower!

      I’m hoping that my interview with Mick Pearce I did for Friends of the Earth will be published this month, and my shortlisted piece for the Guardian should be following shortly. Obviously once they do break I’ll promote them through here too :)

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