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?
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.
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.
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.
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.