Nature Inspires Sustainable Solutions for the Home

Nature inspires creativity when it comes to building more sustainable homes.

Sustainable Building

Photo: Flickr

Rather than trying to dominate or overrun nature, some companies are being inspired by it, and with good reason. Over eons, nature’s “laboratory” has developed sustainable solutions to life’s challenges.

The process of drawing inspiration from nature has been called biomimicry or biomimetics, with “bio,” meaning “life,” and “mimesis,” meaning “to emulate.” Engineers and scientists are increasingly looking at how nature handles everything from energy and food production to nontoxic chemistry, transportation, and packaging. Nature, for example, offers solutions such as self-cleaning surfaces that do not require detergents, manufacturing processes that use materials that do not leave toxic wastes and use little energy, and antibiotics that do not result in resistant pathogens.

The design approach called biomimicry looks for nature’s strategies, such as maintaining physical integrity; getting, storing, and distributing resources; and making, modifying, or staying put — all without destroying the very system in which they exist. That approach contrasts with long-time product strategies that harvest resources to the point of exhaustion or poison the environment.

But how does this affect the average homeowner/consumer? “Knowing that the natural world is providing inspiration for the technologies and products we all use and purchase is important information to have,” says Sam Stier, director of K-12 and Non-formal Education at The Biomimicry Institute. “It tends to increase people’s interest in and respect for the natural world when they know how learning from nature is improving the quality of human life and our environment. This awareness allows you to make decisions about what sort of impact you want to make on the world by your purchases.

Innovation at Work
The toxic residue and unsustainability of certain practices and products have become evident, and natural alternatives are being sought more often. For instance, lead was often used in paint to give it color and a water-resistant coating. But lead-based paint was banned from housing in 1978 because lead is toxic. Since then, safer alternatives have been discovered.

Damaging stormwater runoff is often experienced because of the impermeable surfaces of cities. Taking cues from nature, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now promotes the use of rain gardens and green roofs. These options offer the techniques of infiltrating and evaporating that mimic how water would naturally move through an undeveloped area. In addition, these vegetated areas play into larger ecosystem techniques by improving air quality and reducing “heat islands,” those concrete and asphalt metropolitan areas significantly warmer than their greener surroundings.

Here’s one example. The tenacity of the blue mussel inspired the development of a formaldehyde-free wood glue. The shellfish secretes filaments that contain a unique combination of amino acids that give it super-sticking powers. Using that as a basis, Columbia Forest Products, the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and Hercules Inc. (now Ashland Hercules) cooperatively developed what has become the patented PureBond® technology, which closely resembles the mussel’s important proteins and uses inexpensive, accessible soy. With that technology, Columbia Forest Products was able to eliminate urea-formaldehyde, a recognized human carcinogen, from its hardwood plywood products. 

“Since our products are all wood-based panels, we look to nature to begin many of our product innovation initiatives and work to preserve nature by practicing responsible forestry,” says Todd Vogelsinger, director of marketing for Columbia Forest Products.

Database of Solutions
In November 2008, the website AskNature.org launched, allowing users to search for and study nature’s solutions to design challenges with its database. Say you are a budding entrepreneur and looking for the next great idea in keeping fabrics clean or allowing carpeting to be self-healing. Maybe you are an architecture student who wants to come up with a new idea for heating and cooling homes.

The site was launched with the support of Autodesk, a world leader in design software, and with the guiding vision of Janine Benyus, founder of The Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.

“Biomimicry is interdisciplinary: biology applied to architecture, engineering, product design, city planning, medicine, organizational theory,” says Stier. “So to design the site, we had to make it accessible to all of these various audiences.  The site isn’t just about finding inspiration from nature; it’s also about finding other people who are interested in the same things you are.”

Users can explore the site’s forums to get an appreciation of what can be done, such as the young British woman who created a sustainable refrigerator for impoverished Africans.  Users can discover nature-inspired products such as StoCoat Lotusan® self-cleaning exterior coating. Modeled on the lotus plant, it possesses a highly water-repellent surface that allows dirt to run off with the water that falls on a building’s facade. Inspired by Morpho butterflies that remain a vibrant blue throughout their lives, Morphotex® structural colored fibers by Teijin Fibers Limited of Japan produce colors based on the thickness and structure of the fibers without the use of dyes or pigments.