A rendering of the watershed building in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood.
Courtesy of Weber Thompson

What Would Nature Do?

By Maria Dolan

It seems like there is no end to the problems humans must solve. There are global challenges: human-driven climate shift, ocean acidification, war, the plights of refugees. The Seattle area also struggles with its own growing list of issues, from a lack of affordable housing, to growing inequality and major traffic woes.

In the search for solutions, it’s helpful to have consultants on board, and some designers and scientists say they know just where to turn: the plants, animals, microbes and other non-human inhabitants of the natural world.

“Organisms are solving challenges everywhere on earth,” says Tim McGee, biophilic design manager at the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute. He’s also the owner of the biology and design idea incubation firm LikoLab, which uses biomimicry to evolve products, systems and organizations to achieve high performance.

Biomimicry is the art of learning from—and sometimes solving problems with an inspiration from—nature. (The “bio” in the root of the word is from the Greek “bios,” meaning life.) Biomimicry is an old idea, older even than the Renaissance, when Leonardo da Vinci famously looked to nature, among other inspiration, for the ideas behind his designs for flying machines and water conduits.

While the idea is old, “biomimicry” actually is a recent term, popularized by Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute and author of the book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. In her writing, Benyus describes biomimicry as “learning to live gracefully on this planet by consciously emulating life’s genius. It’s not really technology or biology; it’s the technology of biology. It’s making a fiber like a spider, or lassoing the sun’s energy like a leaf.” Designing for sustainability is also important to biomimicry thinking.

It’s this kind of thinking that’s inspired some remarkable designs in recent decades, including a Japanese bullet train partially modeled after the aerodynamics of the kingfisher bird; a shopping center in Harare, Zimbabwe that mimics the cooling strategies of a termite mound; and a synthetic surface called Sharklet that inhibits bacterial growth through texture alone, inspired by the bacteria-repellent skin of a shark. Some innovators are working on larger-scale biomimicry projects, such as pondering how to redesign the industrial economy of extraction, production and disposal into a circular economy, one that mimics nature’s cycles in reducing or eliminating waste.

What is biomimicry? “It’s not really technology or biology; it’s the technology of biology. It’s making a fiber like a spider, or lassoing the sun’s energy like a leaf.”
Janine Benyus, Author of "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature"
Biomimicry Puget Sound

Locally, designers and thinkers are asking how they can bring nature’s solutions to bear on the challenges facing our region. “We’re asking, how do you apply biomimicry at a city scale?” says Jennifer Barnes, a Seattle-based green architect and owner of 55-5 Consulting. “What can we learn from nature that will help us improve the health and livability of our cities?”

To encourage the field, she and another Seattle green architect, Alexandra Ramsden, started the group Biomimicry Puget Sound several years ago to share biomimicry information and strategies. Working in tandem, the two won grants for projects from Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation.

They created the website and resource Urban Greenprint, which outlines a biomimetic process and design guidelines for strengthening ecological systems in cities. They also developed SeedKit, an online flipbook of design concepts learned from Pacific Northwest forests that aims to inspire regional architects and designers to use biomimicry.

That was part of the thinking that created RainBellows, a conceptual design for rainwater filtration and reuse for the exterior of the Watershed Building, a sustainable commercial building in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. Landscape Architecture Principal Rachael Meyer and her team at Seattle design firm Weber Thompson designed RainBellows with assistance from Barnes and Ramsden.

“We were looking for ways to evaporate water,” Meyer says. Evaporating water is a function that our native Northwest forests do well, with 50 percent of rainfall returning into the atmosphere in those forests. But the Watershed Building also needed to meet certain requirements for water collection, so the goal shifted from evaporation to how to filter collected water, reducing waste and preventing dirty runoff.

Meyer and her team devised a conceptual design that takes its inspiration from a succulent—the common ice plant—that has evolved the ability to filter, store and reuse water through its cellular system. Their design looks like pockets that are built into the facade of a building, and that open when water enters them. These “storage cells” filter the water, which can then reenter the building’s plumbing system through an attachment at the bottom of the cell.

A conceptual design of RainBellows at different stages of filtration. These storage cells filter the water, which can then reenter the building’s plumbing system through an attachment at the bottom of the cell. The design is built into the facade of a building, and opens when water enters them.
Photography courtesy of Weber Thompson

Due to design timing and building constraints, RainBellows was not incorporated into the final design but nevertheless has won awards, including from the Washington Chapter of the Association of Landscape Architects. “It was a great opportunity to continue the ideas generated during the design of Watershed, with the hope that it might be implemented in a future project,” Meyer says.

Barnes and others also point to the Bullitt Center building on Capitol Hill, certified by the International Living Building Institute and often called one of the world’s “greenest” buildings, as an example of biomimicry in action. It’s been described as functioning like a tree. For instance, the building relies on the sun for energy and collects water (through a rooftop membrane) before filtering and storing it.

While successful designs worldwide have been developed using biomimicry, like the Harare mall and the Japanese bullet train, experts say there are few examples of built projects in Seattle with clear biomimetic roots.

Sometimes biomimicry is hidden in projects, as inspiration taken from nature occurs in the early stages of a design but isn’t obvious in the end result. Taking inspiration from nature and then bringing it to life can be extremely challenging, McGee says. “It can take decades to devise the technical processes to make these ideas come to life. These aren’t usually overnight stories, but 30- or 40-year innovations.”

It can also be difficult to sell the products. McGee points to the example of Sharklet, the synthetic surface that uses texture to inhibit bacterial growth. It has been used in hospitals and elsewhere, but the company has had to work hard to create a market for the product because the technology upends the current system. “I think they still have amazing growth to do,” McGee says.

Be Your Own Biomimic

The challenges sound disheartening, but perhaps they also leave room for those with senses of adventure to come up with their own ideas, Leonardo-style. You don’t have to be seeking market share to take inspiration from nature, although it does help to have a process to guide you from problem to nature-inspired solution. You also don’t have to be trying to answer a design question. How about looking to nature for how to manage a team, collect ideas for an essay or create new code?

Barnes and Ramsden’s step-by-step process is one way to guide biomimicry thinking: identify, research, understand and distill, resulting in a solution. Meyer used this process to create RainBellows: identifying the ice plant as potential inspiration for water evaporation capabilities, researching the plant’s biological strategies for managing water, understanding the mechanics of those strategies, distilling the design principles that underlie those mechanics and ending with a biomimetic solution.

For the first step, identification, Meyer has used Ask Nature, an online library with information on more than 2,000 natural phenomena and their applications.

McGee suggests starting by going outside: “You don’t have to go to Costa Rica or Australia to learn about the amazing things biology does. Just look outside anywhere in the city—even the sidewalk cracks.” McGee is developing a process for creative observation that anyone can use for biomimetic problem-solving.

Another freeing thought: We’re only at the early stages of what biomimicry can do.

“Right now we’re taking baby steps,” Barnes says. “In my opinion, how do we tweak a widget a little isn’t the question. The question is: How do we want to live on this planet?”

More like the rest of nature, the biomimics hope.


Tips for Better Biomimicry

By Tim McGee; Illustrations by Tina Hoggatt


Illustration by Tina Hoggatt

Use creative observation.

And do it with empathy. “We’re hard-wired to pay attention to things we love and can extend ourselves towards.”

Illustration by Tina Hoggatt

Try analogical thinking.

“Tree roots grow in a pattern, our blood system has a pattern, electricity has a pattern.” Taking observations made in one area and looking at how they might relate to another “helps you ask better questions so you can design a better system.”

Illustration by Tina Hoggatt

Have an application.

Apply biomimicry to another skill set, like engineering, graphic design, architecture, writing or business.