Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture


I’d like to start with a couple of quick examples. These are spinneret glands on the abdomen of a spider. They produce six different types of silk, which is spun together into a fiber, tougher than any fiber humans have ever made. The nearest we’ve come is with aramid fiber. And to make that, it involves extremes of temperature, extremes of pressure and loads of pollution. And yet the spider manages to do it at ambient temperature and pressure with raw materials of dead flies and water. It does suggest we’ve still got a bit to learn. This beetle can detect a forest fire at 80 kilometers away. That’s roughly 10,000 times the range of man-made fire detectors. And what’s more, this guy doesn’t need a wire connected all the way back to a power station burning fossil fuels. So these two examples give a sense of what biomimicry can deliver. If we could learn to make things and do things the way nature does, we could achieve factor 10, factor 100, maybe even factor 1,000 savings in resource and energy use. And if we’re to make progress with the sustainability revolution, I believe there are three really big changes we need to bring about. Firstly, radical increases in resource efficiency. Secondly, shifting from a linear, wasteful, polluting way of using resources to a closed-loop model. And thirdly, changing from a fossil fuel economy to a solar economy. And for all three of these, I believe, biomimicry has a lot of the solutions that we’re going to need. You could look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8-billion-year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it. So I’m going to talk about some projects that have explored these ideas. And let’s start with radical increases in resource efficiency. When we were working on the Eden Project, we had to create a very large greenhouse in a site that was not only irregular, but it was continually changing because it was still being quarried. It was a hell of a challenge, and it was actually examples from biology that provided a lot of the clues. So for instance, it was soap bubbles that helped us generate a building form that would work regardless of the final ground levels. Studying pollen grains and radiolaria and carbon molecules helped us devise the most efficient structural solution using hexagons and pentagons. The next move was that we wanted to try and maximize the size of those hexagons. And to do that we had to find an alternative to glass, which is really very limited in terms of its unit sizes. And in nature there are lots of examples of very efficient structures based on pressurized membranes. So we started exploring this material called ETFE. It’s a high-strength polymer. And what you do is you put it together in three layers, you weld it around the edge, and then you inflate it. And the great thing about this stuff is you can make it in units of roughly seven times the size of glass, and it was only one percent of the weight of double-glazing. So that was a factor-100 saving. And what we found is that we got into a positive cycle in which one breakthrough facilitated another. So with such large, lightweight pillows, we had much less steel. With less steel we were getting more sunlight in, which meant we didn’t have to put as much extra heat in winter. And with less overall weight in the superstructure, there were big savings in the foundations. And at the end of the project we worked out that the weight of that superstructure was actually less than the weight of the air inside the building. So I think the Eden Project is a fairly good example of how ideas from biology can lead to radical increases in resource efficiency — delivering the same function, but with a fraction of the resource input. And actually there are loads of examples in nature that you could turn to for similar solutions. So for instance, you could develop super-efficient roof structures based on giant Amazon water lilies, whole buildings inspired by abalone shells, super-lightweight bridges inspired by plant cells. There’s a world of beauty and efficiency to explore here using nature as a design tool. So now I want to go onto talking about the linear-to-closed-loop idea. The way we tend to use resources is we extract them, we turn them into short-life products and then dispose of them. Nature works very differently. In ecosystems, the waste from one organism becomes the nutrient for something else in that system. And there are some examples of projects that have deliberately tried to mimic ecosystems. And one of my favorites is called the Cardboard to Caviar Project by Graham Wiles. And in their area they had a lot of shops and restaurants that were producing lots of food, cardboard and plastic waste. It was ending up in landfills. Now the really clever bit is what they did with the cardboard waste. And I’m just going to talk through this animation. So they were paid to collect it from the restaurants. They then shredded the cardboard and sold it to equestrian centers as horse bedding. When that was soiled, they were paid again to collect it. They put it into worm recomposting systems, which produced a lot of worms, which they fed to Siberian sturgeon, which produced caviar, which they sold back to the restaurants. So it transformed a linear process into a closed-loop model, and it created more value in the process. Graham Wiles has continued to add more and more elements to this, turning waste streams into schemes that create value. And just as natural systems tend to increase in diversity and resilience over time, there’s a real sense with this project that the number of possibilities just continue increasing. And I know it’s a quirky example, but I think the implications of this are quite radical, because it suggests that we could actually transform a big problem — waste — into a massive opportunity. And particularly in cities — we could look at the whole metabolism of cities, and look at those as opportunities. And that’s what we’re doing on the next project I’m going to talk about, the Mobius Project, where we’re trying to bring together a number of activities, all within one building, so that the waste from one can be the nutrient for another. And the kind of elements I’m talking about are, firstly, we have a restaurant inside a productive greenhouse, a bit like this one in Amsterdam called De Kas. Then we would have an anaerobic digester, which could deal with all the biodegradable waste from the local area, turn that into heat for the greenhouse and electricity to feed back into the grid. We’d have a water treatment system treating wastewater, turning that into fresh water and generating energy from the solids using just plants and micro-organisms. We’d have a fish farm fed with vegetable waste from the kitchen and worms from the compost and supplying fish back to the restaurant. And we’d also have a coffee shop, and the waste grains from that could be used as a substrate for growing mushrooms. So you can see that we’re bringing together cycles of food, energy and water and waste all within one building. And just for fun, we’ve proposed this for a roundabout in central London, which at the moment is a complete eyesore. Some of you may recognize this. And with just a little bit of planning, we could transform a space dominated by traffic into one that provides open space for people, reconnects people with food and transforms waste into closed loop opportunities. So the final project I want to talk about is the Sahara Forest Project, which we’re working on at the moment. It may come as a surprise to some of you to hear that quite large areas of what are currently desert were actually forested a fairly short time ago. So for instance, when Julius Caesar arrived in North Africa, huge areas of North Africa were covered in cedar and cypress forests. And during the evolution of life on the Earth, it was the colonization of the land by plants that helped create the benign climate we currently enjoy. The converse is also true. The more vegetation we lose, the more that’s likely to exacerbate climate change and lead to further desertification. And this animation, this shows photosynthetic activity over the course of a number of years, and what you can see is that the boundaries of those deserts shift quite a lot, and that raises the question of whether we can intervene at the boundary conditions to halt, or maybe even reverse, desertification. And if you look at some of the organisms that have evolved to live in deserts, there are some amazing examples of adaptations to water scarcity. This is the Namibian fog-basking beetle, and it’s evolved a way of harvesting its own fresh water in a desert. The way it does this is it comes out at night, crawls to the top of a sand dune, and because it’s got a matte black shell, is able to radiate heat out to the night sky and become slightly cooler than its surroundings. So when the moist breeze blows in off the sea, you get these droplets of water forming on the beetle’s shell. Just before sunrise, he tips his shell up, the water runs down into his mouth, has a good drink, goes off and hides for the rest of the day. And the ingenuity, if you could call it that, goes even further. Because if you look closely at the beetle’s shell, there are lots of little bumps on that shell. And those bumps are hydrophilic; they attract water. Between them there’s a waxy finish which repels water. And the effect of this is that as the droplets start to form on the bumps, they stay in tight, spherical beads, which means they’re much more mobile than they would be if it was just a film of water over the whole beetle’s shell. So even when there’s only a small amount of moisture in the air, it’s able to harvest that very effectively and channel it down to its mouth. So amazing example of an adaptation to a very resource-constrained environment — and in that sense, very relevant to the kind of challenges we’re going to be facing over the next few years, next few decades. We’re working with the guy who invented the Seawater Greenhouse. This is a greenhouse designed for arid coastal regions, and the way it works is that you have this whole wall of evaporator grills, and you trickle seawater over that so that wind blows through, it picks up a lot of moisture and is cooled in the process. So inside it’s cool and humid, which means the plants need less water to grow. And then at the back of the greenhouse, it condenses a lot of that humidity as freshwater in a process that is effectively identical to the beetle. And what they found with the first Seawater Greenhouse that was built was it was producing slightly more freshwater than it needed for the plants inside. So they just started spreading this on the land around, and the combination of that and the elevated humidity had quite a dramatic effect on the local area. This photograph was taken on completion day, and just one year later, it looked like that. So it was like a green inkblot spreading out from the building turning barren land back into biologically productive land — and in that sense, going beyond sustainable design to achieve restorative design. So we were keen to scale this up and apply biomimicry ideas to maximize the benefits. And when you think about nature, often you think about it as being all about competition. But actually in mature ecosystems, you’re just as likely to find examples of symbiotic relationships. So an important biomimicry principle is to find ways of bringing technologies together in symbiotic clusters. And the technology that we settled on as an ideal partner for the Seawater Greenhouse is concentrated solar power, which uses solar-tracking mirrors to focus the sun’s heat to create electricity. And just to give you some sense of the potential of CSP, consider that we receive 10,000 times as much energy from the sun every year as we use in energy from all forms — 10,000 times. So our energy problems are not intractable. It’s a challenge to our ingenuity. And the kind of synergies I’m talking about are, firstly, both these technologies work very well in hot, sunny deserts. CSP needs a supply of demineralized freshwater. That’s exactly what the Seawater Greenhouse produces. CSP produces a lot of waste heat. We’ll be able to make use of all that to evaporate more seawater and enhance the restorative benefits. And finally, in the shade under the mirrors, it’s possible to grow all sorts of crops that would not grow in direct sunlight. So this is how this scheme would look. The idea is we create this long hedge of greenhouses facing the wind. We’d have concentrated solar power plants at intervals along the way. Some of you might be wondering what we would do with all the salts. And with biomimicry, if you’ve got an underutilized resource, you don’t think, “How am I going to dispose of this?” You think, “What can I add to the system to create more value?” And it turns out that different things crystallize out at different stages. When you evaporate seawater, the first thing to crystallize out is calcium carbonate. And that builds up on the evaporators — and that’s what that image on the left is — gradually getting encrusted with the calcium carbonate. So after a while, we could take that out, use it as a lightweight building block. And if you think about the carbon in that, that would have come out of the atmosphere, into the sea and then locked away in a building product. The next thing is sodium chloride. You can also compress that into a building block, as they did here. This is a hotel in Bolivia. And then after that, there are all sorts of compounds and elements that we can extract, like phosphates, that we need to get back into the desert soils to fertilize them. And there’s just about every element of the periodic table in seawater. So it should be possible to extract valuable elements like lithium for high-performance batteries. And in parts of the Arabian Gulf, the seawater, the salinity is increasing steadily due to the discharge of waste brine from desalination plants. And it’s pushing the ecosystem close to collapse. Now we would be able to make use of all that waste brine. We could evaporate it to enhance the restorative benefits and capture the salts, transforming an urgent waste problem into a big opportunity. Really the Sahara Forest Project is a model for how we could create zero-carbon food, abundant renewable energy in some of the most water-stressed parts of the planet as well as reversing desertification in certain areas. So returning to those big challenges that I mentioned at the beginning: radical increases in resource efficiency, closing loops and a solar economy. They’re not just possible; they’re critical. And I firmly believe that studying the way nature solves problems will provide a lot of the solutions. But perhaps more than anything, what this thinking provides is a really positive way of talking about sustainable design. Far too much of the talk about the environment uses very negative language. But here it’s about synergies and abundance and optimizing. And this is an important point. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “If you want to build a flotilla of ships, you don’t sit around talking about carpentry. No, you need to set people’s souls ablaze with visions of exploring distant shores.” And that’s what we need to do, so let’s be positive, and let’s make progress with what could be the most exciting period of innovation we’ve ever seen. Thank you. (Applause)


100 thoughts on “Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture

  1. @roidroid What was irrational was you thinking it wouldn't be a favor to the planet and demonstrably, objectively better.

    I'm quite familiar with Carlin. Yes, the planet will be fine. Some, or a lot, of the life on it is indeed fucked.

    And yes, we'll benefit. And? Your assertion that it is ONLY self interest is pure bullshit, because whether or not humans were here at all, desert over forest is a gargantuan waste by any measurement. Do you understand?

  2. @Jotto999 But you're still forcing your subjective values on things. To say that anything is better for "the planet" you have to presume to know some kindof overarching goal that the planet is striving towards. But you know no such thing!

    So many assumptions:
    – humans are good for the planet?
    – biodiversity is good for the planet? (remember that evolution WILL fill in all new niche gaps)
    – life is good for the planet?
    – heat is good for the planet?

    So no, as yet i still don't understand you

  3. @roidroid Who says it's for the planet specifically? That was your assumption.

    How about good for fucking life?

  4. @MatsMinds ah i see. So it's more that… we should have ways of creating these structures and buildings that doesn't deplete resources. It looks like it's mostly created of steel, concrete and plastic.

    yeah i suppose it's a valid point. It'd take a lot more planning to make it absolutely zero impact, it may even be worth doing. But i'd hate to see the project procrastinated into oblivion while striving after such perfection. I'd rather see something built now, and treat it as a step.

  5. To naprawdę wspaniała architektura i co najważniejsze sprzyja rozpakowywaniu się naszej biologii, bo jest fraktalna.Możemy więc w pełni się rozwijać bo nasza naturalna energia nie jest w żaden sposób blokowana. No i możemy zauważyć, sposób w jaki wszystko ze sobą się wiąże, tworzenie pozytywnych pętli daje niesamowite możliwości. Takie technologie są nam bardzo, bardzo potrzebne, byśmy mogli wreszcie prawidłowo się rozwijać jako świadome społeczeństwo.

  6. Eloquent, direct to the point, simple yet fool of wisdom, the guy is spectacular and thanks so much for mentioning my Country Bolivia with such a great connotation, because is humiliating and unfair that my Country is referenced only as fine cocaine producer, my Country is a normal one.

  7. Fascinating info here. Sad though that hundreds of thousands to millions of people watch the garbage that is on YouTube and so relatively few are seeing this. Share this with your peeps. Get the word out as far as you can.

  8. Does anyone know where that animation of earth's photosynthetic activity came from? Is it available somewhere?

  9. Care to explain why that is a lie? And please do some research before you attempt an explanation, I know quite a bit about the topic

  10. Lol, yeah, Fukushima was really nice. And what do you do with radioactive waste? How do you re-use that? Besides, Nuclear energy its not renewable. Uranium is every time more weird, dificult and expensive to find.

  11. Fukashima was hit by an 8.9 earthquake and a tsunami. Tell me, what will survive that?

    Radioactive waste can be put right back where it was found. Radioactive uranium is extracted from the ground it can go right back in. The amount of land this would take up over, say, a thousand years does NOT COME CLOSE the the amount of land wasted by wind farm/solar farms and nuclear is far more efficient.

    Energy does not have to be renewable. If there are fuels to be used there is no sense in not using

  12. Also, Uranium is not expensive in the slightest. It is around 100$ a pound and is able to produce enough energy to vaporize nearly 4million gallons of water.

    Do you realize how much that is? Go look at your electricity bill for one month and ask yourself how much cheaper it would be if nuclear power was more prominent

  13. Yeah, I know it's cheap as hell. Yet you havent told me, what happens with the waste? You know, in France for lots of years, they bury containers with radioactive waste in places they thought, no one will ever use to live. Urban development took many people to live there eventually, all of them with cancer now. Ask someone in Chernobyl if they rather pay less in their monthly bill, or face an incident like the one in 1986, or someone from Fukushima. Its only cheaper monetarly.

  14. You should adapt your energy development to your ground conditions. For an example, Japan being and island could use wave power, in deserts solar farms, in high mountains wind farms, its not waste, its adapting your territory. Yes, nuclear is more efficient, I´m nos arguing that, and yes, fuels should be ussed, but according to the six principles of sustainable developtment. The third states that fuels could be used to make a transition between fossil fuels and sustainble infraestructure.

  15. And also, it has to become renewable with time, since the oil production peak was in 2010, meaning, inevitably, oil will be more expensive day to day. since everytime its more dificult to find and extract. You know, uranium its really cheap to extract, since part of it now days its being extracted from Afric, the uranium niger war. Just like diamonds, but yeah, cheapear, I mean, people dont really seem to care the real cost of things. A lot of people dead in Africa not expensive? Human lives?

  16. I by no means support reliance on fossil fuels. You're right, some of the world's uranium does come from Africa but a very small percentage (little over 10%).

    Bringing African violence and wars into nuclear power is simply outrageous. You're blaming uranium mining for wars in Africa. The situation in Africa is far more complex than to be attributed to the mining of uranium

  17. It's beside the point how much exactly is harvested from Africa, you can't directly attribute African problems to the collection of uranium

  18. I like how the Rolex commercial at the end tries to be all cool as if they're breaking history with their water-proof over-priced watches. It's such trivial nonsense and commercialization in comparison to the TED presentation.

  19. The International Center for Environmental Arts (ICEA) was founded by David and Renate Jakupca in 1987 to meet the needs of people for current information about global issues.
    The historic ARK in Berea, home of the sustainable global Environmental Arts Movement, helped inaugurate the green building trend that is now sweeping America.
    "THEORY of ICEALITY on ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS" is the cornerstone for sustainable activity that is now replicated by urban designers, architects, etc Worldwide.

  20. Its all sounds great, but i would love to know how much energy it requires to produce ETFE… and if the waste produced when creating it is higher than that of glass. Because if its more than glass… then it defies the whole thesis and point of being sustainable.

  21. Also, these proposals to reverse desertification in africa could be implemented as of tomorrow, but this part of the world is unstable and full of conflicts.

  22. What kind of waste is produced from ETFE and is there a way to utilize the waste in some way. Or do you know of a possible alternative to ETFE?

  23. Knowledge is power. We study so that we can make the world a better place. Once we transform it in a way that we're killing it, we gotta stop, look, think about it and study again for new solutions to new problems.

  24. Any reason why the idea of building these seawater greenhouses has not been considered for areas in the USA, for example California?

  25. WOW!
    I wish to share with you a project about building peace through socially committed, humanitarian and sustainable architecture.
    This may be of interest to those who are interested in architecture, building, community, sustainability and contributing to a more egalitarian world.
    The project is now on Kickstarter, trying to build a community around it: http://kck.st/2bKWGTD

  26. The facts stated about the spider and the beetle are good reminders that God is the Greatest and that His power is unparalleled – being able to bring the non-existent into existence as well as creating things which the human cannot even manage to replicate even if we all combined the intellect (granted to us by God alone) of all human beings on earth.

    "O mankind, an example is presented, so pay attention to it. Indeed, those you invoke besides Allah will never create a fly, even if they gathered together for that purpose."

    – Qur'an 22:73 –

  27. I think he lost his passion, forcing very good people; who might not have experiencewith an unrealistic speed that "Loses" everybody.  His speed reduces his goals by 54%.  As an American; I would walk out within 10 minutes. Good Knowledge; but unprofressionnal.  SLow down; like the old days!

  28. That superstructure in the beginning is real or just a rendering?
    Edit: yep, seems like just a rendering, hope they can make this thing real.

  29. This is exactly the kind of thing we need. This design philosophy leads to structures that are efficient, sustainable, environmentally friendly, and still very effective at carrying out their purpose. Praise God for how incredible a Creator He is!

  30. #4. Preserve/Conserve/Protect/Value nature so that we have some examples to mimic?
    How can we ever get that much control of our futures?
    https://www.facebook.com/Workable-Open-Democracy-262619170609120/

  31. What he s saying is great, but he talks way to fast . I don t think he even have time to digest this information himself.

  32. I would ammend "solar" economy to renewable economy, there are many eco-friendly energy-gen technologies

  33. Great talk!!! You might want to check out my new series WHAT ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL DOES NOT TEACH YOU @whatarchschooldoesnotteachyou here on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter! It's my Architecture journey of stories and lessons (un)learnt through which I aim to empower architects, architecture students and creatives to seek their truth! We are moving towards a new Architectural consciousness which means it is crucial to raise (self)awareness within the industry! Come join the community and subscribe, there is so much I have to share with you!

  34. Why can’t we learn to talk to Beatles? That would make us safe from fires. If you can’t teach us to talk to bugs, what good are you

  35. I was about to like this video, then he used the phrase "then trout produces caviar, then we sell BACK to restaurants". So you use Nature's example to EXPLOIT it?!? "Caviar" are fishes' BABIES, so just don't freaking STEAL and eat them!!!!!

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