The living building

Buildings – even the most cement-filled – are organic; they change through interaction with the parasites that infest them (us, mostly). How often do architects consider this? Ask any scientist who moves into a new laboratory building and you’ll be met with eyerolls and exasperated stories. The new neuroscience institute that I work in is fantastic in many ways, but has some extremely puzzling features such as the need to repeatedly use an ID card to unlock almost every door in the lab. This is in contrast to my previous home of the Salk Institute which was a long open space separated only by clear glass allowing free movement and easy collaboration.

I mostly mention this because the video above – on How Buildings Learn – has a fantastic story at the beginning about MIT’s famous media lab:

I was at the Media Lab when it was brand new. In the three months I was there, the elevator caught fire, the revolving door kept breaking, every doorknob in the building had to be replaced, the automatic door-closer was stronger than people and had to be adjusted, and an untraceable stench of something horrible dead filled the lecture hall for months. This was normal.

In many research buildings, a central atrium serves to bring people together with open stairways, casual meeting areas, and a shared entrance where people meet daily. The Media Lab’s entrance cuts people off from each other; there are three widely separated entrances each huge and glassy; three scattered elevators; few stairs; and from nowhere can you see other humans in the five story space. Where people might be visible, they are carefully obscured by internal windows of smoked glass.

The utility of biomimicry

Pearce found inspiration in the termite mounds that dotted the savannas across his country. The largest mounds could reach several meters in height, dwarfing the legions of termites who built them just as a modern skyscraper towers over an individual construction worker. Each funneled air underground through networks of channels into a spherical nest that housed termites by the millions, and even larger numbers of fungi and bacteria. In all, a typical nest contained about a small cow’s worth of hot, breathing biomass. Based on the ideas of the Swiss entomologist Martin Lüscher, many researchers believed the mounds acted as air conditioners, maintaining a nest’s pleasant temperature, humidity, and oxygenation by continuously exchanging hot air rising from deep inside a colony with cooler drafts diffusing down from the surface…

Around the same time that the Eastgate Centre opened its doors, the American scientist Scott Turner was using propane pumps and arrays of tiny electronic sensors to painstakingly measure gas exchange throughout nearly 50 South African termite mounds. He found that the mounds didn’t regulate temperature so much as push oxygen and carbon dioxide into and out of the nest…The mounds weren’t crude air conditioners so much as a wildly complicated external respiratory system…

This hasn’t stopped classical biomimicry from its myriad successes. Japanese bullet trains blast through tunnels with barely a whisper thanks to aerodynamic shells inspired by the beaks of diving birds. Olympic swimmers shatter world records by wearing suits coated with a drag-reducing texture resembling sharkskin. Rising energy and materials costs have led to a new generation of skyscrapers and
“smart buildings” in cities around the world with bio-inspired passive cooling systems and lightweight structural supports.

The Termite and the Architect. How useful is biomimicry? And how much of the utility is just because it makes you think?