Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)

Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)


We’re big on biomimicry here at TreeHugger. Over the six years that I’ve been writing for this site I think it’s without doubt one of the most exciting developments in sustainable design I’ve seen. How can we fail to be inspired by Mother Nature? It’s the eternal contradiction in man’s relationship with the environment that as we humans continue to abuse the manifold riches offered to us, nature continues to leave us awe inspired by her power and beauty.

Janine Benyus has done great work with the Biomimicry Institute and Ask Nature in promoting efficient natural structures and processes. Directly inspired by her work and going deeper into the field of biomimicry in architecture is the British architect Michael Pawlyn who has now published his first book on this subject.

Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)
Exploration’s Proposal for Douglas River Bridge

I’ve written extensively about Pawlyn’s work with his architecture practice Exploration. From his incredible Sahara Forest Project, to teaching Biomimicry in Design atSchumacher College, to his epic battle with the climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg.

Now Pawlyn has brought all his biomimicry learnings together into a beautiful book published in the UK by the RIBA. As you would expect the book is full of stunning images both of Pawlyn’s own innovative building designs, from the Eden Projectonwards, and other products which we have come to admire such as Interface’s Entropy carpet tile, that was based on the complex visual patterns of the forest floor.

Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)
The Sahara Forest Project

The book opens with a quote from Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

From there on in Pawlyn sets out to demonstrate how biomimicry offers architects a whole new system to design by. A system that will produce not only radically more efficient and effective structures, with great savings on material and energy costs, but also stunningly beautiful buildings that will instigate the ‘bilbao effect’ wherever they are located.

Pawlyn believes that the architecture industry is lagging behind in the innovation stakes and wants to provide a books of inspiration and well as solutions. He writes:

“Many current approaches to environmentally sustainable architecture are based on mitigation. The suggestion from the examples collected in this book is that it is possible to go further than this, and for some buildings to be regenerative… The intention is therefore to transcend the mimicking of natural forms and attempt to understand the principles that lie behind those forms and systems.”

Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)
The Namibian Fog Basking Beetle

The six core chapters seek to answer six key environmental questions: How could we build more efficient structures? How will we manufacture materials? How we will create zero-waste systems? How will manage water? How will we control our thermal environment? How will we produce energy for our buildings?

Throughout these chapters are case studies which show extraordinary man made structures and their inspirations in nature, alongside Pawlyn’s beautiful preparatory sketches and diagrams, including his early concept sketches for the Plastiki boat.

Both fortunately and unfortunately this book isn’t a heavy weight coffee table book, but a slim paperback. I say unfortunately because there is a sense that these stunning images would be better served on a larger scale. However, with such important educational content it could be argued that the book is more valuable and accessible for the majority of architects and designers in its current form, which is a combination of an illustrated manual and a text book.

Pawlyn’s writing is, like his speaking style, engaging, clear and full of enthusiasm for his subject. He is good at explaining complex systems without the jargon, demonstrating how biomimicry works through visual examples and a wide range of formidable teachers from engineering, architecture and of course the natural world.

Biomimicry in Architecture by Michael Pawlyn (Book Review)
Exploration Architecture/via

Michael Pawlyn’s concept sketch for the Plastiki

The book’s forward has been contributed by the great sustainability champion Jonathan Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future. He is rightly inspired by the wealth of teaching in Pawlyn’s book. He writes:

“Biomimicry allows wealth-creators of every kind to emulate natural forms in the own work, using ‘nature’ as a critical sourcebook. Happily, there’s no shortage of role models. From the insect world alone, we are invited to learn from the mud-dauber wasp, compass termites, Eastern Tent caterpillars, female bauble spiders and the extraordinary Namibian fog-basking beetle! Pawlyn introduces us to a veritable treasure trove of teachers.”