Charles Besjak (Chair)
Biomimicry, or biomimetics, is the application of biologically inspired solutions to human challenges. In the context of architecture, it refers to the emulation of patterns and precedents exhibited in the natural world in pursuit of improved efficiency and performance-based aesthetics. Form and function, which harmonize seamlessly in nature, are also inextricably linked in structural design. Studying the relationship between the two in the former opens the way for greater innovation in the latter.
To date, lack of constructability has been a significant barrier to biomimetic building design. Conventional straight lines and right angles are more readily and economically built, while the less convenient shapes associated with translating biological concepts into real-world structures come at a higher cost. Nevertheless, counter to the misconception that simplicity always equates to the greatest rationality, the complexity of natural geometry often produces the most logical structural forms. Fortunately, as material development and construction technology continue to evolve, the realization of more sophisticated structures becomes increasingly feasible and the dichotomy between constructability and physical efficiency fades.
With the increasing emphasis on sustainability in the built environment, bioinspiration has gained traction as an innovative and meaningful design approach over recent years. However, the distinction between mere biomorphism (copying organic shapes for cosmetic purposes) and practical biomimicry (mimicking nature to draw on its efficiency) has proven a topic of debate regarding its application. There are many examples of popular modern architecture that are lauded as examples of biomimicry purely based on the use of wild curves or other “natural” aesthetics. However, though visually striking, these geometries lack structural functionality. Adopting the form of nature does not necessarily equate to achieving a sustainable relationship with it.
The Eden Project, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, 2001. © Audrey Ryan.
Palazetto dello Sport, Rome, Italy, 1957. © Audrey Ryan.
The major themes explored during the research period and covered in the report are as follows: What is the relationship between biomimicry of form and biomorphism and where do they diverge in structural design? How do the selected structures achieve the aesthetic elegance of biomorphism by first seeking the functionality of biomimicry or do they attain one at the expense of the other? What are the qualities of a structural form that truly functions cohesively with nature?
Research was performed via site visits to the relevant projects, literature, and interviews with various design professionals, including engineers, architects, and construction/design managers. Many of these interviews were conducted in connection with a specific project, while others were more general discussions of the merits and challenges associated with biomimicry in structures. In the majority of cases, access to the projects was readily achieved. For sites where such was not true, this is noted in the building description.
The fellowship travels provided the opportunity to experience firsthand the distinction between biomorphism and biomimicry as it applies to the built environment. This final report documents observations on the relationship between aesthetic expression (form) and structural efficiency (function) in bioinspiration for the purpose of contributing to the design profession’s understanding of how one can beget or obstruct the other.
The research has demonstrated that biomimicry in structures is as varied and nuanced as the natural organisms and phenomena from which it draws inspiration. It ranges in scale from individual building components and specific natural mechanisms to urban developments and entire ecosystems. It may manifest in both form and function, function only, or the processes behind the two, and can be driven by any of these.
Practical bioinspiration is differentiated from ornamental biomorphism in that it is well-adapted to the demands of its environment, whether natural or manmade. The qualities that dictate this include sensitivity to climate, geology, culture, and functional requirements. Successful biomimetic application is achieved by appropriate selection of natural models for imitation and an understanding of the interactions within those models.
It must also be noted that biomimicry is not a design panacea; there are many cases in which it is not a pertinent or feasible solution. Moreover, there is nothing inherently wrong with biomorphism for sheer aesthetic pleasure; many lessons can be taken from nature without directly emulating it.
The case studies represent just a handful of existing examples of bioinspired design, the number of which will continue to increase as sustainability is prioritized. That elegant and efficient structures can be attained through biomimicry has been validated, and imminent technological advances in materials, computational tools, and manufacturing suggest that the economic workability required to establish it as a competitive design strategy is not far away.
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 1973. © Audrey Ryan.
Oceanografic, Valencia, Spain, 2003. © Audrey Ryan.
Gare de Lyon Saint-Exupery, Lyon, France, 1994. © Audrey Ryan.
grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. She was home schooled prior to attending Delaware Technical Community College where she took courses in engineering technology. She subsequently transferred into the accelerated BS/MS degree program at Drexel University, where she will receive, in June 2015, a BS in Architectural Engineering and an MS in Civil Engineering, both with a structural concentration. Ryan’s education has also included a semester abroad in Ireland in fall of 2012, where she studied Civil Engineering at the National University of Ireland, Galway. A participant in the Honors Programs at Drexel, and under the mentorship of Dr. James Mitchell, Ryan has been involved in research projects which include finite element modeling for infrared nondestructive testing of structure (advisor: Dr Ivan Bartoli) and daylighting optimization for existing buildings (advisor: Dr. Eugenia Ellis). Ryan is also the engineering lead of a student-run startup that develops sustainable household systems. Following graduation, she plans to commence her career as an architectural engineer, with long-term career aspirations focused on bridging aesthetic integrity with sustainable technology in the building industry.