Blog Post

How Nature Creates Green Jobs—If We Listen

Biomimicry experts explore resilient design from environmental, social, and economic perspectives.

May 2, 2016

Biomimicry experts explore resilient design from environmental, social, and economic perspectives.Photo courtesy Verdical Group

Could imitating nature help us survive climate change?

That was the question asked by Biomimicry 2016: The Road to Resiliency, a March 2016 conference held in Irwindale, California and organized by Verdical Group. After all, nature has millions of years on us when it comes to creating systems that conserve or even produce energy and clean water. 

The conference combined two threads of recent discourse in green building: biomimicry, or turning to nature for solutions to design problems, and resilient design, or ensuring that our buildings and cities can not only survive but thrive in the face of growing threats from extreme weather events (see Resilient Design: 7 Lessons from Early Adopters).

Nature and crisis

Resilience isn’t just about the buildings themselves or the products in them, however. It’s about how those buildings allow the people they serve to respond to crisis and heal from it.

Resilience is going to require a multi-faceted approach, and the presentations at Biomimicy 2016 (see the recap video available at the conference’s homepage) reflected that. The short talks approached the topic from economic, building science, architecture, and social perspectives.

It turns out that designers in all industries are looking to nature for answers for all sorts of problems.

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Bioinspired innovation

Chris Garvin, a managing partner at Terrapin Bright Green, presented a prototype for a humidity-damping device his firm is working on based on termite fungus combs, which absorb, store, and release water vapor as relative humidity fluctuates. It’s a low-energy solution for building dehumidification that could help buildings to achieve net-zero energy use. It would also, presumably, work in the wake of an extreme weather event, making buildings more comfortable in times when air-conditioning might not be available (see Buffering Humidity with Interior Finishes).

The humidity device is just one product discussed in Terrapin’s most recent report: Tapping Into Nature: The Future of Energy, Innovation, and Business. The report explores nature-inspired innovations that are either in the planning stages or have already been commercialized. It’s not a small universe: according to the Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, as quoted in the paper, such innovations could represent approximately $425 billion of the U.S. gross domestic product by 2030 (in 2013 dollars).

The innovations cover everything from carbon sequestration and water filtration to adhesives, wind farms, data storage, and color-change fibers inspired by seeds. The largest contributors to the $425 billion figure mentioned above, according to Terrapin, will be in building construction, chemical manufacturing, and the power generation, distribution, and storage sectors—industries that are all inexorably linked within the built environment.

Building resilience through social ties

Heather Joy Rosenberg of the Los Angeles chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC-LA), heads up the chapter’s new Building Resilience–LA project, and presented it to the conference.

Working with Arup, local government agencies, and Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), a South Los Angeles community organization, USGBC-LA is developing a guide for those who want to incorporate resilience strategies into their buildings’ operations and maintenance practices. The guide will include steps for evaluating risk, engaging with the community, improving building performance, and strengthening business practices.

“Resilience is more than being prepared for emergencies,” Rosenberg told BuildingGreen. “It means understanding your risks and vulnerabilities, and creating the capacity (physically, socially, and economically) to respond to change as it comes.” She added, “It makes business sense to invest in your community.”

Natural systems are an important inspiration for SCOPE and its focus on resilience of social systems, says Rosenberg. In nature, she notes, “Every function is performed by multiple elements and every element performs multiple functions.” For example, a community that does collaborative projects, like parade floats, “already know how to work together, have some level of trust, they have some common language, and they know where each other are, who needs help and who can provide it,” she says. Communities with this kind of experience have been shown to fare better in the wake of natural disasters.

Working with SCOPE and several other partners, USGBC-LA is developing a training and incubation center in South LA focused on jobs that promote sustainability and resilience. The center will not only use green building elements such as rainwater capture, energy efficiency, and passive energy measures, but will also serve as a leading example of resilience with emergency preparedness and social equity at its heart.

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