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Joel Makower Leads Biomimicry Discussion With Paul Woolford and Janine Benyus at VERGE 18

NOAA Pacific Regional Center

VERGE 18, a conference focused on accelerating a clean economy, closed its October summit in California with a conversation on using the built environment as a regenerative force. Joel Makower, cofounder of GreenBiz, moderated the discussion with HOK design principal Paul Woolford and Biomimicry 3.8 cofounder Janine Benyus.

In 2008 HOK formed an alliance with Biomimicry 3.8 (then called the Biomimicry Guild) to integrate nature’s innovations into the planning and design of cities, communities and buildings. As part of this partnership the team created the Genius of Biome, a 180-page report examining how local flora and fauna in the temperate broadleaf forest biome could inspire innovative, place-based solutions to water, energy, materials, social and economic issues.

HOK’s San Francisco and Los Angeles studios continue to collaborate with Biomimicry 3.8, with the team currently working on a Genius of Biome: California Coast report. They are focusing their ongoing research on how to access nature’s proven design strategies to achieve resilient, sustainable design in California’s biomes.

Watch the VERGE 18 closing session with Makower, Woolford and Benyus:

Here are excerpts from their discussion:

Benyus on aiming for true sustainability: “We talk about the fact that for true sustainability we would have to become native to our places—again. We would take our cues on how to solve problems by looking to the organisms that have already solved them and using local ecosystems as the measure of success. So if we’re functioning and performing as well as a high-performing, healthy ecosystem—including our buildings all the way up to our cities—what would that look like? How would we measure it? And how would we achieve it? In the past these ideas were metaphorical as we looked at a city as a forest and a building as a tree. Frank Lloyd Wright talked about that. But for years and years it was just biomorphic design. It was like, ‘We’ll put on a tree-like facade or something that will look like trees and that will reference the native ecosystem.’ The focus has changed now to how it functions. A building should gather its own energy and gather and clean its own water. It should start to produce ecosystem services the way a forest does. … You need a client to have the vision to say, ‘We’re not sure what this is, but we’re going to pilot it at all scales and we’re just going to commit because we think there’s something there.’ And that’s what HOK did.”

Woolford on goals for biomimicry: “We’re looking at simple things like how to create a resilient structure in a place where the earth is constantly moving? How do we create a comfortable thermal environment in a place where it doesn’t rain very often and the sun is constantly on us? … Every community and client we deal with faces these same challenges.”

Woolford on nature’s interdependence: “In forests nothing acts in isolation. One of the great lessons from Janine and her team is that it’s all interconnected and interwoven. Everything is dependent upon the success of everything else. And so if we approach the way we design campuses, regions and districts like this, we set ourselves up for success.”

Benyus on emulating the engineers of the forest: A project that I love is the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in D.C. We were looking at beavers, which are important for water purification because they build these layered dams that turn into marshes. If you look at beavers as engineers of water purification—slowing, storing and cleaning water—it’s quite amazing. So how that was translated into a design by HOK is they created different kinds of green roofs for the buildings with different types of layered vegetation that were all connected to one another. When it rains, water goes down this beaver-like system.

Woolford on introducing organizations to biomimicry: “Any time we start a new project with a client we research the history of their founders because that’s the roadmap. We do a deep dive into their mission and values. Then we have a vision session to unpack what that all means. We ask key questions like, ‘What does it mean to set up your enterprise for success? How can we as design practitioners assist you in that?’ And then we ask them a handful of provocative what-if questions. ‘What if we were able to create a building, campus or district that emulates your mission, values and culture?’ If they feel ownership for that idea, then we have a path to success. If they don’t, then it’s not something we pursue—we might just do an internal design charrette. But I have to say that, especially here in Northern California, there’s an interest and the C-Suite is realizing that it’s no longer a singularity conversation. … I recently read a proverb that I thought was quite prescient that I will paraphrase: ‘When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.’ I look for the person who’s going to build the windmill and know they will be an advocate.”

Benyus on introducing organizations to biomimicry: “Our job is to serve the champions in the companies that we work for who see the new world and want to find a way to bring their organization to it. … Some people relate to science-based targets so there are a lot of people driven by the idea of having a metric to shoot for. Ecological performance standards fit that. Some people want to have more employee engagement. Some want to  be better community members. So if you work in a building that does these cool things and they’re supporting the neighborhood with cleaner air, cleaner water and biodiversity, that’s a point of pride for employees. If their values are around their employees and about being a good neighbor, we talk about that. So it depends on who you’re talking to and what they care about.”

Makower on biomimicry’s multidimensional appeal: “What I love is that it really does appeal to both the left and right brain. It can be the rational numbers involved with looking at the future and doing cost-benefit calculations about what it takes to be resilient or to create a building that will work over time. But it’s also very much around the future and the community and the people. It is so inspiring because it allows us to change both minds and hearts. That’s my takeaway from biomimicry.”

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