Nature-inspired design can make buildings more sustainable
Meet a researcher bridging architecture and biology.
Kia ora! Welcome back to Future Proof, brought to you by Electric Kiwi.
The bird-of-paradise flower has inspired a dynamic shading system for buildings.
Imagine a building that could automatically detect the waxing and waning of sunlight, or the rising heat of the day, and adjust its structure to keep inside (and you) comfortably warm. A building capable of responding to shifting light, temperature, air flow and humidity simultaneously. For Dr Negin Imani, it’s this kind of vision that motivates her research into biomimetic building exteriors.
Researcher, founder of Biomimicry New Zealand and finalist in the Welly Awards, Imani’s work bridges architecture and biology, aiming to create automated building façades that reduce the hefty carbon footprints of buildings. In New Zealand, the building sector contributes nearly 20% of our total greenhouse gas emissions. On the world stage, around 17% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be chalked up to buildings, according to the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2022. Imani reckons nature is a logical place to look for inspiration, with millions of years of evolution leading to some ingenious adaptations in plants and animals. She’s published a compendium of “amazing ideas and solutions used by biological organisms” that architects can draw on, after extensive conversations with biologists about how flora and fauna keep themselves at the right temperature. Plants and their adaptations for surviving in harsh climates in particular are useful inspiration, because like buildings, they don’t move.
Dynamic shading for energy-efficient buildings
Imani’s research focuses on dynamic shading systems for building façades, which she says “are very trendy in architecture since they’re energy efficient”. These systems filter light and control airflow, using sensors and feedback loops that respond to changing climatic factors. Examples include the Al Bahr Towers in Abu Dhabi, with flower-esque umbrellas that modulate glare and heat, and Flectofin shading structures inspired by the bird-of-paradise flower. One building in Barcelona with a dynamic envelope has achieved a 65% reduction in carbon emissions. While such dynamic shades are “very successful in terms of reducing energy usage,” Imani says, they’re not super common. Many are still at the prototype stage, with the price tag and lack of a unified design and evaluation method limiting uptake. Plus, while plants can simultaneously conduct an orchestra of water, air and sunlight intake, this multifunctionality doesn’t quite translate into our manmade approximations of nature. For example, blocking sunlight to reduce heat also leaves you in the dark. “It's promising because it’s energy efficient,” Imani says, “but it should replicate the complexity of whatever you see in nature.”
The future of nature-inspired design
For this reason, Imani says bio-inspired architecture “needs to take a deeper approach”. Her future research will zoom into the microstructures of materials, taking cues from plants – how they reflect, absorb and scatter light – to design sustainable building solutions. But even at the big-picture, ecosystem scale, there’s inspiration to be found. “When I look at nature, I see how everything in the natural world is connected; a community of living and non-living things working together – for example, roots of plants send signals to each other when something is wrong,” says Imani. “I think we have to look at nature and how things collaborate with each other in harmony. I hope that scientists around the world work together to save this planet – it's good to be part of it.”
If you’ve got an EV, you want to ensure you are powering up in the most efficient and affordable way, and taking advantage of any off-peak price tariffs. To help, Electric Kiwi have sourced videos from various EV brands to show you how to schedule your EV’s overnight charge.
With their MoveMaster plan, you’ll be charging your EV for half price between 11pm and 7am, seven days a week! They also have a heap of cool partnerships to help you make the most of your EV.
Global Oceans Treaty: Agreement reached after decade of negotiations
Nations finally agreed on the language of a High Seas Treaty last week, which is an important step towards implementing protection for 30% of the oceans as pledged last year at Cop15. This historic agreement “gives Treaty institutions a broader mandate to establish protected areas than many were expecting,” says Karen Scott, a University of Canterbury law professor, with any party able to “propose the establishment of an MPA on the high seas.” But the hard work has just begun, says Dr Becs Jarvis from AUT. “It will be important to keep an eye on how the agreement and associated pathways of implementation develop,” she says. “Who gets to decide what conservation and sustainable use look like? Who gets to implement what where?”
Our eating habits alone could contribute 1°C warming by 2100
Today’s diets could contribute 1°C of warming by 2100, a new study warns. Methane-producing meat, dairy and rice are the three top sources of climate-heating greenhouse gases, together contributing 75% of food-related heating. “I think the biggest takeaway that I would want [policymakers] to have is the fact that methane emissions are really dominating the future warming associated with the food sector,” the study’s lead author said. Cutting consumption of meat to medically recommended levels would slash the temperature rise by 55%. Meanwhile Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell fact-checks the debate around on-farm methane emissions in New Zealand.
Cyclone taskforce will address managed retreat
A taskforce, chaired by Sir Brian Roche, will consider the controversial option of managed retreat among other adaptation and resilience solutions in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle. Jamie Morton of the NZ Herald explains what managed retreat entails here. While some people don’t want to return to flood-ravaged homes, for others the idea of managed retreat is unacceptable. “For Māori communities, the terms ‘managed retreat’ or ‘planned relocations’ can be deeply upsetting, as most are still affected by the legacy of historic forced ‘relocations’ away from their traditional lands and resources,” say Professors Merata Kawharu and Janet Stephenson from the University of Otago. But other iwi or hapū may have a history of relocating and see it as part of their tikanga or mātauranga. This podcast from RNZ’s Our Changing World features Akuhata Bailey-Winiata, a PhD candidate working with hapū and iwi to find solutions for coastal marae.
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The New York Times rounds up six podcasts to tackle your climate anxiety
Te Papa’s natural history curator Colin Miskelly traces the incredible transformation of Mana Island from farmland to bush
The Green Deal Investment Plan is the EU’s answer to the US’ sweeping climate policies in the Inflation Reduction Act
Millions of solar panels are nearing the end of their useful life, and companies are emerging to recycle the valuable metals they contain
Stuff’s Olivia Wannan ponders whether forestry slash could be used to generate power at Huntly (for another slash solution, see this issue of Future Proof)
New report suggests New Zealand could be $64 billion better off if decisive climate action is taken (compared to $4.4 billion shrinkage without action)
The world is finally cracking down on greenwashing. The Atlantic’s Emma Marris examines the promise and flaws of incoming greenwashing regulations (paywall)
Image credit: lcolmer/iNaturalist NZ (CC BY-NC 4.0).
To finish this issue, which fish will get your vote in Te Ika o ta Tau | Fish of the Year? I’m quite taken with this derpy little fella with his googly-eyed blue-steel look, the blue-eyed triplefin. Fish of the Year is run by Experiencing Marine Reserves and voting is open until the end of March, so go and pick your three faves. It’s a great way to celebrate Seaweek – but an ever better way is to get out into the ocean!
Got some feedback about Future Proof or topics you’d like covered? Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org