Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Stories from the Prairie: Applying the “Genius of our Place” to Unlock Nature’s Strategies for Resilient, Restorative Design

Nature is inherently resilient and restorative while our human systems are...not. But what could we learn about the nature of design by studying the science of nature? By exploring our native organisms and ecosystems with a biomimicry lens, we can unlock nature’s locally-attuned design strategies and begin to apply them to our context: creating buildings, businesses and communities that are inherently sustainable, naturally.

Lurie Gardens. Photo by @amycoffman
In the other articles in this series, I wrote about the importance of connecting with nature and ways to do so. In this last (for a time, at least) article in this series, I share some stories of what I've learned in my exploration of the tallgrass prairie as well as a vision for a more sustainable and resilient world: one where our choices are based on working with and leveraging local context and energy flows rather than fighting against them.

It’s time to start thinking differently.

Like Wes Jackson who was inspired by the prairie to rethink industrial agriculture to Allan Savory who emulates grazing for holistic land management and Gerould Wilhelm who emulates the prairie in landscape design, each of these innovators look to the prairie ecosystem as inspiration for alternatives to standard practice. Doing so, they were able to (re)think standard practices, creating more low-maintenance, cost-effective, and biodiverse alternatives. And you can do this too.

Sustainable and Resilient by Nature: The Tallgrass Prairie

The Chicago region sits on an ecosystem that was forged by disturbances. From the deconstructive power of fire to the intermittent resource constraints of drought and cold, organisms of the prairie ecosystem have adapted themselves to be sustainable and resilient, naturally. What may look like a simple grassland is hotbed of diversity, adaptability, resource efficiency, and collaboration.

Incorporate Diversity

While some may think of fostering cultural diversity as an altruistic virtue, in nature fostering diversity is critical for survival because it gives the ecosystem options when it needs them.
A single prairie can nurture over 100 different species of plant and animal on a relatively small plot, each performing critical functions for the ecosystem, such as water management, food production, and energy generation. Species that thrive in times of drought will not be the same as those that thrive after a flood, but no matter which growing conditions or disturbances are expressed in a given season, species diversity allows these critical functions to be maintained. This rich diversity, stored in the soil seed bank, is the cultural heritage of the prairie.

What if our businesses and communities could learn to embed diversity into their organizational structures and its cultural seed bank in order to enhance resilience?
  • Supply chains that regularly utilize multiple vendors could be potentially less efficient, but they would have options that allow for production to continue through different types of disturbances.
  • Cross-disciplinary teams and open innovation protocols allow for a diversity of opinions and viewpoints to be heard when making critical decisions and designing new products and services.
  • Employing a variety of ways to perform critical functions in your community, such as fostering diversity in food infrastructure by supporting community supported agriculture and farmers markets in addition to industrial agriculture, build resilience into the critical infrastructure we need for survival.
By designing in diversity with cross-functional backup systems at different scales, our buildings, businesses and communities can meet critical infrastructure needs and emerge resilient through disturbances.

Build Adaptable, Resilient Infrastructure

Traditional “bricks and mortar” buildings are static and do not change with changing seasons. Prairie grasses, on the other hand, are a model of adaptability, forming a strong, interconnected foundation with flexible structure that sacrifices layers as conditions require:
  • Individually, each plant is fragile, but collectively they intertwine themselves to form a dense mat, collectively supporting the deciduous plants above while forming a spongy humus that stores the vast majority of water that falls on site. 
  • Prairie grasses are famous for their deep root structures, but equally of interest is its adaptable, flexible above ground infrastructure with high torsional flexibility, which allows stems and leaves to be "whipped around" by the wind, not blown over and broken. And by growing in large densities, they offer each other a shared windbreak. 
  • Organisms adapted to cold climates are also prepared to make sacrifices. Plants sense changes in the environment and respond by sacrificing a portion of themselves in the form of deciduous leaves and stems. 
What if we radically rethought what it means to design and construct resilient, restorative infrastructure by emulating nature?
  • Our buildings could harness the free insulation and protection of the earth and interconnect themselves below grade, forming vast networks of reciprocal exchange - from energy bought and sold at the building scale to neighborhood water storage and treatment plants. 
  • Structures could dynamically adapt to high wind conditions by folding, moving, or incorporating flexible wind breaks to divert wind over and around the core of the structure. 
  • Our building envelopes can be designed to “shed” parts of their skin to allow cross-ventilating breezes when comfortable and increase insulation levels and solar access during in colder months. 

Be Resource Efficient

Our civilization's rampant exploitation of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels has lead us to thoroughly alter the climate in which we live and ecosystems on which we depend. But organisms in nature do not operate this way. In order to survive, they must optimize their energy and water use by harnessing and leveraging abundant resources and energy flows while finding passive or low energy ways of performing vital functions.There are so many examples to share, but here are a few highlights:
  • Hibernating animals, such as ground squirrels, lower their energy and water requirements to minimal needs in order to protect vital life functions and survive when resources such as food and water are scarce. 
  • Spiders continually rebuild and renew their webs by consuming and then using these same materials, reconstituted in their stomachs, as the building blocks for a new portion of the web. Even cooler - the bits of flies and gnats that stick to the web as they are consumed are the fuel that powers the reconstruction!
  • Dog ticks harness water from humid air in order to survive for months in prairie fields without access to water or a blood meal. They secrete a salt solution from their mouths which absorbs water vapor from the atmosphere before being reabsorbed through the mouth. 
What if our buildings and infrastructure could look to nature’s energy strategies and run on renewable sources while using less resources overall?
  • Beyond the ubiquitous setback mode for mechanical systems, all systems could embed the ability to “go dormant” when not in use, from electrical outlets that minimize plug loads to entire portions of a building that shut down when not in use. 
  • Structures designed for deconstruction could be continually renewed and rebuilt as needed on site as needed, using energy generated on site.
  • Buildings could be more passively dehumidified prior to entering a building, saving energy costs. Additionally, water absorbed as humidity could be used to supplement water demand uses, such as sinks and toilets. Check out HOK's Genius of the Biome report for more great ideas such as this!

Foster Collaborative Relationships

We think of nature - and ourselves - as being inherently competitive. But while competition is prevalent and a driver of species differentiation and innovation, innumerable examples of collaboration exist alongside. In community ecology, decentralized networks of nutrient exchange, guilds for resource partitioning, and decomposers tell the story.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi, which live in and among the roots of most plants, cultivate decentralized, multi-scaler networks of connections to exchange nutrients not only between themselves and the plant but between different plants as well. 
  • To minimize competition for resources, pollinators, such as bees, birds, bats, and insects form guilds that partition their use of common resources and stagger their availability across geographic locations and time of day. For example, some will forage only in the morning, while others in the afternoon or at night. Some will travel large distances while others only in the immediate area.
  • From the waste of their leftover food to the decay of their death, all producers and consumers produce waste, but this waste is broken down as food for an entirely different category of organism: the decomposer. Earthworms, fungi, and billions of bacteria take what could be waste and break it down as food for themselves. In nature, waste truly equals food, so maybe waste isn't such a bad thing if you know someone will benefit from it!
What if our buildings and businesses looked at the systems that surround them as collaborators when looking to perform vital functions?
  • Form reciprocal networks to exchange data, water, energy, and ideas.
  • Phase growth and development to create resilience to changing resource availability.
  • Form collaborative relationships with third parties to form district energy and urban agriculture coops. Buildings and services co-locate so that the waste of one becomes food for another, incorporating these functions at many different scales.
For more information on collaborations in nature, check out this fantastic video by Crash Course Ecology, "Community Ecology: Feel the Love."

What this Means for Resilience and Restorative Design

Many designers are looking to make their buildings, communities, and organizations more resilient but don't know what that means or how to go about doing it. By looking to nature’s strategies at a variety of scales, from organism to ecosystem to biome, we are able to look at patterns and apply them to our context at the scales in which we operate. These patterns, and many others, can be found in "Life's Principles", developed by Biomimicry3.8. Using this tool and then referencing the ecosystem that most closely resembles the climate in which we currently operate, we are able to emulate lively attuned strategies to optimize energy use, use readily available resources, and collaborate toward a more sustainable, resilient future.

What is your story?

Many more examples await as you begin to look. This article showcases some of the stories I’ve learned by exploring the prairie through a biomimicry lens. What is your story? There are so many organisms, so many ecosystems on this beautiful planet of ours. Let’s continue to add more. What can you learn from the genius of your place?

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