HOK’s Paul Woolford Explores Biomimicry for Wired’s Innovation Insights

The Mint Canopy

(This post on biomimicry by Paul Woolford, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C,  director of design in HOK’s San Francisco office, first appeared in Wired’s Innovation Insights community site.)

All around us, entrepreneurial organizations focused on everything from information technology to scientific research are continuously reinventing the nature of what they do. Yet design and construction firms — those of us charged with imagining and building the environments that help the creative people in these organizations remake the world — are largely designing and building the way we have for centuries.

One could argue that the last fundamental innovation in the built environment was the mid-20th century introduction of large-scale central air conditioning. It’s time for the design and construction professionals to support our creative clients by revolutionizing the way we build our world.

An emerging approach for sustainable solutions to human challenges is to emulate nature’s time-tested phenomena, patterns and principles. This process, often referred to as biomimicry, seeks out and incorporates lessons learned over nature’s 3.8 billion years of innovation.

I believe biomimicry will propel our profession forward. Like nature, we need resilient, zero-energy, zero-waste, regenerative environments that are aware, responsive and can learn to adapt to their occupants and surroundings.

Designers can’t do this alone. We need to learn directly from the research going on within universities and bring biologists to the design table. An example of applied biomimicry is the adaptive reuse of the landmark San Francisco Museum at the Mint. HOK used nature as a model for innovation to investigate how native Bay Area plant life captures precipitation. We discovered that, to collect this water, many are covered in tiny nodules that give them more area to capture water. The design response was to create a glass canopy floating above the Old Mint’s existing open-air courtyard.

This canopy captures rainwater and moisture from the fog through a ceramic dot screen raised above its glass surface. The ceramic frits soften the daylight and provides 100 percent more surface area for moisture to collect. When the water drains off the glass, it is captured by rooftop cisterns. Together this water in combination with reuse wastewater from the building is filtered through a wetland ecology of plants and beneficial bacteria on the roof to create clean potable water for the building, resulting in a net zero water building — no consumption from the city water supply.

UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design’s post graduate research and design program, Studio One, is exploring nature’s methods of problem solving and blueprints for design innovation. This weekend, Studio One hosts its 2014 Symposium, “The Nature of Programming Matter—Programming Matter & Nature,” which is open to the public and will convene leading biomimetic thinkers to discuss the latest research, ideas, and successful applications of biomimicry in design — and hopefully inspire advances that bring new levels of usefulness.

This type of creative problem solving, in which nature inspires true innovation, could give birth to the next renaissance in design and construction — but only if the industry professionals are willing to embrace these new collaborations.

One Comment
  1. February 10th, 2014 - 6:24 am

    Great article Paul. I’m glad to see that HOK is still actively seeking to embed biomimicry into their design process. When I was introduced to these principles during the Atlanta office’s City of the Future competition I knew that there was enormous potential to establish a practice that went beyond design with nature, to design as nature. Cheers!

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