x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Design enters 'biological age'

Architects rethink strategies as climate change forces a response to new challenges in business and society.

Council House Two, in Melbourne, which was designed by Mick Pearce. The building was inspired by a termite's nest and is the most energy efficient in the city.
Council House Two, in Melbourne, which was designed by Mick Pearce. The building was inspired by a termite's nest and is the most energy efficient in the city.

SYDNEY // Office blocks modelled on termite nests and buildings that can resist climate change have been the focus of a conference that has brought together some of Australia's leading designers. They have heard calls for radical changes to the way that buildings are constructed to harness the forces of nature through structures covered in plants that can draw carbon dioxide out of the air and floating cities that preserve fertile land for farming.

One prominent thinker, the Zimbabwean-born architect Mick Pearce, has declared the beginning of the "biological age", where the natural world is the prime inspiration for those who plan our homes and cities. Mr Pearce is now based in the southern Australian city of Melbourne, and some of his boldest projects have been influenced by the humble termite. "Rather like blood circulating in our veins, inside the termites nest it is air that's moved by external temperature and pressures. The nest is a system like our bodies. It's self-regulating temperature-wise, and that is an excellent model for a building. It's an extension to our metabolism, if you like, and this means you can build a building and use far less energy."

In the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, Mr Pearce has constructed offices built on such principles that have employed vertical tunnels for ventilation and consume about 10 per cent of the electricity of a normal air-conditioned block. "The building I did in Zimbabwe was based on a termites nest, which is a breathing system and uses the elements - the sun and the wind and diurnal shift, the difference between night and day temperatures - to generate movement of air inside it," he said.

He has also designed a similar structure - called Council House Two or CH2 ? which has become one of Melbourne's most energy-efficient buildings, which consumes 15 per cent of the energy of a regular office block and about one-third of the water. The basic premise is that a building works with nature, not against it and sits in harmony with its environment. "Designers need to learn about biology and about biological systems," Mr Pearce explained. "It should be absolutely fundamental to our training, starting off with the laws of thermodynamics and the way the planet works."

Lindsay Johnston, the convener of the Architecture Foundation Australia, is another who espouses this "biological" approach. "Mick Pearce talks about 'bio-mimicry', and his building in Harare is a beautifully built example of a human version of a termite mound using a natural air movement to cool the building down at night and using the mass of the building to keep it habitable during hot summer days using vegetation on the outside. This is the way to go."

"It's all simple physics, really," Mr Johnston said. "It's about designing houses that are naturally warm or cold depending on the climate, that are insulated, that turn their backs on the prevailing winds and use natural ventilation." Then there's the use of solar panels to generate electricity or the installation of geothermal technology to pull heat from the ground. "The revolution in many ways is not radical because if you go back 200 years before humankind discovered how to dig fossil fuels out of the ground, houses and buildings were generally designed to be appropriate to their climate and place. We have since then become homogenised and live in hermetically sealed boxes that depend on fossil fuels to sustain their existence and make them liveable," added Mr Johnston, who was a speaker at the State of Design conference in Melbourne, which looked at the ways that architects and designers were responding to the changing needs of business and society.

Climate change and Australia's response to it have become major points of discussion. The driest inhabited continent is one of the world's worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases, and scientists have warned that Australia was facing a 10-fold increase in heat waves as a shifting climate increases temperatures. Jeff Angel, from Australia's Total Environment Centre, believes that in these uncertain times society must look to the natural world.

"Nature gives us free energy, whether it's solar or wind power and access to cooling ventilation. There are lots of things that can give you an energy-efficient building that's comfortable and pleasant," he said. "We've been incredibly wasteful. It's only until the last 10 or 15 years we've decided to orientate buildings right so they make proper use of northerly exposure and natural ventilation. We've had a massive explosion of air-conditioning units, and that's massively expensive in terms of energy consumption, and we don't have enough solar panels on our roofs."

Mr Johnston argues that it is designers who must show leadership and imagination. "The architecture profession is one of the leaders, if not the leader, in these issues. I look around and I see a lot of other disciplines that are not really on the case, but there has been a history of architects with great visions of the future who could see these problems coming." @Email:pmercer@thenational.ae