For Sustainable Design, New Club Turns to Nature

Dyani Sabin

If you want to know how to create more sustainable architecture, you might want to ask the birds and the bees.

At least that’s what the members of Oberlin’s first-ever Biomimicry Club, an organization that aims to bring Oberlin toward sustainable living based on designs found in nature, might tell you. According to its founder, College sophomore Olivia Scott, the purpose of biomimicry is essentially to “use nature to solve your problems,” or to base industrial and sustainable designs on those found in nature.

“Nature has had 3.8 billion years of evolution, so you’re using that as a design but also as inspiration,” said Scott.

Examples of possible biomimetic designs are air conditioners based on the coolant systems of termite mounds and tire treads based on frog feet.

Scott created the club to compete in the Global Biomimicry Design Challenge run by the Biomimic- ry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, as well as to institute biomimetic cooperation between the College and the community. The club is the beginning of a link between Oberlin and the Great Lakes Biomimicry collaborative.

According to Scott, the national competition will help focus the goals of the club, as biomimetic design is as varied as the natural world itself.

“Biomimicry is a much larger title of using what’s found in nature to create and build things like architecture,” explained Ty Diringer, an entrepreneurship fellow at the Oberlin Center for Creativity and Leadership.

Diringer also said that biomimicry can mean a variety of things, from using a process called systems thinking, “using the idea of nature as a system and applying that system to something else,” to the more common approach of biology-inspired architecture.

Though this may be the College’s first club dedicated specifically to biomimicry, the school has some experience with biomimetic design. The Adam Joseph Lewis Center’s Living Machine, which transforms human waste into sustainable compost, is a cross between biomimicry and bio-assisted design, according to Brad Melzer, the George Jones Farm director and educator and a lecturer at Baldwin Wallace University.

“[The machine is] bio-assisted design because it uses organisms, where[as] biomimicry is using nature as an example, like Velcro. You are in the forest and see a burr, the design of a burr, and you take that and use the structure to make Velcro.”

Instead of solely mimicking nature, the structure incorporates the organisms of the system it is designed after. The Living Machine uses plants to purify the water in the system, but the design itself imitates a natural wetlands environment. “Each tank mimics a system, so you’re mimicking a rushing river with a waterfall by adding aeration; the settling tank mimics a pond,” Melzer said.

Oberlin is not alone in pursuing biomimicry for sustainable solutions. Northeast Ohio is making a name for itself in the biomimicry industry, in hopes that the Great Lakes Biomimicry collaborative — a Cleveland-based group of over 100 businesses, colleges and other industries — will provide a more sustainable future.

The Great Lakes Biomimicry collaborative is working to “create conditions for innovation through biomimicry,” according to its website. This project has already broken ground at the nearby University of Akron, where students can receive a doctorate in integrated bioscience with a concentration in biomimicry.

Leaders of the Biomimicry Club are hopeful about creating a similar relationship with the Oberlin community.

“We want to apply what we learn to the community,” said Scott. “It would be great if Oberlin could have their own competition. Maybe the Oberlin Project could be like, ‘We need help coming up with a solu- tion to x,’ and then that could be the challenge and kind of get the community involved as well as the students to brainstorm a solution. I feel like biomimicry could be a community initiative to further develop the Oberlin Project and put Oberlin on a path to sustainability and resilience.”

The club has generated interest across multiple disciplines in the College, with students from all divisions showing up to its first meeting last week — an event that Scott characterized as also being biomimetic in its use of all the resources available. The club is looking to enter the Global Biomimicry Design Challenge on Global Food Systems, which opens for team entries on Jan. 5, 2015.