‘Why aren’t buildings more like trees?’

Earlier this week Footprint joined Jerry Tate Architects for an event held at the Hothouse in Hackney as part of the Open Practice strand of GreenSkyThinking.

Hothouse, Hackney by Ash Sakula

The afternoon began with a review of the practice’s work, built and unbuilt, whilst we enjoyed delicious cakes from local bakery E5 Bakehouse.

Proposal for future conversion of the Olympic media complex into a permaculture garden

Hoo House, Suffolk

Falconers II, Surrey

The Core at the Eden Project, Cornwall

Proposals for the National Wildflower Centre, Liverpool

Jerry Tate then gave a short talk entitled ‘Why aren’t buildings more like trees? Why aren’t cities more like forests?’. Rather refreshingly, Jerry banned PowerPoint and sketched as he spoke, making for a lively and interactive presentation.

The talk focused on natural systems and how we can mimic them in the built environment, citing the work of Grimshaw Architects and Michael Pawlyn at Exploration Architecture.

Buildings are net consumers of energy whereas trees are net producers. In order to produce buildings which are truly green, maybe we should be looking at the systems of trees, and trying to get our buildings to act like them. Yet, man-made systems are still far behind those of nature; for example, the capillary action of trees can be up to 100m, however the best man-made capillary tubes can only reach 1m.

In order to copy trees. buildings need to capture the sun’s energy, through the use of PVs or solar gain. Describing how plants use the ‘golden angle’ to produce growth, Jerry sketched out how the phyllotactic pattern was created for the Core at the Eden Project. This highlighted the fact that ‘things we think of as beautiful are often related to nature’.

Addressing the question of ‘why aren’t cities more like forests?’, Jerry concluded that this comes down to three things; energy, waste, and interaction.  Energy in a forest is a constant loop, provided through succession, with four overlapping themes; energy capture, distribution, the water cycle, and humidity. Each component in a forest relates to each other, forming a lattice-like structure. This differs to the National Grid, which is a hierarchical system, where energy goes from generator, to distributor, to supplier, to user, with very little flexibility. Micro-generation is beginning to change this, and we are beginning to mimic the processes of forests through feeding back into the grid.

Forests recycle one-hundred percent of their waste, a target figure which at present we can only dream of. All waste within a forest is seen as food, and it is a non-hierarchical waste distribution system. Cradle-to-cradle processes move in this direction. Interaction within the forest has a large part to play in its success. The bioregion has a direct relationship to the forest and components within the forest have a relationship locally. This is very important in thinking about site context and site situation for buildings; focusing on what materials are available on the site or in the locality. As an architect how do you measure, assess or categorise, what is on a site?

The event was a positive look at biomimicry in architecture, suggesting that we should look more towards nature for inspiration.

by Laura Mark, AJ sustainability intern

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