Thursday, June 25, 2009

Lessons From Nature's Architects

Human hubris often gives the impression that great architecture is and was our idea. But animals have been pulling off architectural miracles hundreds of millions of years before humans decided to even build the first lean-to out of some fallen branches. In examining only a few natural feats of civil and structural engineering it only too often humiliates humanity's own humble efforts.

Everyone knows beavers build dams. Perhaps lesser-known is why. A beaver lodge, it's home, is a much like an igloo made of wood, mud, and rock, with the entrance underwater. The water surrounding the lodge serves as protective moat against the beaver's natural predators. But the pond in which a beaver builds his lodge often does not exist ahead of time, so the beaver builds a dam to divert enough water to a depression, fills it up, and then builds his lodge in the newly made pond. These dams are expertly crafted from nothing but wood, weeds, mud, and rock. The largest currently-known beaver dam is 850 meters or 2790 ft (over half a mile long), was probably built overnight, could be easily rebuilt overnight, and most likely beavers learned how to do this over 100 million years ago.

Irrigation techniques, dams (obviously), protective moats, amphibious habitat construction, hydrodynamics, use of a snow roof as an insulator.

Terraforming techniques. Beaver dams, and the ponds they create, have an immense potential to change the entire surrounding ecosystem, usually for the better. The wood that is chosen naturally by the beaver will more often than not truncheon (sprout) and form roots and trees that further enforce the dam and eventually form a permanent nigh-immovable part of the landscape. River salmon runs depend heavily on beaver ponds for their breeding pools. Rich farmland is created at the bottom of the ponds while at the same time excess nutrients and toxins are removed in the process. Denitrification helps recapture excess nitrogen in the atmosphere. Diverse biosystems for songbirds, frogs, toads, etc, are given a literal oasis of shelter, food, and water. Beavers have not only figured out how to terraform the land, often to nature's benefit, but do so without mechanized earth-movers, nanomolecular robots, or union labor. They do it with on-site materials, often overnight, and must live within the results of their labor.

The caddisfly larva creates a cocoon-like case around itself out of local materials as a combination of camouflage, protection, and as a means of seining water for food. In many cases, these cases are beautiful with intricate design. Unlike snails, they do not secrete their houses, but must assemble them bit by bit. Unlike hermit crabs, caddisfly larvae never outgrow their shells, but rather they build on to the outside of it as they grow larger, often creating a flared shape. The entire domicile is mobile, easily entered and exited, and achieves zenlike aesthetic that the caddisfly itself will never be able to appreciate.

Composite materials construction, camouflage, and mobile homes, use of the home as a method of obtaining food.

The same combination of the four that the caddisfly larva manages to achieve. Imagine the possibilities of a mobile infantry or even a planetary exploration vehicle that also serves as a home that can be easily crafted or repaired compositely from any local materials, is capable of being expanded upon when demand calls for it, is perfectly camouflaged, is mobile, and can be used to obtain food.

Web-spinning spiders polymerize one of the most amazing materials known to man. Strands of spider-silk are stronger than steel. It is estimated that a spiderweb woven with threads a pencil's width thick could stop a 747 travelling at full speed. The elasticity of the material allows it to stretch up to an incredible 40% before it breaks. It has amazing hygroscopic properties to keep it from drying out, yet is acidic, preventing bacterial and fungal growth. It is also edible, and its dernier value (the length at which a material will break under its own weight) is 5-8, compared to steel's paltry 3. In other words, you would need a length of spider-silk 45 to 72 kilometers long before it would break under its own weight. To top it off, the thickness of the strand is uniform across the web, and the precise distance measurements are based off of its own body size.

Suspension bridge construction, the strength of the Y and the arch, polymerization.

Advanced lightweight materials fabrication techniques. Certainly knowing how to make spider silk would be cool, but what would be even better is fully understanding the "how" of their formation, and how we can apply that knowledge to the creation of other, even more incredible materials. The advent of nanotechnology will almost certainly lead to this in time, and has already resulted in carbon nanotubes, which show amazing potential.

The social sparrow weaver creates enormous nests capable of housing 100-300 in a single colony. The nests are designed with long tubelike entrances from the bottom, and the thermal zone has a wide variance of ~15 degrees C from the outer edge to the inner edge. Made of different materials, in different layers, the nests are permanent structures, some lasting over 100 years or more. In the winter, the sparrows nest closer to the center, where shared body heat and the protection of layers insulates them from the harsh sub-zero temperatures. The structure itself saves the birds an estimated 7% of their body's energy in the winter--a critical amount when food is scarce. During the summer, to cool off, they move to the outer edges of the colony. Nests are chosen typically in high trees with smooth trunks and high branches. Telephone poles are in fact ideal for this. To compliment their gregarious lifestyle, weaver nests often house a variety of guests like falcons, owls, vultures, eagles, and finches.

Apartment quarters, cooperative living with other species, long-term urban planning.

More communal architectural techniques. Our basic apartment complex has changed little in the last few thousand years, and those who had different or unique ideas were quickly lost to the extremely overused and "blocks and courtyards" method of dense residential housing. The need for privacy, combined with the need for efficiency of space, is a battle that is continuously being fought between architects and developers. Profit typically wins in the end, though quality of living at a lower cost should be the true litmus test of a good "apartment". If we could figure out how to get an apartment complex to have the same sense of community as a suburban neighborhood, with the energy and space efficiency of a high-rise, the capability of housing guests, and an energy efficiency that far outstrips the cheap construction methods used for most apartments, then humanity will have made the next--and arguably most necessary--leap forward in housing.

Bees practically invented compartmentalization. Using their own body as the unit of measurement, and the honeycomb shape as the most efficient use of space, bees have created multi-use compartments that can be used to live in, store food, raise young, process materials, and enact social structure. The hexagonal shape tiles the plane with minimal surface area, using the least amount of material necessary to divide space uniformly from wall to wall. The shape of the honeycomb is so perfect that master masons use it in their symbology.
Extremely low-budget housing construction. In some countries, the honeycomb shape is used to stack more coin-op "coffin beds" (think of a hotel room the size of a coffin), and in Slovenia there is already a low-budget housing project based off the honeycomb shape.

More uses for the honeycomb structure. Honeycomb architecture is being actively researched. Engineers, architects, and designers are scrambling to fully realize the modern possibilities of this shape, from the nano-molecular to the macro mega-structural scale.

Individually, ants are barely a step up from a virus. They are so stupid that ants will play tug of war with a twig for months on end, with none of them being aware the others are pushing or pulling. They are so stupid that a live ant coated with oleic acid will be repeatedly picked up and moved to the "ant graveyard" despite wriggling and protests. They are barely aware of one another's presence, and seem more like pre-programmed chemically-based stimulus response organisms than an actual life form. And yet, collectively, ants achieve some of the most brilliant feats of civil engineering, public works, and architecture that the world has ever seen. And thanks to a very little understood science called emergence, we have only barely come to realize it's by some strange combination of accident and repetition. Thanks to recent advances in ant bed research, we are only just now finding out how very neat and organized these nests appear to be, which lends only more questions to the already growing pile.

Hallways, traffic control measures, production lines, specialization.

Emergence theory. Swerve theory. Collective intelligence. Hive minds. These are already being investigated, but not yet fully understood, but it appears to happen all over nature, and even amongst cities. The idea is that if every organism's direction is purely randomly based, that eventually one organism will experience a positive event at a specific location, as opposed to a negative event or a non-event elsewhere. This positive event will then be experienced by another organism, and another, and another, while the other non-event and negative-event locations experience less traffic. The result is that a major thorofare develops between "home" and the "positive event". Similarly, the collective average guess of a crowd will--the vast majority of the time--be more accurate than the guess of any one individual in the crowd. Contrary to all popular belief, the larger the crowd, the more intelligent it appears to become, on average, on accident. The ability to apply detailed knowledge of this to architecture, urban planning, and traffic would allow for a complete revolution in the way cities are designed, how landscaping is handled, and how all are connected to one another.

If we can somehow manage to learn even a fraction of what nature has left to teach us, we can expand the horizons of habitability to new levels. As human population levels continue to increase and the Earth approaches the nigh-inevitable 10 billion count, we can no longer rely on tradition, aesthetics, and the assumption that only the future holds the solution. In many cases, the solutions to housing the world are all around us, we merely need to stop long enough to discover and appreciate them.

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