Branch and leaf structure in close up

+ Engineers should change their approach to problem solving and look for other sources of inspiration from natural design processes.

I believe that if engineers drew more inspiration from nature, they could design better buildings, using less material, with a smaller carbon footprint, that were also visually interesting. Nature faces similar problems to those we try to solve but it had millennia of evolution and iterations we can learn from.

Designs like the Beijing Olympics Water Cube, whose form was inspired by the natural formation of soap bubbles, prove it is possible to draw inspiration from nature in a way that is efficient, sustainable and visually innovative. 

If we look at the structure of plants, shells and animals’ skeletons with the eyes of a structural engineer for example, we may realize that one of the lessons nature is teaching us is that curved structures are more efficient. We have the tendency to rationalize volumes into regular shapes, sharp edges and straight lines, but forces flow in a more fluid way and organic structures grow and evolve following the same curved paths in order to minimize the use of material. When form follows force, the result is unlikely to be a structure with right angles and sharp corners.

In 1953 Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi with the Gatti Wool Factory demonstrated that a slab made of curved ribs that followed the natural flow of forces could be more efficient and use less material than a traditional design made of orthogonal beams.

There are now software tools to emulate natural design processes. Topology optimisation applications work differently than conventional design tools. In fact they represent a completely different approach to problem-solving: engineers do not identify a solution and then ask the software to check whether it is acceptable or not; they define the problem and its boundaries, and let the computer generate structural solutions that evolve and progressively improve minimizing the use of material.

This ‘generative design’ approach has been used in the aerospace and automotive industries for a while, but is still relatively new to the built environment. The main reason may have been the cost of building one-off non-typical solutions, but even the construction industry is changing.

These once-costly designs can now be produced easily and cheaply using digital fabrication and additive manufacturing technology. They empower designers to produce more sustainable designs and forms that were considered “unbuildable” before.

It is a common misconception that naturally-inspired solutions are the engineers’ default response when asked to be creative. I think it is actually the opposite. It is not about the designer being at the centre of the process and generating new ideas; biomimicry to me is about taking a step back and humbly accepting that nature may be ahead of us.

The work done at the Centre for Nature Inspired Engineering at UCL is a great example of how inspiration from nature could even go beyond shapes and forms and extend to complex processes and mechanisms.

In light of all this, should engineers change their approach to problem solving, and look for other sources of inspiration? Should they talk more to biologists, naturalists and zoologists? When facing a new challenge, should they spend less time at their desks, and take more walks in nature?