Innovation from the Past and Nature
We’re clearly in the most intense green revolution since the oil embargo of the 1970s. Some might think this frenzy of activity to reduce our impact on the environment is new and can only be addressed with 21st century innovation. My recent visit to the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., quickly reminded me how wrong that assumption can be.
The Green Community exhibit at the museum provided an interesting look into the history of green practices that are common today. The quote that caught my eye was: “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery--not over nature but of ourselves.” I was surprised to see this was not a recent quote but one made by Rachel Carson in 1962.
I was reminded that many of today’s green solutions to climate, water and sustainable existence are nothing new to mankind. A timeline in the museum points out that in 80 A.D., the Roman Senate required water to be stored during dry periods. In 1510, Leonardo da Vinci designed a horizontal water wheel to prove the principle of water turbines. In 1690, Colonel William Penn required Pennsylvania settlers to preserve 1 acre of trees for every 5 acres that were cleared. In 1762, Benjamin Franklin led a committee to regulate waste disposal and water pollution. The first mechanical windmill water pump was invented in 1854. And in 1861, Professor Augustine Mouchot of France patented a solar pump.
It was also amazing to learn about the amount of waste cities around the world generate. The U.S. recycles approximately 32 percent of its trash, which translates into 4.6 pounds per capita. Americans discard 96 billion pounds of food each year. Restaurants and grocery stores throw out $30 billion of food annually. This incredible amount of discarded food was the basis for the formation of a national group called the Freegans. One mission of the Freegans is to salvage discarded food and provide it to food banks in cities across the country.
I left the museum with the feeling that we can do better in the building-construction industry regarding the innovation of sustainable products. We must remember in nature there is no waste. To be truly sustainable, our industry needs to create and build with products that do not end up as waste. There already are some products in other industries that actually mimic nature:
The idea of mimicking nature is referred to as biomimicry. There is biomimicry research and innovation occurring in the construction industry today. For example, there are self-cleaning coatings available that are based on the nanoscale bumps on a lotus plant’s leaves. The carpet industry has used biomimicry to develop alternatives to conventional adhesives. Researchers are learning how to modify building designs for thermal comfort based on studying termites, which can maintain constant temperatures inside a building no matter the outside temperature. Scientists are studying the web silk of spiders for possible applications in construction fibers or cabling. Other research has proposed adhesive glue from studying mussels, solar cells made like leaves and water harvesting from fog similar to how a beetle does it.
Where will tomorrow’s building materials come from? Will they have a lower impact on the environment than today’s materials? Where will we look to find the inspiration for these innovations? We certainly can learn from our predecessors about innovation. We can examine how necessity was the mother of invention.
We can also learn from nature. A closer examination of our environment can show how things naturally stick together, gather and distribute energy, cool, shed and retain water, insulate, provide strength, remain clean, repair and are reused. At the end of a product’s life in nature it often becomes food for another process in nature. This is a lesson in sustainable building practices, as well.
Tomorrow’s roof and wall assemblies will likely feature biobased sealants, adhesives, insulators, coatings, reusable attachment techniques and innovative new products. The end result should be a more sustainable design without compromising the structural and/or functional performance of the assembly. As the green community says, we have no choice but to Reduce, Reuse, Rethink and Recycle to sustain the use of components in the construction industry.