Case Study: Tree H20 Optimization

So many hours of my life are spent in and around trees – whether it is hiking or viewing them through a window. I seem to always notice the leaves of a tree first – are they green, flowery, dead, or just budding? I notice how full the tree is, how tall it is, and how thick its trunk is. The one aspect that almost always skips my mind is how the biological organism “tree” becomes the grand structure that it is. What provides its energy and who feeds it? 
As I think of the biological taxonomy (the groups it belongs to and its purpose) of this beautiful phenomenon, I realize the source of its beauty and energy is water. A tree gets water from its environment, then captures, absorbs, and filters the water, a liquid. Trees are the longest living organisms on earth (http://treeservice.com/Fun-Facts-About-Trees.html) and can induce rainfall by cooling the land and transpiring water into the sky from their leaves. An acre of maple trees can put as much as 20,000 gallons of water into the air each day. The average tree will drink approximately 2,000 litres of water each year (http://www.hariyalithane.com/?p=37). Trees have evidently been around for a long time, but their intelligent process of pulling water from the ground and reusing it is a invaluable tool for modern day life that has not been used for its full potential. 

Salter’s second design for the “Solar Water Still and Pump”

Exactly how can a tree’s water processing design can be used today? Most would agree that we could use a way to get pure water from contaminated soils and salt water – especially in places where no clean water alternatives are available. Stephen Salter (www3.telus.net/farallon), has begun a quest with this worthy purpose in mind. His “Solar Water Still and Pump” was designed to mimic the power of a tree’s water harvesting system. By using the energy of the sun, it pulls water up from under the earth and then saves the evaporated water. The captured water is then distilled so that it can be used where pure water is unavailable. Trees improve water quality by slowing and filtering rain water, as well as protecting aquifers and watersheds (http://www.treesaregood.com/funfacts/Environment.aspx).

Salter’s Illustration: http://www3.telus.net/farallon/

Salter’s design works well for improving water quality. His second design was successful in using solar power to capture water, filtering it and then collect the fresh water in a small jar. I would imagine this could be done on a larger scale as well. Just think of the possibilities – fresh water for those who live in areas of drought – California here on our own soil or African desert areas. Water pulled from moisture in the local soil in areas, eliminating the need to walk for hours to get clean water from a stream. No streams or rivers are necessary for this design to provide water!

We can truly learn from Salter and the ancient tree. Herb Waite, a researcher mentioned in Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry, puts us in our place. He explains “Nature invents and we invent… humans and other life-forms have been evolving toward similar points, but [they] are just farther along than we are. They have already faced and solved the problems we are grappling with” (Biomimicry, Janine Benyus, p. 119). We may be behind, but as humans, we have the intelligent capacity to learn from nature’s successes. If we look at the problems solved by nature – such as the tree’s need for clean water – we can help to provide clean water to those in need with designs that cost little to nothing once put into action. Then, we just might be getting close to the point of the wise water usage evolution that the tree has clearly mastered.

Discover more about the scientific process of water capture in trees here and the details of Salter’s water filter process here.

“Roots Maximize Water Uptake: Plants” from http://www.asknature.org

Jagged but Curved! Agreeable Opposites

Jagged, pointy, and hard but also smooth, curved, and symmetrical. How can something have such seemingly disagreeing characteristics and also be a part of one single organism? I discovered there were opposite traits on not just one, but many types of greens. Here are three of them in focus.

My observation started in the late gray afternoon in the woods of Western PA. I was observing the plants around me that seemed really to be stagnant because there was no sun to give them life. But the closer I got to all of the plants, the more I noticed how much they were expanding, growing, and blossoming. But not everything was colorful and beautiful to the common eye. I noticed many had abrupt shapes that seemed a bit more rough and tough.

A thorny, long, straight bundle of stems caught my eye first as it had bright white thorns sticking out of the lanky dull green branch. Sitting just down from the the thorns are blushing little buds – I’m not quite sure what they are going to be, but they look friendly enough.

Thorns are white and from what I’ve read, they are considered to be a part of the stem or a modified version of the branch. Why would they be white? I feel like they should be red – like a warning – not white – like an innocent bride… but there has to be a purpose. White makes them stand out from the main branch making them more visible. This may be to warn herbivores from consuming this plant.  It also could protect the buds from being destroyed. If the buds were eaten or destroyed, then this plant might not be able to survive.

What about the wildlife that DOES get close? The thorn will stick to the fur of approaching animals. If these pointy thorns stick to the animals’ fur, it might allow the DNA of the plant to spread around to other areas that might otherwise be impossible! Transportation becomes one of the functions of the pointy thorns.

A tangled, twisted, arched, ruby grouping of buds was visible on several plants. The groupings make the color more vibrant. If each bud was on it’s own, it would not be as energetic and attractive.

These buds are almost begging to be eaten or pollinated. They do have slightly pointy ends though – almost like they are teasing the hungry insect or animal into eating them and then getting stuck in their throat. An herbal remedy of some kind?

Then there is the third type of strategy – a nest of intertwining, layering branches. Instead of just growing straight up, these branches all grown over and under one another to create a roof for it’s roots. It’s almost like the branches are growing adjacent to one another in order to protect something sacred underneath. It would be hard for any organism, insect or outside plant to get to the bottom of this. This “roof” is protecting the nourishment that gets to the roots – the earth they grow in and the possible the water that is stored in the roots. The yellow flowers are along the the outer layer and underneath is just the gray, plain branches.

Three very unique designs of plants all working toward staying alive and making sure they survive – whether it is protecting their “food”, ensuring they spread their seeds, or providing healing.


Life’s Patterns and a Century-Old Home Design

Jay Harmon, a prominent sustainable innovator, said “Nature is clean, green, sustainable… If you don’t copy nature, you’re wasting your time.” Well, I have to say that whomever created our home might not have looked at nature for the best solution in design, but they definitely used [at least part of] the basic life pattern of the necessity for an inside and an outside. Just like organisms in nature, our house provides us with so many things that keep us safe and healthy.

The main objective of a house is that it provides shelter – a basic human need. The outer shell and framework meets the life pattern of the necessity for an inside and outside. The house’s outer shell is made of bricks layered to form sturdy, resilient walls. These walls create a protective barrier against weather, other people, insects, animals, and also create a personal inside environment for living. Just inside the brick outer layer are wood slats lined up adjacent to one another to create an inner wall and ceilings. This wood provides a surface for the plaster which is the final layer.


Occurring along each wall, are also windows in various sizes, that are made of the old “wavy” single-pane glass to offer a nice view to the outside world – almost like an eyeball is to an organism. On the top of the house is a roof that is made up of thick shingles on the outside that are layered like the scales on a butterfly’s wing (pg. 10 Exploring the Way Life Works). Beneath the shingles, there is wood, then plaster. Inside of the plaster of the roof and walls is the chamber of the house. The walls succeed in created an outer shell that is specific to the outside world – resilient in all kinds of weather, sturdy and thick for protection against intruders, and straight and level to create a shape that is livable for humans. Other than the basic properties of the outside shell, there is not much else that is self-sustaining for our home. It was not built with nature’s inspiration of self-regulation patterns. You’re right, if you’re thinking our house, 100 years old in 2011, was build with no insulation at all!

Photo: http://www.physorg.com/news202054025.html

Hence, many aspects of this design have not met the pattern of inside / outside. I think of the earth as an organism and how the atmosphere regulates the earth’s temperature by protecting life from the sun. Our house should do the same and regulate the inside temperature as well as insulate us from the cold in winter. I am still boggled as to why nothing was designed with more of that thought process. Our home’s structure could be greatly improved by deepening the way it incorporates this life’s pattern. The idea of homeostasis could be applied to achieve a balance of temperatures in all seasons — the way that water, earth and air make up the outer shell of the earth. The outer shell needs an “inner membrane” — a layer of insulation that helps to regulate temperature by containing the hot or cold within the walls.

Photo: http://critterconsulting.com/info/?p=28
 We could use vegetation as a regulating layer and material that uses the sun’s rays to heat the house. The sun’s rays could be turned into energy in the summer and stored so that it could be used in the winter when it is cold. The walls of the house could be ventilated and “breathe” like we sweat in order to cool down. Like a dog sweats through it’s mouth, maybe our walls could have openings that let out the hot air and act as a dehumidifier in areas that have high humidity. The roof could be utilizing the sun’s power as well as having some sort of wind-harnessing system to generate air movement throughout the house in the summer. Just as fat helps us to insulate, a similar insulation could be placed in between the bricks of the outer shell and the inside walls.

The life pattern of outside / inside has taught me many valuable lessons about improving the design of the common house. There are elements and materials all around us that provide energy (free!) as well as heating and cooling powers. In addition to the power of the elements around us, it is so important to look at other organisms and how they “self-regulate” temperatures inside and outside the body – including humans. We plan on getting insulation in our home and new windows as well as look into a “green” solar roof, but I still feel there are many more natural processes that could further improve overall functioning of our home as a type of “organism”.


Viewing Nature through a Pattern Lens

The way the branches must cross over and under each other in order to move toward the sky makes up my favorite pattern. They have to almost weave in and out of one another to get their own little part in the sunlight. Even though there wasn’t much sunlight today, the branches still arc to the sky waiting for the clouds to part. These branches crest the closest parts to the sky and when I followed them down with my eyes they start the connection between everything outside. I started to feel that everything really was touching and sharing energy with each other.

(The video format allows everything to flow together and the collage below allows the patterns to be compared in their essence – in black and white.)

Every repetitive shape that I observed created very different patterns, even though most of them started out just as lines or dots or individual shapes. As I followed the branches down, they turned into the trunk of the tree which had bark patterns, that led to the roots which had thick snaking patterns.

The snaking roots went into the ground which turned up patterns from all the rainwater and led to rocks which had rougher patterns of asymmetrical shapes. Around the rocks were more plants and bushes – each with branches of different shapes and sizes then, again, reaching up towards the sky for light. Inside of the each of the patterns around me, I knew there were living organisms moving around that I could not see.

Animals like squirrels, snakes, bugs, mice, rabbits, and lots of birds. Because it was very gray out and it had been raining, it truly seemed all the animals were in thier homes trying to stay warm and out of the weather. These animals that I could not see were alive and well, I’m pretty sure they were breathing the same air that I was breathing, feeling the colder temperature and wind and waiting for the sun.

There was truly not much sound besides my breath and the subtle breeze. The air felt as if it was just about to rain or the sun was just about to poke through the clouds – it was like I was in limbo – in between weather conditions. What I really started to feel was that the connections I observed between the patterns flowing into one another are part of the whole system of nature as a whole – each shape and design had a reason to be there. Nothing was created without purpose in nature – just as in design, everything needs a function. Learning these purposes is now the task at hand.


Mimic the Most Powerful Designer of All: Nature

 Courtesy: NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center
Biomimicry is so smart, its truly a wonder that our human minds have not grasped the idea in everything that we create. By using the intelligent, inspiring, and sustainable designs that naturally occur in our world, designers can mimic this utter brilliance in our own man-made creations. This is biomimicry – mimicking the perfect building blocks of biology in our creations to make our world a more efficient sustainable and beautiful place. 
Photo: Whale: Natura Paparazzo/Flickr; turbine: Envira-North Systems
The first thing people are eager to learn are the tangible examples. Biomimicry was used to develop everyday items such as velcro (mimics burrs stuck to fabric) and swimsuits (mimics shark skin), famous structures such as the Eiffel Tower (mimics a leg femur) and the Crystal [glass] Palace (mimics a lily pad structure), and machines such as wind turbines (mimics bumps on whale) and airplanes (mimic vultures’ drag/lift actions).
As designers, we provide the public with a momentum toward the future. Designers are given the task of inventing the products, buildings, systems of living, communications, materials, and environments that make up our world and point us into the future. Biomimicry allows that future to be sustainable. Using nature as inspiration guarantees that we are using a system that works and preserves life itself.
Illustration from morganga.org
Biomimicry and sustainable design are perfect partners in preservation of the earth and the creatures – including ourselves – that inhabit it. Their partnership includes their parallel foundation of the principles of reducing, reusing, recycling the materials and energy available. The true impulse of nature is ultimately survival, so if designers mimic nature in their creations, they are inherently creating designs that thrive. This in turn creates a thriving and surviving earth that is self-sustaining in a perfect cycle of life.
Screen Shot from Conference website: http://designconference2007.aiga.org
I first heard about biomimicry actually from Janine Benyus — live in person (!) at a lecture she gave at the AIGA Design Conference in Denver, CO to over 2000 graphic, product, and web designers. Her message has always stuck with me in one way or another throughout my graphic design career after that lecture.  I am interested in learning more about how animals use their natural surroundings – how they inhabit their home and thrive in it with minimum impact. I believe we can not only learn from the biological build-up of organisms, but also from the way of living that the living creatures have within the natural world. This can help us to see our world in a different way – as a partner in our lives, rather than just a supplier of finite resources.
Design from Sarah’s Website
The main biomimicry principle that I use on a daily basis is one based on color, pattern, and aesthetics. 99 percent of my inspiration for visual designs comes from color groupings, patterns, and compositions that I have observed in nature. Because I am a graphic designer, everything I do is visual, rather than structure-based design. Everything I design is also based on communicating a message. I can feel how colors in nature evoke emotion and this guides my design – the blues and tans of the seashore are calming and peaceful; the richness of spring flowers is celebratory and evoking new beginnings. Paper choices, mediums of web and print design, and aesthetic organization of design elements come into play as well.
As designers, we have the power to offer the public a new way of thinking – designs that use all of the senses and designs that are created from building up, not from tearing down. The idea of not using pigments for color, but the layering of translucent materials and using light to create a “color”. The idea of noticing how communication is executed in nature through sounds, sights, and smells that I might be able to use in my websites and printed materials. We can offer a new way of thinking to modern society that can be one of the greatest gifts offered back to the earth – to help people see the power of nature.