What is biodesign, and can it be used in architecture?

In the quest to shift our world towards more sustainable practices and circular processes, designers are increasingly turning their attention to surprisingly useful solutions found in nature. Biodesign is just one emerging trend that seeks to solve design problems with input from the biological realm.

What is biodesign?

As the name suggests, at its core biodesign is a discipline that combines biology and design – in other words, using naturally occurring materials and processes, from plant and bacterial matter and animal-produced substances to biodegradation and naturally occurring chemical reactions, to enhance the design of a product or practical application by taking advantage of its natural properties and features.

Biodesign can play a significant role in our emerging circular economy by giving us opportunities to use more sustainable production processes and products, many of which can be composted at the end of their useful life. The potential industrial and scientific applications for biodesign principles are almost endless, from fashion and architecture to healthcare and product design, and educational institutions the world over are paying particularly close attention to the discipline.

Some of the natural materials used in biodesign can be quite surprising, and often sound a little bizarre (wearable spiderweb air filter, anyone?) but effective biodesign offers numerous benefits, from more sustainable production and improved efficiency in industrial processes to completely new solutions offering advantages in terms of health, sustainability and functionality. For example, students at UC Davis in California “biodesigned” a glitter made from bacterial nanocellulose with the aim of ending child labor in the mining of mica, which is often used to make glitter.

Biodesign vs. biophilic design – is there a difference?

If you’re a regular follower of the Thermory blog, you’ll no doubt have noticed that we’re really interested in biophilic design in architecture, and perhaps you’re wondering if biodesign is another word for the same thing. The short answer is no, but there is some crossover between the two – biophilic design comprises six elements that can be used individually or in combination, and while some applications of those elements can incorporate aspects of biodesign, such as using naturally occurring materials or living organisms, most biophilic architecture does not automatically qualify as biodesign.

The primary aim of biophilic design is to create a closer connection between humans and our natural environment, whereas the applications of biodesign tend to be more about identifying and creating practical design solutions. Also, biophilic design relates exclusively to the field of architecture, whereas biodesign can be applied in any discipline that incorporates design – in other words, practically anywhere. In short, while some design practices that follow biophilic principles will, by definition, also follow those of biodesign, they are very much separate disciplines.

Why is biodesign a hot topic for architects, and what role does wood play?

As in other industries, biodesign in architecture has the power to solve a range of practical challenges, often in ways that enable us to live in closer alignment with our natural surroundings, from more sustainable building materials to features that create symbiotic enhancements for both the human inhabitants and the life all around us.

Biodesign embraces the use of wood in various ways, leveraging its sustainability, versatility, and biodegradability for applications ranging from construction to medical devices. Researchers and designers continue to explore innovative ways to incorporate wood materials into new and existing products while considering ecological and environmental impacts.

For example, consider the concept of a structure that shapes live trees around other materials as they grow to produce a building that will evolve and change over the course of its lifetime. This concept is called BauBotanik, and its proponents claim that buildings constructed in this way will actually become stronger as they age.

And while wood’s ability to trap carbon dioxide is well documented, buildings made from living trees will actually continue to absorb the greenhouse gas, while also releasing oxygen, throughout their lifetime.

As you can tell, the places where biodesign could potentially take us as a global community are virtually endless, and this exciting and growing field could very well revolutionize the way we live. The products we use, the food we eat, the way we recycle, even the homes we live in could be transformed in fascinating, inspiring and life-enhancing ways in the near future – so watch this space!

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