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March 2020

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Aremi MacDonald

When nature meets design: fluid dynamics in the natural world inspires urban forms

Spring is officially upon us. It’s that time of the year when the flowers begin to blossom, nature comes out of hiding and the sun brings us promise of warmer and sunnier days. Nature has always been something to marvel at. From its beauty to its intricate processes and ecosystems, it’s amazing how much there is to learn from it. It’s been our source of inspiration for as long as we can remember.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but have you ever heard of biomimicry?


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Nature has been solving some of our most complex problems for billions of years. And what’s more? It’s influenced the way engineers, architects and designers create our living spaces. 

Take a look at a few examples of how the natural world does it best, and how understanding fluid dynamics in nature has inspired our urban forms:

1. Termite Mounds

Termites have created quite an efficient ventilation system in their tiny (yet not-so-tiny) homes, producing a natural system of fluid air flow throughout. Through tiny interconnected pores and chimney like structures and openings in a termite mound, the design allows the structure to “breathe,” where carbon dioxide is expelled, and fresh air can take its place.

The efficient exchange of air flow that takes place within a termite’s mound has a lot to teach architects and engineers when it comes to creating natural ventilation systems that use the least amount of energy consumption- where the structure itself can significantly control humidity and temperature in a building.

 

 

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The Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe, South Africa was inspired by the natural ventilation system found in termite mounds.

2. Sand Dune Formation

Sand dunes are formed when the wind carries the sand in patterns of smooth laminar flow into an area or crevice that is sheltered. Sand deposits accumulate in these areas over time and a dune will start to form. Sand dunes will have a long slope on the windward side, and a steep slope on the other, known as the slip face. Understanding where and how sand dunes are formed can give us insight on designing with the prevailing winds and may even allow us to draw great inspiration on how to design in some of the harshest climates on Earth.

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Inspired by the natural formation of sand dunes, located in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, this structure is designed to use the prevailing winds as a natural cooling system, while the curvature of its design helps reflect unwanted sunlight from the building, while also channeling natural light into desired areas.

Other architects have a more biological approach…

Swedish architect Magnus Larsson suggests building a sandstone wall which would eliminate desertification and transform a once harsh environment into a habitable space. Not only that, he suggests creating living spaces out of existing sand dunes.

Sand dunes are almost like ready-made buildings in a way. All we need to do is solidify the parts that we need to be solid, and then excavate the sand.

- Magnus Larsson

He proposes solidifying the sand by introducing Bacillus pasteurii, a microorganism that can take loose sand and transform it into sandstone.

 

3. Wind Erosion

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The wind’s ability to shape, erode, transport or deposit materials is known as Aeolian processes.

 

We all know that the wind is a powerful force in nature. It’s the source of rock formation, it can manipulate the laminar flow of water, cause great turbulence and deteriorate surfaces over time- or really no time at all. Understanding the wind’s behaviour, its uniform or turbulent patterns and even how it acts against different surfaces can help structural engineers and architects know where and how to design with the natural elements to create the most masterful buildings of sustainability and innovation.

Take this example…

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Located in Brumunddal, Norway, Mjøstårnet is an 18-storey structure complete with apartments, a hotel, pool, office space and a restaurant. It’s currently the world’s tallest timber building.

Wooden skyscrapers are popping up all over the world, with many underway this year. Many advocates claim timber is the way to go, arguing that not only does it sway better with the wind as opposed to its concrete counterpart, the timber material absorbs CO2 just like trees do! Is this what the sustainable future looks like?

The organisms that exist in nature represent a large selection of new formal solutions that go far beyond the imagination of the most creative human designer. At the same time, different organisms are uniquely fitted to their surroundings’ requirements. So, it seems that nature is capable of producing an infinite amount of shapes and solutions, which are both innovative and highly performative.

- Franz Forsberg, Link Arkitektur

Fluid dynamics in nature are present everywhere. Understanding natural ventilation, or the flow of a river, how materials weather and erode based on geolocation or how the prevailing winds provide great shelter or destroy it just the same are examples of some of the most valuable lessons nature has to teach us about urban design. If we observe close enough- it may already hold the answers to the age-old problems structural engineers, architects and urban designers alike seek to solve.