Buildings and Botany

A few weeks ago the Ashevillage Institute held a week long workshop on Fermentation and Wild Edibles. I was fortunate enough to join about 70 other folks from all over North America (including Mexico and Canada) and a recent transplant from Rhodesia in participating in this remarkable learning experience.

At first it may not seem like a pertinent subject for green building but bear with me.

Once you spend some time studying botany you come to realize that there are some interesting parallels and areas of overlap.

Of course our friends at the Living Building Institute have long championed a stronger role for Biomimicry in the built environment;  their mascot is a flower!

It’s worth noting that the Living Building Challenge was founded on the principles of Biomimcry that Jeanine Benyus first articulated some twenty years ago. There are much worse ways of wasting 20 minutes than watching Jeannie’s TED talk, by the way.

Benyus was inspired by the incredible Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson who knows more about bugs and plants than almost anybody. He’s also the guy who coined the term Biophilia or human-kinds’ affinity for the beauty of the natural world.

So the connection between buildings and botany is not untrodden ground. According to all these deep thinkers this relationship needs to be explored and understood much better than is presently the case.

So what does a building have in common with a plant.

A building doesn’t normally move; neither does a plant.

Another commonality is the co-evolutionary aspect of plants and buildings with humans. We need both! In fact, most of our buildings are made of plants (lumber)!

There are other ways that buildings and plants are not alike but could or should be.

Plants get all their energy from their fixed position. Net Zero buildings attempt to mimic this attribute.

Plants get all their water and nutrients from their fixed positions. Tough but not impossible for a building to do.

Plants process all their “waste” from their fixed position. In fact, their waste is something co-evolutionarily essential to humans – oxygen! Buildings have a long way to go to mimic this characteristic but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Plants are uniquely suited to their environments. We’ll probably never hear a Botanist talk about the equivilant of an international style for plants. In fact, plants out of context are generally to be avoided as it upsets the natural order of climate, flora, and fauna. Buildings should definitely follow this example and strive to be better rooted to their times and places.

Think about it. A shade loving plant would never thrive on an exposed hot western slope. The only reason a building can ignore it’s context (big windows to the west anyone?) is by the inputs of huge amounts of cheap energy. These examples of environmental amnesia are making their presence known in very unpleasant ways that are getting harder and harder to ignore.

A few other similarities. Plants are extraordinarily complex organisms – so are buildings.

And finally there is this: Western North Carolina is blessed with a remarkable collection of teachers and learners of Botany and the natural world. Equally, WNC is blessed with some of the brightest lights in green building in the world.

Here’s to Botanist and Builders learning from and helping each other along this treacherous path of resilience and sustainability.

Steve Farrell