April 26, 2011
Designed by nature. Top LEED states. Water Conservation Tips. And more.

Mother Nature Knows Best
You may not be familiar with the term biomimicry, but you already know the concept. Biomimicry applies solutions from the natural world to building design, like how solar panels replicate photosynthesis. Patrick Thibaudeau, vice president of HGA Architects & Engineers, and Taryn Mead, biologist at the design table with the Biomimicry Group, discuss how biomimicry can green your building.

BUILDINGS: What is biomimicry?

Thibaudeau: Biomimicry is a holistic design philosophy that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature's patterns. It examines the way biological life exists in the natural world and turns that into solutions for how we create buildings.

Mead: Biomimicry is based not on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it. The premise is that all the other organisms on the planet have learned to live here sustainably for 3.8 billion years. Humans can learn a lot from those experiences. Biomimicry is the conscious emulation of nature's genius.

BUILDINGS: How does biomimicry inform design principles?

Thibaudeau: Biomimicry can be applied to the massing, layout, details of comfort, lighting, materials selection, indoor comfort, and aesthetics. It permeates everything about the design – it's a synergistic approach to a project that cannot be applied as an afterthought.

Biomimicry is a more complete solution than just plugging a few green elements into a building and calling it sustainable. It avoids cherry-picking ideas and instead applies the philosophy to every part of the structure.

Mead: You can also use biomimicry to look for specific strategies. It starts with the premise that nature knows how to do it best. Biomimicry informs the way our outlook should be, which then helps to filter our decisions.

BUILDINGS: What are examples of biomimicry-influenced systems?

Thibaudeau: We are working on a science building for the L.A. Community College District in which the building's design is influenced by the structure of a leaf. Solar panels function like a tree canopy over the building, harnessing energy and providing a shading effect. We also applied a facade paint that emulates the self-cleaning properties of the lotus plant. We even used DNA patterns to drive the aesthetic of the exterior.

Mead: When exploring possible temperature management solutions, we can turn to prairie dogs as a model. They dig tunnels underground that have two entrances. One end of the tunnel is higher than the other, creating a path of draw that brings in air. By abstracting this design principle, we can determine how to scale it for a passive ventilation system within a building.

BUILDINGS: What are biomimicry's benefits?

Thibaudeau: We strive to create buildings that have a positive impact on their occupants and the environment. The biggest single cost factor for a building is staffing. So anything that can be done to make the work environment the most satisfying for the occupants is going to have a productivity benefit.

Mead: While outcomes vary depending on the project, benefits include energy savings, a reduction in material costs, improved indoor comfort, and a decrease in waste. The building is more life-friendly, so it has the potential to lower healthcare costs and increase productivity by improving indoor air quality and ambience.

BUILDINGS: What is the long-term impact of biomimicry designs?

Thibaudeau: Nature is the ultimate engineer. We just have to apply it to the right examples. Nature encourages us to start at zero, not get to zero. Nature creates, reuses, creates, and reuses again. That's what we need to do. It's about making vs. consuming, improving over mitigating.

Mead: While technology has enabled many sustainable advancements, it's not going to solve all of our problems. Long-term sustainability is going to require a monolithic approach. Biomimicry has the power to be that collective vision. When our buildings are functionally indistinguishable from our natural systems, that's when we know we can be truly sustainable.

Stanford Researchers Develop Cheaper Solar Cells
A team of researchers at Stanford University found that adding a single layer of organic molecules to a solar cell can triple its efficiency, a discovery that could lead to cheaper solar panels.

The cells are created from tiny particles of semiconductors, called "quantum dots," which are cheaper to produce because the dots are manufactured through simple chemical reactions. However, the dots initially seemed to be less efficient than existing solar cells.

Lead researcher Stacey Bent and her team coated a titanium dioxide semiconductor in their quantum dot solar cell with a single layer of organic molecules less than a nanometer thick, which tripled the cell's efficiency.

After trying several different types of molecules, they determined that the type of organic material didn't matter – the molecule's length was more important.

The team hopes the lower cost of quantum dot cells coupled with their efficiency findings will lead to wider acceptance of solar energy.

75% of Consumers Support Solar and Wind Energy
While renewable energy supplies less than 30% of total U.S. electrical power, most people have favorable attitudes about green technologies. Over 75% of consumers support the use of solar and wind energy, a study by Pike Research concluded.

The survey canvassed over 1,000 adults who identified their views on 5 environmental components: clean energy, clean transportation, smart grid, carbon management, and building efficiency. Overall, renewable energy sources were perceived more positively than clean energy concepts such as nuclear or smart grids.

Cap and trade and nuclear received the most unfavorable ratings. Programs such as carbon credits and LEED certification ranked the lowest on the favorable scale, although they were also cited as the most "unfamiliar" programs.

Regardless of consumers' income, education, or energy usage, solar was deemed the least controversial technology as well as the most familiar. The report "implies the benefits of solar energy are equally appealing to consumers regardless of their differences in energy consumption, home ownership, and adoption of new technologies."

Eco-Labels to Include Carbon Emissions
Eco-labels provide a quick way to gauge a product's environmental impact. However, providing the right information is a never-ending challenge. A product can be low-VOC, reduce energy costs, or contain recycled content – which is better to emphasize? Researchers at Chile's University of Santiage de Compstela (USC) are adding another green aspect for consideration – a product's carbon footprint throughout its production life cycle.

In the study Managing the Carbon Footprint of Products: The Contribution of the Method Composed of Financial Statements (MC3), researchers applied a method of estimating the ecological and carbon footprints of organizations to individual products. The goal was not only to calculate a product's greenhouse gas emissions, but to provide the estimate on an eco-label.

"It is of fundamental importance to provide the consumer with environmental information by including information on the product's carbon footprint related to the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases during its production," says Aldolfo Carballo Penal, USC researcher. "These eco-labels on the product will make it possible to raise awareness, inform people about production methods, and allow companies and organizations to carry out efficient environmental management."

Assessing a product's environmental impact over its production life cycle is no easy task. It requires analyses of carbon emissions generated from acquiring raw materials for the product, during the manufacturing process, and while transporting the product to the point of purchase (cradle-to-gate).

While emissions during use and from disposal were outside the study's scope, Carballo argues that identifying emissions generated from production "can be a key factor for stimulating innovation in businesses."

Ford's Lighting Retrofit Saves 11,000 Tons of Carbon Dioxide
Switching out and retrofitting 50,000 light fixtures in Ford buildings across southeast Michigan will save the company more than $1.3 million and eliminate over 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Ford's Land Energy Efficiency and Supply Office, which is handling the project, will upgrade lights and retrofit existing fixtures in office buildings, test facilities, a test warehouse, and a vehicle proving ground facility.

Within those buildings, lighting replacements are planned for offices, conference rooms, hallways, design studios, laboratories, and restrooms.

The improvements include the replacement of more than 6,000 fixtures in Ford World Headquarters alone.

Ford's initiative includes retrofitting existing fixtures, installing lighting and dimming control systems to optimize daylighting use, replacing incandescent exit signs with LED versions, controlling lighting in unoccupied areas with occupancy sensors, and replacing incandescent and halogen lamps with CFLs and LED lamps.

The lighting upgrades are projected to save more than 18.2 million kWh of energy, enough to power 1,648 average U.S. homes for a year.

Top 10 LEED States
Based on U.S. 2010 Census information, the USGBC has released its 2010 list of top 10 states for LEED-certified commercial and institutional buildings per capita.

Leading the nation is Washington, D.C., with 25.15 square feet of LEED-certified space per person.

The other top states in terms of square feet per person are:

  • Nevada: 10.92
  • New Mexico: 6.35
  • New Hampshire: 4.49
  • Oregon: 4.07
  • South Carolina: 3.19
  • Washington: 3.16
  • Illinois: 3.09
  • Arkansas: 2.9
  • Colorado: 2.85
  • Minnesota: 2.77

"Using per capita, vs. the more traditional numbers of projects or pure square footage, is a reminder to all of us that the people who live, work, learn, and play in buildings should be what we care about most," says Scot Horst, USGBC's senior vice president of LEED. "2010 was a difficult year for most of the building industry, but in many areas, the hunger for sustainable development kept the markets moving."

10 Tips for Saving Water and the Environment
There's no time like the present to begin conserving water. The water use of office buildings can have a great impact on freshwater resources.

"Because office buildings make up a large part of the built environment in cities around the globe, reducing water usage in commercial properties can have a substantial environmental impact," says BOMA chair Ray H. Mackey, partner and chief operating officer at Stream Realty Partners, L.P. "By implementing some of these easy tips, property professionals will help make buildings more green and sustainable worldwide."

To help property professionals reduce water usage in their buildings, BOMA offers these 10 tips:
1. Benchmark water consumption through ENERGY STAR.
2. Use a broom to clean driveways or sidewalks.
3. Landscape with perennial plants.
4. Install aerators in bathroom and break room sinks.
5. Install low-flow toilets and urinals.
6. Monitor activities with sensors, such as motion-sensor faucets.
7. Reduce water pressure.
8. Reset hot water thermostats to the lowest possible setting.
9. Turn off water heaters while the building is unoccupied.
10. Harvest rainwater for landscaping.

Hands-Free Faucets Harbor Bacteria
A study of newly installed hands-free faucets at Johns Hopkins Hospital shows these fixtures are more likely to be contaminated with one of the most common and hazardous bacteria in hospitals than old-style fixtures with separate handles for hot and cold water.

"Newer is not necessarily better when it comes to infection control in hospitals, especially when it comes to warding off potential hazards from water-borne bacteria, such as Legionella species," says Lisa Maragakis, director of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Johns Hopkins Hospital, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and senior study investigator and infectious disease specialist. "New devices, even faucets, however well-intentioned in their make-up and purpose, have the potential for unintended consequences, which is why constant surveillance is needed."

While the high-tech faucets cut water consumption, Johns Hopkins researchers identified Legionella growing in 50% of cultured water samples from 20 electronic-eye faucets in or near patient rooms on 3 inpatient units, but in only 15% of water cultures from 20 traditional manual faucets in the same patient areas.

Valve Components May Be Culprits
The exact reason for the higher bacteria growth in the electronic faucets still needs clarification, but the researchers say it appears that standard hospital water disinfection methods, which complement treatments by public utilities, did not work well on the complex valve components of the newer faucets. They also suspect that the valves offer additional surfaces for bacteria to become trapped and grow.

As a result of the study, facilities engineers at Johns Hopkins removed all 20 newer faucets from patient care areas and replaced them with manual ones. About 100 similar electronic faucets are also being replaced throughout the hospital, while hospital leadership opted to use traditional fixtures (over 1,000 of them) in all patient care areas in the new clinical buildings currently under construction at the Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore campus.

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