The pursuit of biomimicry typically begins with the literal emulation of forms and structures found in nature. But the more interesting path often involves the translation of a model biology into an unexpected design outcome.
An experimental pavilion constructed in late 2012 by faculty and students at the Institute for Computational Design (ICD) and the Institute of Building Structures and Structural Design (ITKE) at the University of Stuttgart in Germany is one example of this approach. Professors Achim Menges and Jan Knippers directed the design and construction of the lightweight structure, which was robotically fabricated using carbon and glass fibers.
According to the project brief, the pavilion was inspired by the various material properties of a lobster's shell: "The lobster’s exoskeleton (the cuticle) consists of a soft part, the endocuticle, and a relatively hard layer, the exocuticle. The cuticle is a secretion product in which chitin fibrils are embedded in a protein matrix. The specific differentiation of the position and orientation of the fibres and related material properties respond to specific local requirements. The chitin fibres are incorporated in the matrix by forming individual unidirectional layers. In the areas where a non-directional load transfer is required, such individual layers are laminated together in a spiral (helicoidal) arrangement. The resulting isotropic fibre structure allows a uniform load distribution in every direction. On the other hand, areas which are subject to directional stress distributions exhibit a unidirectional layer structure, displaying an anisotropic fibre assembly which is optimized for a directed load transfer."
The final design is a highly efficient structure resulting from the integration of robotic fabrication techniques and biomimetic principles. Although the formal and material qualities of the pavilion are refreshingly unexpected, although seemingly biologically informed, it would have been ideal if the researchers could have utilized biobased materials rather than energy- and carbon-intensive industrial fibers. The same structure composed of a synthesized, biochemically produced chitin—although not yet economically or technically feasible at such a scale—would not only have represented lightness in terms of weight, but also in terms of environmental footprint.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.