According to entrepreneur and economist Gunter Pauli, author of the groundbreaking report The Blue Economy, 100 innovations inspired by nature will generate 100 million news jobs in 10 years. But what does that mean to the built environment?

Humans are clever, but without intending to, we have created massive sustainability problems for future generations. Fortunately, solutions to these global challenges are all around us in nature – a living system that is both highly competitive and symbiotic, where there is no such thing as waste – as anything left over from one animal or plant is food for another species. If we mimic natural systems, we can in fact create efficiency and savings that significantly surpasses current mainstream practices.

Whether it’s how to make paint that naturally repels dust and dirt particles, a process to make air filters without the need for electricity and chemicals, or air-conditioning with out energy, there’s a plethora of innovation waiting to be applied.

Clean air without filters

Every day we are exposed to a variety of different airborne pollutants in our indoor environment. Ventilation systems capture the large particles, while at the same time as the smaller particles are released and dispersed into the supply air. However, our bodies are not biologically equipped to purify these. Meanwhile, dry air in winter dries out the body’s mucous membranes and our bodies become more electrically charged. This means there is an increase in the accumulation of smaller particles on our skin, which can lead to exposure of more airborne infections in our schools and at our workplaces.

We may also be exposed to chemicals used to clean air conditioning filters as particles can linger in the air we inhale. Sure it may be minute, but there are natural solutions that are proven by science that are cost effective and that can do a better job.

One such example is that of a living filter, best displayed in Sundsvall Airport Sweden. It uses plants to clean and oxygenate recycled air, reducing the need for air conditioning which has reduced energy consumption by 70 per cent. It also has the added benefit of improving the health and well-being of its staff and visitors.

The concept was first used by NASA to keep the air clean in space stations.

The living filter system mimics rainforest ecology. As the air circulates, the pollutants are trapped on the surface of the leaves. The plants are watered regularly, washing the pollutants into the soil to be broken down, thereby minimizing dust, allergens and airborne infections.

Professor Lars Thofelt, who patented this technology, worked together with architect Anders Nyquist, who recognized that if air in buildings could naturally flow through a tropical garden, it could secure the removal of most large particles before these dehydrate, capturing all the smaller particles with it. The filter of a tropical garden moistens dry and warm indoor air to a comfortable level and temperature without needing to take in outside air, which would have to be heated up or cooled down and circulated around the building.

While plants are welcome in buildings, these have been typically considered a cost. However, when plants are converted into a filtration system in the building, then this green zone offers multiple functions, thus reducing costs and enhancing well-being.

Test results by independent verifiers have established that the carbon dioxide level with a maximum value of 735 parts per million was reduced thanks to the living filter to 300 to 350 ppm range, which corresponds to good outdoor air. The plants removed the rate of 9.42 grams per hour. Perhaps an even better result is the removal of 7.5 μg of formaldehyde per hour!

It’s no wonder when this technology was applied to the Laggarberg School in Timrå, Sweden, some 400 kilometres North of Stockholm, it provided improved learning conditions.

The fresh air oxygenated classrooms, energising brain cells, resulting in healthier children with better academic results. The real surprise was that it created a land boom as parents jostled to get their students into the public school offering better learning outcomes thanks to innovation inspired by nature and natural systems.

If we were to apply this technology to all our buildings, the savings in chemicals, energy and healthcare would be significant, not to mention better outputs from staff. Happy, healthy staff produce better results.

Termites as architects

Significant energy savings can also come in the design of buildings inspired by that of termite mounds, which are surprisingly comfortable places to live. While the temperature outside a termite mound can swing wildly throughout the day from zero to 50 degrees, the interior of a termite den holds steady at a comfortable (to a termite) 30 degrees.

Mick Pearce, architect of Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, studied the cooling chimneys and tunnels of termite dens. He applied the innovation of termites to the 333,000 square-foot Eastgate Centre, using large chimneys to naturally draw in cool air at night to lower the temperature of the floor slabs, just like termite dens. During the day, these slabs retain the coolness, greatly reducing the need for supplemental air conditioning.

This was a deliberate move away from the big glass block buildings that are typically expensive to maintain at a comfortable temperature, needing substantial heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, which also tends recycle air leading to high levels of air pollution.

The key benefits are significant savings in the long-term operations of the building as this innovation uses 90 per cent less energy to heat and cool compared to traditional office blocks and shopping centres. What would 90 per cent savings per annum amount to on your next build design project? It’s an aspirational target for sure!

Lotus flower inspires revolutionary paint

The lotus flower is sort of like the sharkskin of dry land. The flower’s micro-rough surface naturally repels dust and dirt particles, keeping its petals sparkling clean. Under a microscope, you can see a sea of tiny nail-like protuberances that can fend off specks of dust, so when water rolls over it, it collects everything on the surface, leaving a clean and healthy leaf behind.

German company ISPO spent four years researching this phenomenon and developed a paint with similar properties, diminishing the need to wash the outside of a house.

When solving a design problem, if we look to nature first, securing materials and aligning production schemes as nature does, many problems of environmental degradation and pollution would disappear.