Reflections on Discovering Synergies between Biology and the Built Environment

We are wrapping up offering the GRAD 5134 course - Discovering Synergies between Biology and the Built Environment - this week.  I have co-delivered this course with Ignacio Moore from Biologicial Sciences.  This has been a good experience for me, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts about the semester.

Save Our Swamps

Swamps, marshes, bogs, muskegs and fens; No matter what we call them, wetlands play a vital role in the protection and resilience of our coastal communities.  The complex network of plants, bushes and trees reduce the impacts from storms and storm surges, particularly in low-lying areas such as the Gulf Coast states.  For millennia, healthy coastal wetlands have been our first line of defense and a valuable resource.  Wetland ecosystems are home to many species of birds, fish and wildlife which support our fisheries.


Have you heard about LUMENHAUS? LUMENHAUS is the third solar house designed and built at Virginia Tech as part of a research program begun in 2002. An innovative design integrating architecture and technology, the project won the international Solar Decathlon Competition in Madrid, Spain in June of 2010. This is the first time this award has been given to a university team. The team demonstrates that houses powered entirely by the sun do not have to sacrifice all the modern comforts and aesthetics homeowners are accustomed to.

Some Interesting Bio-Inspired Inventions

Recently, some new cool biomimic or bio-inspired products have been reported. Hemnath and Sebastiraj have invented a new automotive windshield inspired by lotus leaves. The research is published in Chemical Science Review and Letter. While it is not the first lotus leaves have inspired new inventions (people have developed paints that create surfaces similar to lotus leaves so they can repel dust), it is a very interesting idea to apply the properties of lotus leaves on windshield.

Trees in your yard can save you money!

The average American home used 12,000 kilowatt-hours of energy in the 2012, including electricity, gas and all other fuel sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration ( Depending on the type and local costs, that could easily be a couple of thousand dollars.  As the pie chart below shows, almost half of that energy is used for heating and cooling.

Green Walls

We all know that living plants clean the air, remove carbon dioxide and are aesthetically attractive.  Green roofs have become popular in sustainable building construction, adding a layer of soil and plants on the roof.  But what about growing plants on the sides of the buildings?  A simple and common example is the ivy growing up the brick walls of old University buildings. 

Antony Gibbon and His Treehouses

No infrastructure can blend into natural environment better than a tree house. And moving human to a community on the top of trees is Antony Gibbon’s dream. He have developed multiple types of treehouses. His treehouses are “designed to mimic the organic curvaceous forms found in nature”. All the materials used for the construction are from sustainable materials and do not damage the trees in any shape or forms.

Abvoe are some concepts of his treehouse.

Biomimicry for,Er…, Hitchhiking

Biomimicry is everywhere, truly. An entry for the Biomimicry 3.8 Student Design Challenge has developed a bimimic strategy for hitchhiking, called “Hitchhiking evolved”. According to an introductory video, the team believes hitchhiking is prevalent in nature and many creatures have mastered it. The stated that the animals have unbelievable beautiful and elegant movements, and thus, plants have used them for transportation. They attract animals, e.g.


Termites and ants have a rather impressive way of buliding. There is no set structure, no plan, just a chemical language and some construction rules.  Yet, they can build nests three stories tall, with effective passive thermal regulation.  The trick, of course, is in the building algorithms.

A team from Harvard and SUNY has recently revealed a swarm of small robots that operate independently to build structures based on a set of rules they are pre-loaded with and some local sensing capabilities.