Perspectives on the HOK/Biomimicry Guild Partnership (Mary Ann Lazarus)

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HOK is the largest architecture-engineering firm in the U.S. and the fourth-largest worldwide with over 1,800 professionals in 25 offices across three continents.  HOK and the Biomimicry Guild announced a formal alliance in September 2008 that has added depth and breadth to HOK’s offerings through access to the expertise of dedicated Guild staff.  In turn, the Biomimicry Guild has been able to influence large scale projects and demonstrate the value of applying biomimicry to the built environment. 

HOK is a long-standing leader in innovation and sustainable design since its founding 55 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri by George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata and George Kassabaum.  It was an early adopter of computer-aided drawing and the Building Information Modeling (BIM) approach to support integrated design.  The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design (2000, updated 2005) reflects not only HOK’s commitment to sustainable, high performance design but also its willingness to share the knowledge and expertise it has gained over the last 20 years.   Hellmuth’s 1944 vision of a recession-proof architectural office incorporated principles of resilience before the term became fashionable, including building for the long term and incorporating diversity at all levels. 

I first met Janine Benyus and Paul Hawken at a retreat for HOK leadership organized by Ray Anderson.  Over the next two years, nearly 250 leaders at HOK were introduced to biomimicry and its importance in achieving a sustainable built environment.  Janine and I saw an opportunity for a more targeted initiative that would allow HOK to integrate the Biomimicry Guild into specific projects.  In turn, the alliance supported the Biomimicry Guild’s shift from broadly spreading its message (r-strategy) to a more selective relationship with key partners (K-strategy). 

To date, HOK and the Biomimicry Guild have collaborated on a number of significant large-scale design projects in India, China, the Middle East and South America.  The most fruitful opportunities have been projects initiated by visionary leaders who have an appreciation for nature, desire leading-edge designs and have the patience for truly innovative designs to evolve.

Dasve at Lavasa Hill StationHOK is responsible for the Master Plan for the Lavasa Hill Station project, a 15000 acre site near Pune, India.  The first of three villages, Dasve (pictured on the left), is currently under construction.  The entire project is expected to be completed by 2021.  The goal is to create a robust micro-economy while at the same time preserving and regenerating the local ecology.  For example, over a million saplings have been planted to regenerate ‘slash and burn’ sites while sensitive areas are protected from development.         

Biomimicry Site WalkThe environment is one of extremes where the importance of ‘place’ and context is self-evident.  The area is a linear valley with steep slopes that experience three months of monsoon followed by drought.  Water is a key factor shaping the local ecology and is both celebrated and protected in the Master Plan.  The Biomimicry Guild team (shown doing a site walk in the image on the right) was able to provide insights on how local species not only survive but thrive.

Biomimicry Lavasa sketchesTraditional construction concentrates water through impermeable surfaces, exposes the soil and disturbs its root structure.  In contrast, the forest canopy, understory, detritus and root networks of the native ecology dissipate the energy of monsoon rains and hold moisture for the dry season.  Designers have used this information to create a wide range of site-specific innovations from design facades to construction methods and regeneration techniques. 

In addition to inspiration, good designs benefit from the rigor provided by quantitative measures.  HOK and the Biomimicry Guild are using Ecological Performance Standards as a way of assigning metrics to the ecosystem services provided in a specific setting, such as water management, carbon sequestration and increasing biodiversity.  These metrics become inputs to the design process with the goal of creating built environments that match or even enhance the functioning of healthy ecosystems.  Assigning values to ecosystem services is not new and can be a powerful force for conservation.  The Ecological Performance Standards go further by applying a holistic and site-specific perspective that challenges and inspires designers to come up with equally effective solutions.

Both HOK and the Biomimicry Guild have learned much about the practice of applying biomimicry to the built environment, from dealing with insane schedules and deadlines to including biologists at the design table as well as the challenges of turning inspiration into reality.  If designs are to be built, they must be grounded in the ‘here and now’ of budgets, timelines and available technologies. 

Now is a great time to be a designer.  The design industry is undergoing a revolution, driven by concerns about the environment and growing economic constraints.  There is a renewed interest in creating healthy environments both inside and outside buildings.  Emphasis is shifting beyond aesthetics to design grounded in fundamental principles, drawing on biology, ecology, vernacular architecture and a deep understanding of “place”.  The industry needs to attract designers who bring expertise in modelling, systems thinking and lifecycle analysis, as well as fresh ideas that challenge assumptions.  Beyond the tangible benefits, biomimicry opens new horizons to designers and sparks a new passion for their work.

(photos from India - HOK Lavasa Township Biomimicry Site Walk on Flickr)

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Mary Ann Lazarus is an architect in HOK’s St. Louis office
and is the firm-wide Sustainable Design Director.


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