Green Architect, Designer of the Eden Project: A Case Study

Michael Pawlyn is a young British architect and designer who applies the green principle of biomimicry to his work. This means learning from nature, or studying the designs and structures found in the natural world – both in plants, materials, and other species, and copying them into the design of an architectural structure.

The term biomimicry was designed several years ago by writer Janine Benyus, who found inspiration from ants and termites and bark beetles, as examples of adaptive species.The bark beetle will lay its eggs within freshly burnt wood – seeking fresh opportunism and a relatively safe environment free from any predators.

She set about mimicing forms and processes that she saw within the natural eco system, and tried to find ways to apply them to design projects, both large and small. An example of the power found within natural processes is that the strongest material manufactured by man is kevlar. But this is only ‘nearly as strong’ as the silk spun by a spider in creating its web!

Other examples of ideas that can be observed in nature include adhesion without glue; self cleaning surfaces, such as leaves and plants; how nature creates colour, and micro manufacturing.

An example that Michael Pawlyn has been particularly absorbed by, and has used to great effect in more recent projects, is the Namibian fog-basking beetle. This insect thrives in the heat of the Namibian desert by harvests water from the night air, and uses grooves in its back to collect it as it runs off. Pawlyn has put this study and the insight gained into sustainable architecture by mimicing the beetle through a series of seawater greenhouses constructed around the world.

The Eden Project

Michael Pawlyn practised as an architect in the prestigious British firm set up by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw for 10 years. During this time he was a core part of the architectural team that re-invented architecture used within horticulture, most notably at the Eden Project.

This wonderful centre for sustainable education and horticulture, known globally as “a living theatre of people and plants”, was established in 2000 by Tim Smit, who had the vision to bring an old mining quarry back to life. The team that Pawlyn headed included architects,landscape architects, structural engineers and environmental engineers – using the broadest and best available base for approaching such a large and complex project.”It was a wonderful project to work on, and to put these principles of sustainable design, drawing upon nature, into practise, was a wonderful opportunity,” Pawlyn said recently.

Designing and Building the Biomes

Pawlyn was responsible for shaping the design of the warm temperate and humid tropics biomes which form the core of the Eden Project. These massive structures are essentially giant greenhouses, made from frames shaped as hexagons and pentagons of a special material known as ETFE, an insulating polymer membrane, and bolted together. Pawlyn says the idea for this design came from studying dragonfly wings, and he gained inspiration from the vision of the entire project as a showcase for global biodiversity,and that by using a design copied from such a small but highly significant creature he felt he had brought nature into the design of the buildings. “I want to make buildings that include a narratives about the materials used, and in this case, this worked,” Pawlyn said in a recent interview.

EFTE is a transparent material that has a lifespan of around 25 years, is very tough and light at the same time, and can transmit UV light, necessary for heating and for the plants contained within each biome. Pawlyn says it was ideal for this purpose and specifically for this design project, as it is almost one hundredth the weight of glass. The panels were put into place by a team of professional abseilers, referred to as “the sky monkeys”.

Each of the biomes is largely self-heating, according to the designation set for it: either warm, temperate or humid. They are fantastic environments to visit, both in the scale and the environments that they have been designed to contain. Knowing that the design of them came from a living creature only adds to the sense of wonder and enjoyment at being inside one of the structures. Tim Smit and the team who run the Eden Project have designed the horticultural life of each biome, as well as how humans can interact with the space and the environment. There are hands-on displays of how different cultures adapt and survive in hot and humid conditions, including how agriculture and water saving and use is adapted and managed.