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An approach toward achieving sustainable, fully realized solutions to human challenges by mirroring natural methods, Biomimicry is a crucial philosophy ensuring that we live better lives. As a practical methodology, it seeks to develop products, processes and policies that yield new ways of conducting ourselves in the world itself. What this accomplishes, in the long run, is a life cycle more finely in tune with the biology of the earth.

In the most basic constructive sense, biomimicry looks to the environment for building solutions (the fossil record provides us with examples of failures). That which is alive and growing in the renewable life cycle is testament to how to succeed. In areas that run the gamut from energy to architecture, human construction is taking cues from the natural world. The most accessible example is the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, which has an air conditioning system modeled on the self-cooling mounds of termites. The termites maintain the temperature inside their nests to within a single degree, day and night, as outside temps range from 40°-3°C. Such a model is one that serves as a dual-purpose example to us.

The integration of biomimicry into building through products is the first step. Each “mimic” lengthens our lives as it ensures a better built environment by being greener and more sustainable. Glass is a crucial construction element to high-rises, for example, but bird-collisions into the glass sides of buildings occur millions of times per annum in the U.S. Birds either don’t see the transparent sheet they’re about to fly into, or reflections in the panel cause them to try to fly through it. Ornilux is an insulated glass sheeting designed to reduce the causes of bird collisions by employing a special ultraviolet (UV)-reflective coating that appears almost transparent to humans, but is visible to bird’s visible spectrum.

With regard to glass, Solar Ivy is a more crucial mimic made by a Brooklyn-based firm, Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology (SMIT). SMIT is a design company founded on a new approach to developing sustainable technology. Mimicking the look and function of the crawling green plant, Solar Ivy features wind- and solar-power-generating photovoltaic leaves that can be affixed to the façades of buildings as a kind of power-producing skin. Engineered as a response to meet the energy needs of individuals, businesses and communities, Solar Ivy was created in adherence with the values of sustainable environmental design and conservation.

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The technology is local—and it offers a creative solution to building problems. By combining photovoltaic technology and piezoelectrics, Solar Ivy’s patent-pending system continues innovation in the realm of biomimicry, and it is a further challenge to our notions of the potential limits of solar power. How they work is in through the use of small, flexible solar cells, which mimic leaves. These are attached to a stainless-steel mesh that, on the “front,” works to have PVs capture sunlight and generate electricity. On the back side, piezoelectric generators produce power when the wind cause the leaves to move.

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The output is pretty impressive: 28-square-feet of Solar Ivy can produce 85 watts of solar power through an easily mounted interface (on a vertical wall, the light build allows for easy mount). It allows solar power to go in different positions, too, as the counterintuitive vertical climb—solar panels aren’t typically used on the sides of buildings, due to their perpendicular capture of sunlight—is managed via Solar Ivy’s foliage shape, which picks up oblique light. The leaves are not static, either: They move, catching the sun omnidirectionally. And due to the each panel’s organic shape, they seem to be natural leaves, offering a pleasing aesthetic element similar to climbing ivy. Solar Ivy also will integrate an energy monitoring system (WATTg) to allow users to visualize energy consumption and generation. A new generation (GROW) will be similar to Solar Ivy, except that it will transform the kinetic energy from its fluttering in the wind into electricity, yielding even more power.

Made of 100-percent recyclable polyethylene, the leaves come in an array of colors and opacities. SMIT’s Solar Ivy is meant to be an architectural mimic of plants—as the ivy riffles in the wind, solar energy becomes electricity. This offers an invitation, as well, to uncover further uses for the most abundant resources we have: the sun. As Solar Ivy and SMIT use recycled, reclaimed and renewable items along with a critical life-cycle analysis to ensure that the system and its component parts can be recycled, the benefit here is also dual-purpose.

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Greenstreet hopes to be able to use this technology in one of our building projects, as it is exactly the kind of local product that employs the natural world to bring about a better built environment in which we can live and work. As biomimicry is about the success in the continuing natural cycle, so our buildings must learn from and imitate the natural environment as part of that cycle.

– Alessia Pilloni

Resources/Photos:

Solar Ivy

Solaripedia