Biomimetic and Sustainable Architecture: Learning from the Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe

The sustainability movement often finds itself in a difficult free-market-derived paradox. On the one hand, a long-term market perspective positively demands sustainable thinking on behalf of companies, product manufacturers, architects, etc. That's because, all other factors being equal, companies (and products, and buildings) which make more efficient use of resources, and which produce less waste, are inherently more productive and profitable. If a textile mill, for example, can use half the electricity and produce less waste byproduct by using natural, biodegradeable dyes, those benefits accrue directly to the bottom line; putting them in place should be a no-brainer for the mill's owner.

On the other hand, there is a widespread perception in many modern western economies that the short-term capital costs of installing improved, sustainable systems (and the commensurate drop in near-term profits that such efforts entail) make taking a more sustainable path impossible for many corporate leaders. As one corporate CEO put it to me, "I'd love to tread more lightly on the Earth, but if it costs me two down quarters I'll be out the door, and my sustainability initiative will go with me."

Thus, much of the sustainability movement seems stuck in a local minima of 'now-ist' free market capitalism: a tight focus on the short term prevents companies from investing in longer-term sustainable (and cost reducing) measures, which in turn leads to a dearth of both implementations and case studies, which in turn fuels the mistaken perception that sustainable initiatives don't have big payoffs, or have at most cosmetic ones, which in turn fuels an even greater focus on the the short-term. Another byproduct of this cycle is that customers don't see the benefits of sustainability, and therefore don't know to demand them; companies can't afford them and therefore have no incentive to educate the market to demand higher standards. (There is a faint whiff of the prisoner's dilemma here.)

Of course, there are plenty of places where the dynamics of the market are different. Companies in the developing world, for example, often struggle with undependable and antiquated infrastructure, and (relatively) high commodity costs for things like electricity and lumber. For organizations in this context, there is a clear rationale for sustainable design. (In Manila, or Kinshasa, where the power can go out sometimes five times a day, it makes sense to require less electricity to operate.) Of course, there are other major impediments to sustainable solutions in the developing world, including the lack of training among the elites, the lack of environmental or market regulations, the aping of Western-style, lowest-common denominator free-market systems, and a lack of labor protections, to name just a few. But there are also some remarkable sustainable success stories that have much to teach us.

The extraordinary Eastgate Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, is just one example of sustainable architecture that uses dramatically less energy by copying the successful strategies of indigenous natural systems. The building - the country's largest commercial and shopping complex - uses the same heating and cooling principles as a local termite mound. Termites in Zimbabwe build gigantic mounds inside of which they farm a fungus which is their primary food source. The fungus must be kept at exactly 87 degrees, while the temperatures outside range from 35 degrees (f) at night to 104 degrees (f) during the day. The termites achieve this remarkable feat by constantly opening and closing a series of heating a cooling vents throughout the mound over the course of the day.

Architect Mick Pearce used precisely the same strategy when designing the Eastgate Building, which has no airconditioning and virtually no heating. The building uses less than 10 percent of the energy of a conventional building its size. These efficiencies translated directly to the bottom line: The Eastgate's owners saved $3.5 million on a $36 million building because an air-conditioning plant didn't have to be imported. These savings were also realized by tennants: rents are 20 percent lower than in a new building next door. More on the Eastgate story is available here and here(.pdf). Images of the building are available here.

This is a terrific example of sustainable architecture that is biomimetic, indigenous, and economically viable on its face. Yet the Eastgate story also demonstrates an important aspect of the sustainability/biomimicry trend - that incrementally greater value may be found by studying solutions from those niches (ecological and economic) where resources are more constrained than the ones you inhabit. Don't study the oasis - study the desert.

posted by Andrew on 1/24/200

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" - Writers + Readers) +