• HOK’s design for Project Haiti is striving for net zero water and waste, and for the building to provide a net positive energy source. (Photo: HOK)

When prairie dogs dig tunnels in the American Midwest, they often show a natural intuition for ventilation, lighting and safety. Plants that grow in the feast-or-famine-like weather around Lavasa, India have adapted strategies for water conservation in their leaves and roots that allow them to get through the drier periods and enrich surrounding dirt in the process.

For some, city buildings or suburban housing have long been symbols of everything unnatural, as if human civilization somehow stands in stark contrast to nature.

But cutting-edge designers and engineers are now putting nature into practice with sustainable architecture principles like biophilia and biomimicry.

Raymond-Lévesque library (Photo: Courtesy of Martin Roy et Associés)

“Biophilia and biomimicry have been in the forefront of the new understanding (of architecture),” says engineer Martin Roy. His company in Deux-Montagnes, Que. is part of the Canadian Green Building Council, a not-for-profit organization that has been working for over a decade to further green building and sustainable community development practices. It tends to focus more on biophilia, which translates literally to a love of life or living systems, but is applied in the architecture and design world to incorporating elements of nature into buildings and structures.

His company recently worked on the award-winning Raymond-Lévesque library in Longueuil, Que. That building uses windows that allow breezes and ambient bird noises from the outside park to flow inside. Aside from providing a serene atmosphere for readers, Roy says the natural ventilation, radiant heating and use of natural lighting allow the building to reduce energy needs by up to 50 per cent.

The William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Centre in Haiti. (Photo: HOK)

Gordon Stratford, a senior vice president for HOK’s Canadian practice, says biomimicry is about coming to the realization that humans aren’t necessarily the first beings to have done something in a particular environment. “Chances are a non-human has done something in an area that could teach humans how to build in that site. It’s basically how we can look at and mimic nature.”

One such project in the American Midwest imitates the digging strategies of prairie dogs. Another in Lavasa replicates the way plants conserve water in the area by implementing a system of cisterns. The William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Centre in Haiti was designed on with the principle of mimicking the local trees that used to provide cover to the countryside before much of the nation suffered from deforestation. Lattice-like walls provide cool shade while letting in natural light. Other passive building strategies focus on reusing water and energy to ensure the building can exist on a net-zero design that doesn’t take away from the limited energy or power resources the country has.

“As smart as humans think they are, there’s a lot more to learn,” Stratford says. “We’re going to have to be more agile and wily when coming up with our design because the kind of resources that are available now won’t always be available.”

To learn more about energy in Canada, check out Let's Talk Energy Week, running from Feb. 21 to 28.