Jul 22, 2009

Natural-born housebuilders

excerpts from this article in Financial Times weekend 718/09:

Rupert Soar has spent much of the past few years listening to termites on the outskirts of a remote farm in Namibia. Using headphones connected to a microphone buried deep inside a 10ft-high mound and an amplifier plugged into the battery of his rental car, he collects the sounds of air percolating through the nests. His aim is to understand how the structures keep a stable internal climate in spite of the fierce southwest African heat and, eventually, to develop a method whereby the same technology can be used in mass-manufactured homes of the future.

This requires not only the kind of field research Soar is conducting but also the development of precise, high-tech “building machines” that would allow architects to “print” elaborate structures from computer designs – for instance the complex and porous membrane of mud that makes up termite mound walls – rather than just flat planes of bricks and mortar. Construction of such buildings would also be cheaper and quicker, cutting out the need for human labour...........

For many, the dream is also to make houses more eco-friendly. Soar’s belief that we should live like termites, for example, might sound fantastical but it is, in fact, embraced by builders and architects all over the world. They are enthralled: first, by the scale of the mounds relative to the insects (one overused cliché is that if termites were the size of humans their structures would be many times higher than the Empire State Building) and, second, by the internal environmental controls that Soar is studying. Indeed, the ventilation of buildings including London’s Swiss Re office tower (also known as the Gherkin), Serpentine Gallery and Portcullis House and the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe used termite mounds as inspiration..............

Another engineer mining the natural world for ideas that could be employed in the rapid manufacturing of more environmentally sound homes is Enrico Dini, an Italian whose father was one of the inventors of the helicopter and the Vespa scooter. His goal is to use naturally occurring materials found near building sites in construction, thereby reducing transport and other costs as well as protecting commonly used resources, such as timber. He also believes he could produce the binding agent that acts as the glue holding the structure together out of sea water.

By Daniel Pimlott

Published: July 9 2009 17:08 | Last updated: July 18 2009 02:46

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