Cherry Trees: Nature’s Inspiration for Eco-Friendly Design

Sunday, May 01, 2016


The Cherry Blossom season has finally arrived. Like every year, Washingtonians and tourists parade along the Potomac shores to watch the trees bloom, dressing the city in magnificent shades of pink for nearly two weeks. To celebrate the arrival of spring, the ECPA Clearinghouse wanted to use this emblematic occasion to better explain the “Circular Economy” philosophy, which borrows fundamental principles of “biomimicry”, a new approach based on the study and imitation of nature’s designs and processes to solve pressing human problems.

Can a building emulate a living structure? What if our homes and offices were like trees —living beings interacting productively with their surroundings? These are the questions which led chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough to see nature as a superior being. A kind of muse —an oracle perhaps — that provides solutions to social issues. Imagine a building immersed in the landscape, harvesting energy from the sun, sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen. Imagine fresh air, indigenous plants, and daylight everywhere. In short, think of a life-support system in harmony with other living things.

The cherry tree is often used as a metaphor to explain eco-effective principles. A cherry tree has a positive impact on the environment. Thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals in order that a seed might fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. The tree produces abundant blossoms and fruits without depleting its environment. Once on the ground, they decompose and turn into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Biomimicry suggests rethinking designs, materials, products and services based on nature’s inherent wisdom. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is another example of putting this principle into practice.

An eco-efficient building-as we know-is a big energy saver. It minimizes air infiltration by sealing places that might leak (windows do not open.) It lowers solar income with dark-tinted glass, diminishing the cooling load on the building’s air-conditioning system and thereby cutting the amount of fossil-fuel energy used.

But imagine now how a cherry tree would do it: During the daytime, light pours in. Uninterrupted exterior views and a sun-filled courtyard. At night, the system provides the building with cool air, clearing spaces from flat air and toxins. A layer of indigenous grasses cover the building’s roof, to absorb water excess to protect it from degradation.

The latter building is just as energy-efficient as the first one, while realizing a broader and more complex design goal: To create a building that incorporates a range of natural gifts such as sun, light, air and nature, in order to enhance the lives of its inhabitants. Therefore, a “cherry tree-inspired” building expresses a life-centered community and environment vision in every single one of its elements. These buildings represent the beginnings of eco-effective design. They contribute to envision the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness as oppose to ordinary constructions.

The concept of eco-effectiveness contained in the “Circular Economy” philosophy implies working on the right things —the right products, services and systems— instead of making the wrong things less harmful. Once the right things are being done, then doing them “right,” with the help of efficient practices and other tools, makes perfect sense. Hence, pursuing and accomplishing this vision is the most accurate way to imitate nature, being cherry trees the source of inspiration for rethinking eco-effective building design. In the words of McDonough, eco-effective architecture fundamentally aims to “build buildings like trees and cities like forests”.

In an era when climate change is no longer a prophecy but a real threat, rethinking our ways is a must.  Seeing nature as a model as a measure; as a mentor. To maximize and translate nature’s kindness, nurturing and innovative essence, is fundamentally what these new approaches aim at by valuing nature not based on what can be extracted, but what we can learn from it, instead.  In other words, to emulate nature’s forms, processes, and systems and to strive for a more sustainable development and a better future and solve basic human problems.

The first cherry trees in Washington, DC were a gift from Japan, given as a gesture of friendship between the two countries.  Their blossoming peak has become one of the city´s most traditional and celebrated times of the year. Just like eco-efficient design aims for the “right” construction, the ECPA Closed Loop Cycle Production in the Americas initiative aims to enhance the industrial sector, redesigning environmentally sustainable products and production systems, based on “Circular Economy” principles.