Press Release: Hitchcock’s Living Building Featured in the Peabody Essex Museum’s Wild Designs Exhibit May 26, 2018 – August 4, 2019

AMHERST, MA – The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA presents an exhibition that explores how engineering and design concepts from nature can make the world a better place. Opening May 26, Wild Designs features not only bio-inspired works by artists, but also 24 projects and prototypes conceived by innovators who look to nature and living systems for new ideas and creative solutions to human problems.

PEM contacted the Hitchcock Center over a year ago to be part of this exhibit after the Center recently opened its critically acclaimed new 9,000 square foot “living” building, an innovative new ecologically designed environmental education center. The Hitchcock Center and PEM jointly commissioned an interactive scale model of the Hitchcock Center’s new 9,000 square foot building, designed to the world’s highest standard of green building through the Living Building Challenge™ by designLAB architects in Boston, MA. The model will demonstrate how the Center’s building systems are inspired by nature in their design and operation. A roof rainwater capture system mimics the function of a watersheds. A constructed wetland filters greywater leaving the building to return to the land, demonstrating the important cleansing role wetlands play in the natural world. Energy efficient strategies and renewable energy demonstrate how a building can run only on the power of sunlight. A touchscreen digital dashboard will show real-time performance data of the actual building in Amherst, MA like how much rainwater is collected and used and how much solar energy is generated and used on an hourly, daily and monthly basis. A team of Hitchcock Center educators will lead family-friendly activities on opening day this Saturday, May 26 to provide a lens into how the field of biomimicry provides us with new ways of thinking and learning from nature to achieve a healthier, more sustainable future.

The exhibition takes place in PEM’s Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center and explores biomimetic and bio-informed innovations in design and technology that either model or engage nature to generate novel products and more sustainable solutions. Included are design projects ranging from preliminary concepts to realized products and buildings, as well as mixed media sculptures, artist installations and drawings.

“We’re surrounded by nearly four billion years of concept testing in nature,” says Jane Winchell, the Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of PEM’s Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center. “We have the opportunity to rethink our own challenges and strategies for new ideas all the time, which is similar to what’s happening in nature. New ideas percolate through evolution. Put that into a time capsule of millions of years and you end up with loads of different solutions.”

Some of the featured designs will be as familiar as velcro, created in 1941 by Swiss engineer George de Mestral, who went for a walk in the woods and wondered if the burrs that clung to his socks — and his dog — could be turned into something useful. An air purifier made from a living plant inspired by early research from NASA turns nature into practicality as does a backpack designed to mimic the sliding scales of a pangolin. MiRo, a personal companion robot that resembles a small dog, includes smart sensors based on 20 years of research on animal brains and behaviors by UK scientists.

Other featured projects aid with energy conservation, personal gear design, agriculture and water collection. One exhibition area features Geckskin, a super adhesive based on the toe pads of geckos created by researchers at UMass Amherst. This inspired material allows for an index card-sized piece to hold around 700 pounds without leaving behind a sticky residue. Scaling a building, like Spiderman, by wearing a pair of gecko-tape gloves may not be too far off.

The Warka Water Tower mimics the behavior of a namibian desert beetle by harvesting moisture directly from the air. The water is collected so that people living in remote places don’t have to walk miles to fulfill a basic need for water. Meanwhile, the very idea of a house is upended with the Fab Tree Hab, a design solution created by a team formerly at MIT who came up with the idea to grow homes from native trees. The structures are designed to also be edible, for their human inhabitants and for the wild creatures outside. In Milan, a studio led by Italian architect Stefano Boeri came up with the concept of Bosco Verticale, or Vertical Forest, as a way to combine high-density residential development with tree planting in city centers. Two residential towers, measuring 364 and 250 feet high, host 800 trees, 4,500 shrubs and 15,000 plants.

“The Art & Nature Center is really an interdisciplinary space,” says Winchell. “We look for opportunities to explore connections between disciplines and for our visitors to try things out and explore the ideas themselves. Deep observation of our natural world can lead to the most amazing and creative solutions.”

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