Sustainable Design: inspired by nature and made out of...plastic?

The Plastiki, Adventure Ecology’s inspiring response to the problem of marine pollution and plastic waste, is a sailing vessel with a hull made out of post-consumer recycled plastic bottles; it is also an excellent example of sustainable design principles put into action.

As is often the case with design, the big picture problem -- how to build a sustainable, inhabitable floating vessel -- is made up of a number of smaller design questions. This post will look at one of them: the cabin. Architecture for Humanity designer Nathaniel Corum took on this challenge, constructing a prototype for a type of sustainable “off-grid habitation” that would also function as the cabin for the Plastiki. Corum’s solution is derived from some interesting nature-inspired ideas.

The notion of looking to nature for inspiration for design solutions is called Biomimicry or Biomimetics. There has been a lot of work done recently that borrows from natural systems and forms to try to come up with innovative solutions to architectural problems. A growing trend in this area is to biologically inspired processes to inform the development of digital design technologies . However, Corum’s brand of biomimicry is more form-focused.

Corum’s initial idea for the cabin design was to model it after an egg shell – a strong form was necessary, considering the intense wave and wind forces that the Plastiki would encounter on her long voyage. According to Corum, “the design of the Plastiki cabin is informed by the shells of several long-term earth residents. Turtle shells, Horseshoe Crab armor, Dinosaur plating, and eggs all contributed to the overall form, fused plates and folds that comprise the cabin shell geometry.”

The cabin is constructed from srPET (self-reinforcing Polyethylene terephthalate), which is, basically, a fabric made from recycled plastic that is ground up, melted down, and reformed. Corum’s excitement about the srPET comes from the fact that it can be reprocessed and reformed over and over again, meaning that it can be reused indefinitely without seeing substantial degrading of the material. Suddenly, the non-biodegradability of plastic seems like an asset! Corum, has big plans for srPET, hoping that it could become a cost-competitive alternative to fiberglass.

It’s not only the construction material that makes the Plastiki’s cabin design sustainable, however. The cabin shell doubles as a rainwater collection and filtration system, and serves as a structural framework for a pv array. Also on deck are human-powered bicycle generators and “modern-day canoe gardens,” inspired by the on-board vegetable gardens used by ancient Polynesians.

Corum views the whole cabin project as a way to brainstorm solutions and test prototypes for first-response self-sufficient disaster pods that might have applications elsewhere. The Pacific Ocean, he notes, is the “ultimate off-grid site.”