Design lessons from the natural world – laser scanning wildlife habitat
Imagine a wild sea bird flying in from the coastline to find a cosy home high on a city skyscraper, or in a green sheep paddock – a home that was directly modelled on an ancient forest tree. This home was built from a digital file by a 3-d printer, and has been both experimentally validated and continuously improved as a critical habitat structure. By linking the practical goals and constant improvement of modern design thinking with the observational mindset of wildlands ecology, our lab at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Architecture, Building, and planning is creating a workflow that takes the shape of natural structures as the prototype model for consciously designed wildlife habitat.
Design and architecture can be used to help populations of wildlife if it is carefully built using lessons from the natural world. We are in a world where we need to actively include wildlife conservation in our land use practice, but it’s sometimes very difficult to translate observations from the wild forest into practical toolkits.
During recent field trips in Tasmania, Victoria, and the ACT, we took a tripod-mounted laser scanning unit and created high-resolution 3-d models of wild forest trees. This included some of the world’s largest and tallest flowering trees, Eucalyptus regnans, in the Styx Valley of Tasmania.
Stitching together dozens of scans, we created virtual “point cloud” models of millions of points that show the structure of these individual trees and the surroundings. These can be viewed as fascinating pictures of complex physical spaces, but our goal is to pull measurable physical attributes- and knowledge about the tree – from these clouds.
These laser scanners, and the software used to interpret them, were developed originally for architectural applications, and we have had to experiment with different techniques for getting useful information out of the model. Other researchers have developed algorithms that can distinguish between stems, branches, leaves, and ground, and were able to use these to build a workflow that could identify structural attributes such as branch thickness, angles, and canopy airspace volume. Fifteen years ago, this required us to use tape measures and compasses for branches near the trunk, but this modern technology can conduct these measurements simultaneously on thousands or millions of tiny branches that would be difficult to reach.
These measurements form part of a library of structural attributes that we can then connect with observations of wildlife habitat trees to create precise and customised “prosthetic habitats”. These can be used in landscapes that have lost habitat structures due to agriculture, forestry, urbanisation, and observed as an experiment to see what is working and what is not. This allows for constant and validated improvement, which is an important part of modern design process. It’s easier to modify our prosthetic habitat designs than to grow an ancient tree, and we can actively work towards a better outcome for the wildlife.
Of course, we still need to consciously preserve natural habitats, since our structures can never match the originals. But we can make sure that we are getting better with each iteration of our workflow.
Alex is a PhD student at the Roudavski lab at the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne School of Design. His background is in digital architecture and participatory design, and how these can be creatively combined for designing in expanded contexts.
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