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Why termites are good for our buildings

Jackson architect talks about termites, a tiny insect that can wreak havoc for homebuilders.

Jackson architect talks about termites, a tiny insect that can wreak havoc for homebuilders.

I recently spent some time back at Mississippi State’s fifth-year architecture school here in Jackson talking to some students about their work. I find these times a place where I can get inspired and find some hope and optimism back in the world from the pure and innocence of design that can be mired by a practice. Okay, admittedly, this is a stretch sometimes. But when you are sitting in a room where people can quote Plato like it is last weekend’s sports scores, it inspires a level of questioning that I am not use to in the normal day-to-day operation of architecture. I joked to the architect next to me as I listened, intently trying to figure out the right things to say so as to not shatter some kid’s dreams, that my last conversation yesterday was something like, “drainpipe must run downhill. Object in pipe bad. Water no go.” When you have a room of students and get to see that some of them are using their time to their advantage to really study how some things look good together or how some materials invoke a meaning or a memory, it is inspiring and it is optimistic to my chosen profession. Sure there are cynics amongst us all, but this is a time to put them aside. I left thinking about that while having a practical understanding of architecture and design is vital, we should not disregard the deeper discussions about architecture and its potential impacts on the way we live and experience things. It was good to get back in that mind set.

I gave a lecture at Millsaps College in January along with Todd Sanders from the Archives and History Department of the State, about the past and future of Jackson with regard to sustainability. I was forced to think about our capital city in a new perspective. I was forced to become a prognosticator. It was a difficult lecture in many ways. While Todd artfully handled the past history of Jackson, I was trying to make some predictions as to where we will go. I tried to embrace my inner optimist as much as I could without the full endorsement of having flying cars in the next 10 years as a mainstay of modern transportation.

I really concentrated on a couple ideas. One was based on the possibility of solutions that are working globally, and one was based on the reality of where and who we are. I am an optimist at heart, or I really want to be. There is hope in architecture; if it is done correctly it should be thinking toward the future. If you are creating something NOW, it will be used in the future, so inherently that should be hopeful. As an architect you are proposing something that will be used for years to come from our homes to public buildings. They will be instruments in time that capture a moment, but should always be able to evolve into the future as needs inevitably change.

When we think about our future, we have to consider not only how our buildings will not only be used, but also how they will be built and powered. There are definite innovators amongst us in these fronts. There are solutions around us, but sometimes they come from unusual places. I cited Mick Pierce, a South African architect, who designed a large office building in Harare, Zimbabwe, as one of the more inventive architects alive today in this Millsaps lecture. His building is classified as an example what is called “biomimicry.” He took his inspiration for his building from termites. Yes, termites.

African termites build giant mounds on the African plains. The termites main source of food is fungus they grow in their mounds at precisely 87-degrees. As one can imagine, it gets quite hot on the African plains, so regulating that temperature would be a challenge to accomplish. But these termites regulate the temperatures by allowing a breeze to enter at the bottom of the mound that gets initially cooled as it flows across some mud in the bottom. Next the termites open and close valves along the height of the mound as the breeze rises to regulate the temperature. Pierce’s thought process was why can’t this work for a building that humans occupy? We can design a mechanical system that then opens and closes these valves. The building does just that with the average temperature being 74-degrees without air-conditioning. This is a solution for the future.

Pierce and other innovators like him have discovered we have answers around us. We just have to think a little differently. Einstein wrote, “We can’t solve problems using the same thinking we used to create them.” We have to think differently. The earth has been spinning and surviving long before we tried to put our control on it. Okay, that’s a little pessimistic. The point being though that there are lessons still to be learned with our buildings and our planning, if we still take the time for them.

Given the confines of where we are today, I am trying to help develop a better understanding of what it takes to be responsible as a designer and to learn what that means. I hear those around us that often are the loudest, saying they have the answers. I tend to get really frustrated at the people that propose solutions to our problems or needs down the road with an answer of “We have [insert number here] years of [insert resource here]. We don’t have to worry about a thing.” The status quo is not a plan for tomorrow. It will not strengthen us as a state. This is what Einstein was talking about! This is not a solution; it is a Band-Aid at best. This is the problem. Until we start to recognize that we are going to continue to have Band-Aid solutions where we end up chasing our tail instead of looking forward. We have to meet our needs today without compromising the needs of future generations. While utilizing sustainable responsible design won’t solve all our problems, (Macaroni and cheese is still a vegetable) it is a step in the right direction for Mississippi.

Jeff Seabold, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP Homes is the Principal Architect of Seabold Architectural Studio in Jackson www.seabold-studio.com and the Chair of the US Green Building Council – Mississippi Chapter www.usgbcms.org. You can reach him @ Jeff@seabold-studio.com for further comment.

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