Dormancy as an Energy Strategy: Learning from our Native Prairie

It’s been a long winter! Can you remember last summer’s lush green prairies when looking at them today, brown and dormant? As we drag ourselves out of our own winter dormancy and into the full light of spring, let’s take a moment to consider how our buildings and businesses can begin to emulate the biomimicry Life’s Principle to “Leverage Cyclic Processes” by embedding the ability to automatically respond to local conditions.

By understanding how ecosystems, like our native tallgrass prairie, are attuned to local conditions, we can begin to design buildings that optimize resource allocation while being more responsive to user needs.

Prairie Dormancy

How does dormancy in a prairie work?

The prairie, like any ecosystem, continually adapts and changes itself based on local conditions. Life in cold climates has evolved the pattern of dormancy to respond to unfavorable environmental conditions, such as decreasing sunlight levels, lower temperature, and lessening water availability.

In fall, a plant senses that a critical threshold is being reached where resources necessary for survival are becoming scarce. It enters into dormancy, reallocating resources away from the growth and investment in above ground infrastructure during spring and summer toward stasis and the consumption of stored resources in the roots during fall and winter. In spring, the opposite is true. Inverse thresholds (increasing sun, higher temperatures, more water) are triggers that dictate an automatic response on the part of the plant to begin to reinvest resources toward growth and development.

By changing itself to respond to these local, cyclical conditions, the prairie is able to survive and thrive in a cold, drought-prone climate.

What does dormancy mean for buildings?

By embedding the ability to automatically respond to environmental conditions based on local information, buildings can begin to automatically adjust indoor environments according to the needs of the occupant, ramping up when spaces are occupied and going “dormant” when they are not.

For example, office buildings have cyclic usage patterns of day and night. Thermostats moderate energy use in buildings, allowing for unoccupied spaces to consume less energy when unoccupied. They use the common trigger of temperature as the cue to either turn on or off the mechanical equipment that feeds the space. Occupancy sensors do similar things for lighting – using the trigger of light levels to moderate the light levels in a space. As building management systems become more sophisticated, these tools can be integrated into one seamless interface that moderates multiple variables and automatically adjusts environmental conditions according to use, saving energy and time in the process.

What examples can you think of for how we can embed the ability to leverage cyclic processes in our buildings?

By looking to the “genius of our place,” we can begin to design locally-attuned, restorative buildings and systems, saving energy, money, and making our buildings more responsive to occupant needs.

How can I learn more?

Learn more at our upcoming educational experience on “Discover Innovative Solutions for Designing Net-Zero-Buildings Today” on May 30th at Venue SIX10. Click here to register!


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Posted in biomimicry, workshops