The Maraú Peninsula is a 25 mile long bar of pristine Brazilian sand, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the tranquil Camamu Bay on the other, where one glorious beach gives way to another. With such stunning landscapes, it’s no wonder hip Brazilians are flocking to these shores. But the native mangrove forests here are one the world’s most endangered ecosystems, and great care must be taken to preserve them. GCP Arquitectura and Urbanismo’s Votu Hotel takes an unusual approach to that challenge: biomimicry––sustainable innovation inspired by nature’s proven wisdom.
According to Indian legend, the peninsula’s namesake, Maraú, was a peaceful fisherman who lived in with his beautiful wife, Saquaíra. One day, while Maraú was out fishing, his neighbor, Camamu, came ashore, and he and Saquaíra fell deeply in love. Camamu took her away in his canoe, and when Maraú returned to discover her abduction, he desperately begged the gods for a faster one. They granted his lovesick plea, and away he went after her at top speed, surfing the waves and sculpting the peninsula´s curved beaches and bays as he went.
Today, the region is a dreamy wonderland of rich, golden sands, rugged white cliffs, nodding coconut palms, cool waterfalls, teeming coral reefs, tranquil mangrove forests and restingas––special forests that grows on shifting coastal dunes.
Unfortunately, humans are having a massive impact on the landscape. Less than 5% of the original forest cover remains, yet 40% of its plants and 60% of its vertebrates––including a long-hair maned sloth, giant armadillo, giant otter, and unique local populations of cougar, jaguar, and ocelot––are found nowhere else in the world. New species are discovered frequently: over a thousand new flowering plants, a black-faced lion tamarin recently believed extinct, and a brightly blonde-haired capuchin monkey in recent years. Meanwhile, the mangroves and estuaries provide critical nurseries for the fish, crustaceans, and mollusks that feed these populations.
Inhabitating such a precious and endangered habitat requires the region’s hotels to care for it just as they care for the visitors who come here. The Votu Hotel, designed by GCP Arquitectura and Urbanismo, embraces the challenge using biomimicry, an innovative approach to design that is in accordance with nature. GCP even has a biologist on staff––Alessandra Araujo, a Certified Biomimicry Specialist educated by Biomimicry 3.8––and it’s her job to enhance natural processes already at work here by tapping nature’s proven solutions––those favored for hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
The GCP team sought to maintain and support the region’s native species while minimizing air conditioning and electricity consumption, and good water management, ventilation, and thermal comfort were also critically important. These requirements were made challenging by the vulnerability of these shores to heavy rain, floods, coastal erosion, high temperatures, salt spray, and high humidity. To solve these problems, Araujo looked at species that solve these same kinds of challenges. Prairie dogs, for instance, are social rodents that live in large colonies or towns where outside temperatures can reach 100°F in the summer and -35°F in the winter. They rely on long underground burrows to insulate them from such extremes. GCP borrowed this concept for Votu, using concrete walls and a roof garden to buffer heat. The burrows also leverage a natural process called the Bernoulli principle, in which air flow is slowed by the prairie dogs’ earthen mounds, increasing pressure and forcing air to flow quickly through the tunnels. Votu’s team mimicked this clever strategy by optimizing the position of each bungalow using computer modeling, and placing a semi-permeable guardrail in front of the prevailing winds, slowing them and drawing air into ventilation ducts below the roof.
The bungalow shell itself was inspired by another biological champion, the saguaro cactus, which relies on long spines and accordion-like folds to mitigate extremes of heat and exposure. The deep folds offer partial shade, cooling air on the shaded side and creating a gradient that facilitates circulation and minimizes heat absorption. The Votu bungalows mimic this strategy with vertical, wooden, self-shading slats.
Local species were consulted as well. The little houses rest on stilts, just as the native mangroves and restinga forest trees do, preserving the natural topography and allowing the unimpeded flow of rainwater and tides. Meanwhile, the kitchen takes inspiration from the toco toucan, a local bird that experiences large temperature swings, from hot days to cool nights. The large, vascularized toucan beak is an extremely efficient thermal radiator, offering the greatest thermal exchange known among animals. Heat from the kitchen is dissipated the same way: as it rises, it is drawn into a copper coil that passes through the rooftop soil. Air cools in the shade of a roof garden, and eventually returns to the kitchen: a natural air conditioner requiring no additional energy.
Biomimicry is known for its reliance on a simple set of Life’s Principles, and GCP is dedicated to following them. One Araujo particularly loves is “Be resource efficient,” which the team did by relying on multifunctional design, low energy processes, recycling, and fitting form to function. The bottom of Votu’s concrete structure doubles as the bathroom wall, for instance, while the upper part forms the roof. In front of the hotel, a thicket of bamboo intercepts any run-off from the bungalows or tidal wash from the beach, acting as a living filter against salinity, bacteria, or pollutants. In back of the bungalows, graywater goes into the banana circle, while blackwater passes through a biodigester and biofilter, ending in a compost pile that fertilizes a fruit-bearing orchard for the guests to enjoy.
GCP’s approach to conservation and tourism may seem unusual, but biomimicry has been growing in popularity among architects for a long time. And after all, these ideas are proven winners, nature’s survivors. Why reinvent the wheel? And maybe, just maybe, such bio-inspiration will let nature’s wild places continue to survive and thrive as we enjoy them.