Biomimicry in Architecture
Updated: Mar 11
Biomimicry is an interdisciplinary science that involves Earth’s biological development and the implementation of this wisdom into design solutions for modern problems. There is no definite point in history when biomimicry was first used, although Leonardo da Vinci is often referenced as the first biomimeticist and wrote: “Human subtlety…will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does Nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.” The term ''biomimetics'' appeared in the 1960s but was popularized when Janine Benyus published her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Today, biomimicry is gaining traction in architecture in order to advance energy efficiency, sustainability, and material innovation.
A core principle of biomimicry is the acknowledgment that nature always knows best, and by using the biomimicry design process, we can learn from organisms, plants, and systems found in nature to address specific needs of our own. The practice of biomimicry is not, however, an emulation of aesthetically inspiring physical forms found in the natural world, but is rather a strategic adaptation of processes, mechanisms, and functions that inform our designs. We can never become better designers than nature, but we can continue to learn from it to create a more sustainable future.
The Biomimicry Institute has outlined the biomimicry design process in the following graphic. In the third step, biologizing a challenge, we translate our design parameters into biological terms. For example, if our challenge is to design a building fenestration system that also helps to increase natural ventilation, we might begin by asking questions such as “how does nature accomplish gas exchange”? We can then conduct research to find design strategies found in nature using resources such as AskNature.org, which features a comprehensive library of biological design strategies. We might discover natural models such as the internal structure of leaves, termite mounds, and mangrove roots facilitating gas exchange using their own unique methods.
Architecture is human-made but has great potential for deeper integration with the natural world. Architecture often separates and protects us from nature, and it is often disruptive to the natural systems in which it inhabits. Biomimicry in architecture seeks to mitigate this relationship; it can provide not only a direct connection to nature, but can also take advantage of nature’s genius and time-tested biological principles, translating them into architectural strategies and improving upon conventional methods of design and construction.
A notable example of biomimicry in architecture is the Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. This large, primarily concrete structure incorporates airflow strategies seen within the termite mounds found in this region of Africa. These termite mounds are characterized by their use of thermal mass and a meticulously arranged network of tunnels and vents. As the mound is heated via solar energy, the gasses within begin to flow; the warm air rises out of a hole in the top of the mound and allows the network of tunnels to exchange their hot air for cooler air from the exterior. The Eastgate Center operates in a similar way: the thermal mass of the concrete and a strategically-placed system of openings are used as the primary means of conditioning the air within the interior spaces. The thermal mass helps to absorb heat when it’s hot outside, and lets go of this heat when it’s needed during cooler times of the day. Coupled with the thermal massing, the punctures through the concrete help to remove hot air and introduce cooler air when needed. Despite the office being a midrise building, its heating, cooling, and ventilation are all naturally driven, lowering the building's overall energy use, and serving as an example of architecture utilizing a similar system found in nature.
From the structure of a building to the material components that are used, architecture can be informed by physics found in natural, commonplace systems. The National Aquatics Center, or “Water Cube”, in Beijing is an example of just that. The iconic façade was constructed using ethyl tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE), a translucent or transparent high-strength polymer that can be used in units roughly seven times that of glass, and it is only one percent of the weight of the same area of standard double-glazing. The seemingly randomized shapes of the ETFE panels on the Water Cube actually feature geometric efficiency that can be found in natural pressurized membranes like soap bubbles and cell membranes. Much like cells, if an individual panel is damaged it can easily be replaced, making the Water Cube resilient despite its delicate appearance.
If nature knows best, as the biomimicry community recognizes, then architecture should do the best for the sake of nature. As the architecture field continues to push for more energy-efficient structures in order to combat the global climate crisis, it is important to remember that there is already an inherently sustainable environment all around us, rich with sustainable solutions 3.8 billion years in the making for us to study and adapt to the built environment.
Written by Kristin Fauske and Josh Miller
P. Gruber et al. (eds.) Biomimetics – Materials, Structures and Processes, Biological and Medical Physics, Biomedical Engineering, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-11934-7_7, © Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011