Biomimicry in Architecture

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Biomimicry in Architecture.

Text of Biomimicry in Architecture


  • WHAT IS BIOMIMICRY? Biomimicry or biomimetics is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems.

    From my designers perspective, I ask: Why cant I design a building like a tree? A building that makes oxygen, fixes nitrogen, sequesters carbon, distils water,

    builds soil, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colours with the seasons and self replicates.

    This is using nature as a model and a mentor, not as an inconvenience. Its a delightful prospect

    (McDonough and Braungart, 1998)

    BIOMIMETIC ARCHITECTURE Biomimetic architecture is a contemporary philosophy of architecture that seeks solutions for sustainability in nature, not by replicating the natural forms, but by understanding the rules governing those forms. It is a multi-disciplinary approach to sustainable design that follows a set of principles rather than stylistic codes. It is part of a larger movement known as biomimicry, which is the examination of nature, its models, systems, and processes for the purpose of gaining inspiration in order to solve man-made problems.

  • HISTORY Throughout history, architects have looked to nature for inspiration for building forms and approaches to decoration. Biomorphism, or the incorporation of natural existing elements as inspiration in design, originated possibly with the beginning of man-made environments and remains present today.

    Late Antique and Byzantine- arabesque tendrils are stylized versions of the acanthus plant.

    The Sagrada Famlia church by Antoni Gaudi begun in 1882 is a well-known example of using natures functional forms to answer a structural problem. He used columns that modeled the branching canopies of trees to solve statics problems in supporting the vault. Greeks and Romans- natural motifs

    into design such as the tree-inspired columns.

  • The TWA terminal at John F Kennedy Airport, New York, in which Eero Saarinen used biomorphic forms to capture the poetry of flight Frank Lloyd Wright likened the columns in the Johnson Wax

    building to water lilies and, while they create a spectacular space, they have nothing functionally in common with lily leaves

    Burdock burr were the source of inspiration for George de Mestral the Swiss engineer who invented Velcro. Apparently after some recent frustration with zips, he noticed the way that burdock burrs clung to his dogs coat and, after studying them with a magnifying glass, designed the first version of the now ubiquitous fastening

    Le Corbusier appears to have made deliberate reference to the cleansing function of kidneys in the design of the washrooms for the inbuilt Olivetti Headquarters project

  • APPROACHES TO BIOMIMICRY Approaches to biomimicry as a design process typically fall into two categories: 1. Defining a human need or design problem and looking to the ways other organisms or ecosystems solve this, termed here design looking to biology 2. Identifying a particular characteristic, behavior or function in an organism or ecosystem and translating that into human designs, referred to as biology influencing design


    The approach where designers look to the living world for solutions requires designers to identify problems and biologists to then match these to organisms that have solved similar issues.

    Biological analogues are matched with human identified design problems but the issue of how buildings relate to each other and the ecosystems they are part of is not examined.

    DISADVANTAGE: Designers are able to research potential biomimetic solutions without an in depth scientific understanding or even collaboration with a biologist or ecologist if they are able to observe organisms or ecosystems or are able to access available biological research. With a limited scientific understanding however, translation of such biological knowledge to a human design setting has the potential to remain at a shallow level.

    In looking to create a large volume, small wheel base car, the design for the car was based on the boxfish (ostracion meleagris), a surprisingly aerodynamic fish given its box like shape.

    The chassis and structure of the car are also biomimetic, having been designed using a computer modeling method based upon how trees are able to grow in a way that minimizes stress concentrations.

    The resulting structure looks almost skeletal, as material is allocated only to the places where it is most needed



    When biological knowledge influences human design, the collaborative design process is initially dependant on people having knowledge of relevant biological or ecological research rather than on determined human design problems. ADVANTAGE: Biology may influence humans in ways that might be outside a predetermined design problem, resulting in previously unthought-of technologies or systems or even approaches to design solutions. DISADVANTAGE: Biological research must be conducted and then identified as relevant to a design context. Biologists and ecologists must therefore be able to recognize the potential of their research in the creation of novel applications.

    The scientific analysis of the lotus flower emerging clean from swampy waters, which led to many design innovations like Stos Lotusan paint which enables buildings to be self cleaning.




  • ORGANISM LEVEL Species of living organisms have typically been evolving for millions of years.

    Those organisms that remain on Earth now have the survival mechanisms that have withstood and adapted to constant changes over time.

    On the organism level, the architecture looks to the organism itself, applying its form and/or functions to a building.

    Functions and responses to a larger context have to be kept in mind too, as organisms are a part of an ecosystem.

    MATTHEW PARKES HYDROLOGICAL CENTER Mimicking of the Namibian desert beetle, stenocara.

    The beetle lives in a desert with negligible rainfall.

    It is able to capture moisture however from the swift moving fog that moves over the desert by tilting its body into the wind.

    Matthew Parkes of KSS Architects biomimicry at the organism level.

    Inspired by the beetle, proposed fog-catcher design for the Hydrological Center for the University of Namibia.

    Surface of the beetle has been studied and mimicked to be used for other potential applications such as to clear fog from airport runways and improve dehumidification equipment.


    Buildings mimic how an organism behaves or relates to its larger context.

    On the level of the ecosystem, a building mimics the natural process and cycle of the greater environment.

    Not the organism itself that is mimicked, but its behaviour.

    Behaviour level mimicry requires ethical decisions to be made about the suitability of what is being mimicked for the human context.

    Not all organisms exhibit behaviours that are suitable for humans to mimic

    The danger exists that models of consumption or exploitation could be justified on the basis of how another species behaves.

    For example, mimicking the building behaviour (and outcome of that) of termites might be appropriate for the creation of passively regulated thermally comfortable buildings.

    But, mimicking the social structure of termite colonies would not be suitable however if universal human rights are valued.


    Termite mounds include flues which vent through the top and sides, and the mound itself is designed to catch the breeze. As the wind blows, hot air from the main chambers below ground is drawn out of the structure, helped by termites opening or blocking tunnels to control air flow.

    Large office and shopping complex in Harare, Zimbabwe.

    To minimize potential costs of regulating the buildings inner temperature, looked to the self-cooling mounds of African termites.

    The building has no air-conditioning or heating.

    The structure, however, does not have to look like a termite mound to function like one and instead aesthetically draws from indigenous Zimbabwean masonry.


    Uses the cactuss relationship to its environment as a model for building in the desert.

    The functional processes silently at work are inspired by the way cacti sustain themselves in a dry, scorching climate.

    Sun shades on the windows open and close in response to heat, just as the cactus undergoes transpiration at night rather than during the day to retain water.

    The project reaches out to the ecosystem level in its adjoining botanical dome whose wastewater management system follows processes that conserve water and has minimum waste outputs.


    Building mimics the natural process and cycle of the greater environment.

    Ecosystem principles follow that ecosystems

    (1) are dependent on contemporary sunlight;

    (2) optimize the system rather than its components;

    (3) are attuned to and dependent on local conditions;

    (4) are diverse in components, relationships and information;

    (5) create conditions favorable to sustained life; and

    (6) adapt and evolve at different levels and at different rates.

    Essentially, this means that a number of components and processes