Natural Inspiration

Biomimicry teaches us to build smarter by using the processes perfected in nature

Imagine walking down the streets of New York City and encountering a skyscraper that has been modeled after plant cells to harness aeroponic watering, nutrient technology and carbon. Or visualize a London skyscraper that has been modeled after the ecosystem of a mangrove tree.

Welcome to the world of biomimicry, where conceptual projects like Eric Vergne’s Dystopian Farm in Manhattan or Chimera’s Mangal City in London may not be quite as farfetched as they sound, as more examples of architecture, or systems within buildings, mimicking the natural world are coming to light.

In fact, an office building in Zimbabwe, designed by architect Mick Pearce in collaboration with Arup Associates, features a cooling system modeled after termite hills, which maintain a constant internal temperature despite changes to the external environment. The building is self-regulating, consequently using less energy—some reports show that it uses only 10 percent of the energy consumed by traditional buildings—and lowering operating costs.

“As far as a design strategy, we want people to think about how buildings can relate to nature and natural systems,” says Eden Brukman, LEED AP, vice president, International Living Building Institute and research director, Cascadia Region Green Building Council in Portland, Ore.

The Institute has issued a challenge, “using the metaphor of the flower to define how our buildings should be designed and operated,” Brukman explains. “Humans respond better to environments that tie and bring us back to our connection with nature,” he adds.

Biomimicry—when man-made objects attempt to take on organic qualities or behaviors of plants or animals—does not have to be as fanciful as the Dystopian Farm, though. In fact, some may not even be all that blatant. Daniel Gehman, AIA, LEED AP, principal, Thomas P. Cox: Architects Inc. (TCA), points to an example from the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, in which a house was designed to “behave like a series of prayer plants that close or open in response to its environment.” Flowers respond to their environments in a similar way.

In terms of what could be accomplished in multifamily buildings, Gehman believes smart controls—which may soon be available in apartments—could be interpreted as biomimicry. “Using the same technology you find in smart keys, your apartment only recognizes you and it opens by recognition—that’s a very organic quality.”

Gehman also points to variable refrigerant flow, which cycles warmth generated on one side of a building to cool the rest of it, as well as heliostats, concave mirrors that focus on heating oil to produce energy by tracing the path of the sun in order to determine maximum exposure to heat, as larger mechanical systems that take on organic qualities of humans and plants, respectively.

“In our industry, it’s not building buildings that look like trees; it’s taking examples from a tree and using it to make our construction more sustainable,” explains Jack Mevorah, AIA, LEED AP, associate at Washington D.C.-based Hickok Cole Architects. “Biomimicry makes use of the processes already perfected in nature to improve our own efforts—in manufacturing, construction and operation of buildings, for example—to lessen the impact on our own surroundings.”

A growing community

Examples of biomimicry are becoming increasingly more popular, and Yolanda Cole, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP, principal, Hickok Cole, who is on the panel of judges at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, has observed a growing trend over the past year in students’ portfolios.

“Suddenly there was this shift toward this biomimicry concept in what I was seeing,” she recalls. “It was a lot of repetitive cellular-type work where one piece had been developed and joined and combined in different ways. There were projects that were self-replicating—like a cell—projects that were tubular, almost like a vein.”

Although it seems to be a fairly recent explosion, the concept of biomimicry has been around for at least 30 years, although as Mevorah points out, it appears to becoming popular faster than it’s truly understood. But Janine Benyus, president of the Biomimicry Institute and author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, began collecting examples 20 years ago.

According to Brukman, the International Living Building Institute has partnered with Benyus in order to “look at the end game as a way to measure what’s possible today and [to] step back to acknowledge current market realities and limits of collective knowledge.”

“I think the momentum is increasing because of a number of factors: countless people having laid the groundwork for concern about the environment to become widely appreciated, tangible systems to measure the ‘green-ness’ of architecture, and the work of people like Janine Benyus communicating to the general public about what we have to learn from the rest of the natural world,” asserts Sam Stier, director of public and K-12 education and manager of the Innovation for Conservation Fund, The Biomimicy Institute.

Despite all this, the experts are not sure how fast the concept of biomimicry will build up speed in the industry. Although there are already a number of products on the market (see sidebar) and design principles are already being applied, the industry is not always quick to adopt new ideas. The green movement, for example, took decades to take hold, Mevorah points out, estimating that it could be another 10 to 15 years before the industry really begins to see biomimicry more prominently in the marketplace—though he adds that because sustainability has become so popular, it could take off a lot faster.

“The marketplace is generally more conservative, and people who develop buildings will tend to want to stay within their knowledge of the marketplace,” Cole asserts, pointing to the slow adoption of LEED as an example. “In the last few years, every building that comes into our office is designed for green, but it’s not because [developers] are jumping on the bandwagon—it’s what the marketplace expects, and they need to compete.” And, she adds, “If biomimicry is affecting the way buildings look, then you need to get acceptance of that in the marketplace.”

But this is not to say that there is a lack of effort from the biomimicry community to get others more involved—and aware of—the concept. In fact, the Biomimicry Institute is sponsoring a series of design challenges to solve the world’s greatest sustainability problems. The Institute is calling on the industry to propose solutions, utilizing biomimicry, to address the energy deficit created by buildings.

The Institute also recently launched, a community-based Website that “endeavours to organize the world’s biological nature with a design challenge,” Stier explains, by bringing biologists and designers together to solve design problems that involve biomimicry.

Manufacturing is the leading edge of sustainable design, explains Jack Mevorah, AIA, LEED AP, associate at Hickok Cole Architects, adding that the industry is looking at how “nature makes things to try to mimic it so there’s no waste,” even, for example, concrete. The industry is looking at how to manufacture concrete—one of the worst environmentally damaging processes—so that it actually benefits the environment.

The following are some examples of biomimicry already being applied to building products:

1.            Modeled after the hexagonal structure of a honeycomb, Panelite’s ClearShade IGU features a tubular core that allows full transparency when viewed frontally, but obscures the line of sight when viewed from oblique angles. Since the cells act in the same way with the sun’s rays by blocking them when they are highest in the sky, the core minimizes solar-heat gain, thereby reducing the energy requirements for heating and cooling interiors (

2.            Similar to lotus leaves, which contain tiny ridges to cause dirt to sit high and water to bead (allowing water to easily roll off, taking the dirt with it), Pilkington Activ Self-Cleaning Glass uses natural daylight and rain to break down organic material, reducing the need for window cleaning. Because the glass is hydrophilic, water spreads over the glass instead of forming droplets (

3.            Using the same Lotus Effect as self-cleaning glass, Sto Corp.’s Lotusan tintable exterior coating allows water and dirt to flow off immediately. Lotusan is highly resistant to mold, mildew and algae and has a high water vapor permeability (

4.            REGEN Energy’s EnviroGrid automated demand management, demand response and load scheduling controller can be installed onto any electrical heating, cooling or discretionary electrical load. The system, which is based on swarm logic, provides on-going management of duty cycles while maintaining occupant comfort. Controllers communicate and cooperate the same way swarms of insects do, acting like pheromones in a beehive. Each controller makes a decision based on the total collective’s information to ensure the most efficient use of energy at any given time (

5.            Columbia Forest Products’ Purebond formaldehyde-free hardwood plywood was inspired by mussels’ ability to cling to rocks. Dr. Kaichang Li, professor at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, found that soy proteins would not only deliver the strong adhesive but are also water-resistant (

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