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Biomimicry - How nature can help us build better

Jesse Putzel Jesse Putzel 02 Oct 2014

“Nature is like a catalogue of products and all of these have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period - given that level of investment it makes sense to use it.” declared architect Michael Pawlyn at this year’s Annual CE100 summit. He has a point. Biomimicry is not a new idea in the design of buildings (look at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia), but using it for sustainable design is.

Interior of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (image by SBA73 from Sabadell, Catalunya (Tot conflueix / All's conected) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons) 

Biomimicry can help us build more sustainably, whilst doing less bad and doing more good. By tapping into nature’s natural synergies, optimised shapes and textures, and re-emerging patterns, we can be more resource efficient and streamline building and infrastructure designs.

Pawlyn races through examples of nature’s ability to design incredible systems, from ‘Dog vomit slime mould’ (apparently providing insights to better urban planning) to learning from the structure of bird bones to lightweight a concrete structure (reducing the material quantity required by 50%!).

The Sahara Forest Project, which aims to bring vegetation back to the desert, epitomises this approach perfectly. Inspired by the Namibian fog basking beetle – which is able to harvest water from moisture in the air – the design is for a greenhouse which allows plants to grow with minimal water and can actually harvest more water than it needs. The eventual effect is that vegetation starts to grow around the greenhouse, spreading out to the once barren desert. Pairing this design with concentrated solar power (CSP) will provide a constant source of renewable energy, and the mirrored panels will provide shading for vegetation. The CSP can also use waste heat from the greenhouse and the panels collect salt crystals on their surface over time, which can then be harvested to make light weight building blocks. This will create a self-sufficient, restorative ecosystem in the heart of the desert (with no waste… just like nature).

The Sahara Forest Project by Exploration Architecture

Another example of how biomimicry can help design more sustainably is the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. At this year’s Ecobuild, Ban gave an inspiring talk about some of his projects made out of recycled paper tubes, built into honeycomb roofs. Lightweight, fluid and inspired by nature, he is increasingly designing these stunning sustainable structures for disaster relief projects.

Seguru Ban's 'Cardboard Cathedral', Christchurch New Zealand (image by Jocelyn Kinghorn (Flickr: Way Up High) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps most importantly, designing with nature in mind can help create healthier, happier more productive spaces for us to live and work in. Using passive design to maximise natural light, fresh (un treated) air has been proven to improve health and productivity (see our previous blog on this here). 

By paying attention to nature’s catalogue, we can create a new language for more resource efficient sustainable design and integrate buildings and infrastructure into a circular economy.


Jesse Putzel is a Senior Sustainability Advisor at BAM 



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