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Integrating nature into built

Architecture rethinks its approach to the environment with biomimicry.

by Sabato Angeri
25 February 2021
8 min read
by Sabato Angeri
25 February 2021
8 min read

During the Renaissance, many people were convinced that the ultimate goal of figurative and plastic art was to imitate nature. We can only wonder if the great figures of that time could have guessed that today, five hundred years later, imitating nature would become a new science with a potentially revolutionary scope.

Mimic nature

We’re talking about biomimicry –from the Greek, bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning imitation, which could be defined as the application of new technologies to the study of biology in order to produce materials and structures inspired by organisms and ecosystems. It’s neither about making a simple copy, nor an aesthetic approach. Instead, it’s a new way of understanding architecture, the textile industry, construction or even urban planning, without forgetting about the environment, climate or energy sustainability. Just think of insects and their nests, flowers and how leaves behave, or animals living in extreme conditions. Everything that the Earth has created and perfected over billions of years could potentially be a source of inspiration for biomimicry. Take Velcro as a case in point. Few people know that these straps, which are found everywhere in our daily lives, were devised by imitating the small hooked spines of burdock fruits. Observing how the bristles attached themselves to animals’ fur to spread seeds gave the originators the idea of creating strips with small plastic hooks that acted the same way on fabrics.

Real life examples

But, despite its efficiency, Velcro is at the primordial level on the evolutionary scale of biomimicry research. In the English-speaking world, the word biomimicry has been around for years, and there are several research institutes that examine the subject by conducting studies and building models. To mention just a few examples, this approach has been used to experiment with alternative solutions to lighting and temperature management in buildings, energy usage, the production of fabrics and building materials, and waste recycling.

Architects, in particular, have been most intrigued by the possibilities biomimicry might bring to their work. One of the most famous projects in the world is the Eastgate Building in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, built by South African architect Mick Pearce in collaboration with the Arup engineering firm. The structure, consisting of two twin buildings that house various businesses and private flats, was designed drawing inspiration from termite mounds. In fact, unlike other insect nests, termite nests are mounds of dirt that rise vertically from the ground, and can even reach several metres in height. Furthermore, termite mounds maintain a constant temperature and humidity level inside, which helps to grow the fungus that the insects feed on. The temperature is controlled through a series of underground tunnels and outlets in the walls that create a ventilated environment. Because of this, termite mounds have long fascinated architects, who try to understand their structure and how they function. If you examine a section view of the Eastgate Building, it has a series of chimneys on the side and a central tunnel that provides natural ventilation to rooms, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

The architects of the London-based Exploration Architecture firm that launched the Sahara Forest Project, an ambitious project aiming to reforest some desert environments thanks to new techniques for the production of food, water and energy, are going even further. To cite just one example of biomimicry, greenhouses should behave like the Namibian desert beetle, an insect that leaves its nest at night to settle on the top of a dune and wait for the sea breeze. When the wind comes, the beetle uses its black armour to radiate the heat it accumulated during the day and, because of the temperature change, its back develops water droplets that will slide directly into its mouth at dawn when it lifts its armour. But the architects at the London firm are also talking about innovative solar-driven catalysis systems, the uses of algae, biofuels, desalination mechanisms and new building materials.

Who knows? They might use the Tetrapod by Taiwanese architect Arthur Huang, an eco-friendly modular brick with the hexagonal structure of a molecule. It’s made entirely of recycled materials and waste, and it can adapt to a wide range of building types or be used to build even very large structures. Or, they might build the windows using 3D-printed pasta made from the compounds of sea shell fragments and crustacean shells.

However, Chao Chen, a student on the Master’s in Product Design programme at the Royal College of Arts in London, says that he experienced a sudden epiphany when he saw how the pine cones in Hyde Park reacted in the rain. Once the drops of water come into contact with the surface of the pine cones, they extend their outer shell to protect the pine seeds. Based on his observation, Chen devised a laminated material that reacts when it comes into contact with water and changes its shape naturally, without the need for any electronic or mechanical system. The fibres expand when they become wet by extending, and, in this way, a surface is formed that opens or closes by lengthening or curving according to the intensity of the rain.

But Chen isn’t the only one who engages in this type of experimentation with biomimicry. The architects of the Institute for Computational Design in Stuttgart have designed and built two structures that are nothing short of unusual. They’re two weather sensitive pavilions called Hygroscope and Hygroskin, and they can be visited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the FRAC Centre in Orléans. Because of wood’s hygroscopic properties, meaning its ability to absorb water molecules from its surrounding environment, they decided to focus on lamellar structures and panels that independently open or close based on the perceived humidity. Both structures are a rare example of precision engineering, deep knowledge of the laws of physics and computational geometry, a branch that uses processors and 3D printers to build artefacts of such complexity that was unthinkable until recently.

Biomimicry and design

Biomimicry is also becoming fertile ground for innovation in design. Decor, clothing and furniture are just some of the areas where biomimetic design is starting to expand. Take the work of Professor Neri Oxman at MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab, who developed a series of products inspired by biomimicry. From organic fabrics, to a chaise longue called Gemini, which, with the shape of a shell, recreates a habitat “reminiscent of the maternal womb”. Or, again, the new Etsy headquarters in New York (18,500 m2), which have been completely renovated according to a biophilic (love for nature, ed.) and biomimetic approach.

After all, humans have always tried to understand the mechanisms that regulate nature. Think of a beehive, which is considered to be a perfect example of an organised structure in which each space has a function and each inhabitant has its role, all in one precise geometric space. Today, what gives us hope is the availability of technologies that allow this type of design to be increased on a large scale. All of it can be achieved with an eye on sustainability, with a negligible impact on the surrounding environment and the climate and, most importantly, in harmony with the needs of humanity and our planet.

The author: Sabato Angeri

Graduated in European literature at the University "La Sapienza" of Rome, he is a freelance journalist and editorial translator, he has collaborated in several cultural and artistic projects as an author and writer. He currently collaborates with Mediaduemila, Lonely Planet as an author and with Elliot Publishing.