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Nature Does It Better: Biomimicry in Architecture and Engineering

Polythread Pavilion - example of biomimicry in architecture - from Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

  • Biomimicry in architecture and manufacturing means designing buildings and products to mimic or co-opt naturally occurring processes.
  • Evolution has shown how organisms have adapted to specific environments, exhibiting resource management that can be a lesson to designers.
  • Examples of biomimicry in architecture incorporate elements of flora and fauna.
  • Biomimicry and bio-utilization can make building projects and materials more sustainable.
  • Architects can start bringing biomimicry into projects today—but the future will need a confluence of industries and disciplines.

The most important convergence of design and biological sciences today relies on “innovation” that’s millions, if not billions, of years old. Biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems

What Is Biomimicry in Architecture?

Biomimicry in architecture and manufacturing is the practice of designing buildings and products that simulate or co-opt processes that occur in nature. There are ultrastrong synthetic spider silks, adhesives modeled after gecko feet, and wind-turbine blades that mimic whale fins.

“The way biological systems solve problems is pretty different from the way engineered systems solve problems,” says Peter Niewiarowski, biologist at the University of Akron and its Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center.

Human-designed solutions, he says, are crude and additive. They rely on using more materials or energy to accelerate reactions—both costly expenditures. Natural processes rely on unique geometry and material properties.

The adhesive abilities of the gecko feet Niewiarowski studies are an example. To simulate the wall-scaling abilities of a gecko, you might strap a battery to your back and run electricity through electromagnets that only adhere to metal. But in fact, geckos’ feet are dense with tiny hairs that each exert a minuscule molecular attraction, allowing the gecko to stick.

biomimicry in architecture
myThread Pavilion, 2012, by Jenny Sabin Studio. Commissioned by Nike Inc. for Nike FlyKnit Collective. myThread was inspired by the Nike FlyKnit technology. Using motion data collected from runners during a Nike FlyKnit workshop, Sabin—in collaboration with the runners—transformed the biological data patterns into the geometry of this structure. Courtesy of Jenny Sabin Studio.

The Case for Biological Materials in Architecture

Nature is “lazy and intelligent,” says Sigrid Adriaenssens, an engineering professor at Princeton who researches biomimicry. Nature is exceptional at turning waste into food—a fundamental tool for balancing ecosystems that architecture has ignored for the vast majority of its history.

But for designers, biology offers lessons in hyperefficient resource stewardship and circular economies. Nature also practices a kind of “critical regionalism,” the belief that architecture should reflect the geography and culture of its setting. For example, there are parasites so specifically evolved they can live with only one type of host.

These bespoke qualities of nature took a long time to slot into place: “3.8 billion years of R&D,” says Jamie Dwyer of the biomimicry consulting firm, Biomimicry 3.8. “That’s how long life has been evolving.”

The organization was founded by Janine Benyus, whose 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, made her biomimicry’s most visible evangelist. “If you look at all the creations that have gone extinct versus all that are still alive today, it’s a tenth of 1%,” Dwyer says. Biological solutions are the result of millions of failed prototypes.

Biomimicry in Architecture Examples

At Princeton, Adriaenssens came to biomimicry not by looking for ways nature could solve engineering problems, but through discovering that the most efficient solutions resembled natural objects. Nature, “uses very little material and places it in the right place,” she says, citing the organic curves of seashells as an example. “It’s not rigid because there’s a lot of material. It’s done through form.”

Flowerlike Building Screen Systems

As an engineer, Adriaenssens is working on building screen systems that use elasticity, geometry, and thermobimetal to open and close in response to sunlight—like a flower. Biomimicry tends to be referenced more by architects than engineers, but there’s reason to believe that the latter field has more in common with the practice. Though often beautiful, biology doesn’t worry about aesthetic choices the way architects do. Like engineers, nature relentlessly pursues raw utility, with graceful symmetry as a byproduct.

“Cellular” Webs and Building Skins

Jenny Sabin, an architecture professor and director of Sabin Design Lab at Cornell, has focused on knitting as an analogic bio-inspired device, producing photoluminescent webs with unmistakably cellular structures. Knitting emulates cellular networking behavior and the way cells are bound together to become tissue. “The whole morphology is based on fibrous strand systems,” she says. “Knitting is the first example of 3D printing. You’re additively laying down one link to the next, row by row.”

Lucia Sabin eSkin showing application of biomimicry for architecture and engineering
eSkin incorporates structural color to change a material’s opacity and color in response to sunlight levels. eSkin, 2010–2014, by Sabin, Lucia (architecture), Cornell University; Yang (materials science), Van der Spiegel & Engheta (electrical and systems engineering), Ihida-Stansbury (cell biology), University of Pennsylvania. Project funded by the National Science Foundation. Image courtesy Sabin Design Lab.

Her eSkin project (funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with material scientist Shu Yang, mechanical engineers Jan Van der Spiegel and Nader Engheta, and cell biologist Kaori Ihida-Stansbury) incorporates structural color to change a material’s opacity and color in response to sunlight levels.

Examples of structural color found in nature include the wings of the Blue Morpho butterfly or the feathers of hummingbirds. Inspired by this unique cellular behavior, the eSkin team is interested in harnessing these material features and effects for biomimicry in architecture, translating them into scalable building skins that use responsive materials and feedback loops provided by sensors to adapt to environmental cues.

Buildings as Organisms

The “Apertures” installation by B+U Architecture is similarly focused on feedback loops, but it posits an entire building as an organism. Made of white thermoformed plastic polymers that look like Storm Trooper armor with green barnacle-shaped portholes, the installation’s organic geometry calls to mind Jack’s beanstalk if it were cast in a sci-fi epic.

The installation features heat sensors that detect the presence of visitors when they’re near porthole apertures. The sensors feed these heat readings into an algorithm (using them as a proxy for blood circulation and neurological activity) and then translate that information into sound. It’s a low hum when just a few people are in the installation, but it grows louder as more people are attracted.

Aperatures installation highlighting potential of biomimicry in architecture
Apertures posits an entire building as an organism. Courtesy of Baumgartner + Uriu Architecture.

“It’s basically [measuring] the level of excitement,” says Herwig Baumgartner, partner at B+U. “Only over time, and with more people inside interacting with the piece, the sound increases and becomes more and more intense. It’s sort of a feedback loop.” That’s because visitors are drawn to the cooing hum, repelled when it gets louder, and then attracted again once the shriek dies down.

It’s an inhospitable way to demonstrate biomimicry, so it’s not surprising when Baumgartner says, “I don’t have a romantic relationship to nature.” The kind of nature Baumgartner and his firm are interested in are mechanical simulations. “It appears natural but is actually superartificial,” he says.

Bio-Utilization Brings Building Materials to Life (Literally)

But what if the components designers are using are actually alive? Biomimicry is a new field with loosely defined borders, but broadly speaking, there are two approaches: simulation of biological processes and the co-option of living material, called bio-utilization.

Aiming to reduce carbon emissions in masonry manufacturing, bioMASON grows brick in its North Carolina factory in kiln-free, greenhouse-like conditions. “What we’re creating is biological cement,” says founder and CEO Ginger Krieg Dosier.

The company’s process uses bacteria that alters the pH balance of the surrounding aggregate material, allowing calcium carbonate to grow and bind the material together with little to no carbon emissions. “It’s similar to what microrganisms do [to make] coral reefs,” Krieg Dosier says. And bioMASON bricks are near the cost of regular bricks but are much better for the environment.

biomimicry in architecture bioMASON brick
bioMASON brick from day to night. Courtesy of bioMASON.

Biomimicry in Sustainable Architecture and Construction

The manufacturing of building materials, including brick, adds up to about 12% of all carbon emissions. And buildings are some of the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions; they’re also full of toxic chemicals that can make people sick. CannonDesign Director of Sustainability Eric Corey Freed summarizes the problem succinctly: “The way we build our buildings is stupid.”

Freed has spent his career pushing the design profession to do better. He argues that architects should work with nature, rather than against it—specifically, by tapping into the potential of biomimicry and biophilic design for sustainable architecture.

But Freed believes that, as the climate crisis escalates, the most important thing to understand is the incredible potential of these approaches. “The larger vision is getting us to zero-carbon, healthy, and vibrant buildings for all,” he says. “Mainstreaming biomimicry—designing the way nature does—and biophilic design—integrating nature into design—is a vital way to accomplish this.”

3 Ways Architects Can Make Biomimicry a Reality

Biomimicry and biophilia aren’t new concepts, but many architects and designers aren’t sure how to define (or differentiate between) them. Here are three ways that architects can help make this concept a reality.

1. Bring Nature Into Every Project

To get ideas for their work, designers often turn to websites filled with glamour shots of new buildings. They may be better off taking a stroll through the woods instead. “The world is full of wonder,” Freed says. “If we as designers open our eyes to it, we should find endless inspiration everywhere—and not in a hippie way, but in a very tangible, deployable way.”

Consider form. There are countless ways to incorporate natural forms into a building: modeling columns after trees, for example, or using botanical motifs in wall coverings and textiles.

Biomimicry Sustainable Architecture Etsy mobile workspace
Common workspaces at Etsy’s headquarters. Courtesy of Garrett Rowland/Gensler.

Biophilia, or humans’ innate love of nature, is one compelling reason to make this leap. For Etsy’s 198,635-square-foot headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, biophilic design was a key part of the strategy by architecture and design firm Gensler for promoting employee happiness, health, and productivity. The team filled the space with greenery, commissioned plant-themed artwork, and minimized the use of straight walls and right angles to echo the irregularity found in the wild.

One simple way to start bringing nature into projects, Freed says, is to carefully study the unique properties of each site—the surrounding terrain, the path of the sun, the climate, and the flora and fauna. Some of these elements can then be foregrounded in the architecture.

“One thing I commonly do when we’re looking to integrate the building into the site is go around and collect samples—leaf samples, stone samples, flower samples, patterns,” Freed says. “We’ll document them, scan them in, color-correct them, and have them as a repository of the site.”

This design strategy echoes nature’s own logic, he says. Organisms evolve in response to the conditions around them; architecture should, as well. “It’s what Frank Lloyd Wright used to describe as organic architecture,” he says. “That creative process of, ‘We’re not coming in with a preconceived form, but rather we’re part of this community, and we’re growing outward.’ How can we be inspired by nature in general, and the site specifically, to give us forms we wouldn’t have thought of?”

Biomimicry Sustainable Architecture BOB interior
A rendering of the interior of the Biomimetic Office Building. Courtesy of Exploration Architecture.

2. Become a Biomimicry Advocate

Understanding how nature solves problems can help architects create buildings that work in harmony with natural systems—the planet’s atmosphere and the human body, for example. For billions of years, nature has been optimizing living beings to help them thrive in their surroundings. Human bones are four times stronger than concrete (and only half as heavy); spider silk is five times stronger than steel. Unlike concrete and steel, however, bone and silk don’t generate industrial emissions in their manufacture.

British firm Exploration Architecture has dedicated its practice to translating nature’s lessons into built form. For its Biomimetic Office Building project, the firm studied how plant and animal biology addresses critical needs ranging from structural support to temperature regulation. Pulling ideas from materials such as bird skulls, polar bear fur, and mimosa leaves, it created a design with far lower projected energy consumption than that of a comparable standard office tower. For the Abalone House project, it proposed imitating the geometry of a mollusk shell to create an undulating roof structure, which halved the amount of required material.

Not every office has the resources or expertise to jump straight into designing mollusk-inspired roofs. But Freed believes architects can still advance the cause even if they can’t yet imitate nature. “They don’t need to become amateur biologists overnight but instead raise the enthusiasm and interest in using this approach for achieving better buildings,” he says.

Biomimicry Sustainable Architecture Abalone House
The Abalone House’s roof imitates the geometry of a mollusk shell. Courtesy of Exploration Architecture.

3. Seek Out Bio-Based Materials

Manufacturers have ramped up their production of nontoxic, planet-friendly products, and an online product library called mindful MATERIALS has made it easier to find and vet them. Designers can now specify nature-based products such as soy– and hemp-based insulation alongside better-known options like cross-laminated timber. (Some code and supply-chain issues persist, however.)

Freed is particularly excited about bio-based materials that can be engineered to meet specific needs and then grown like crops rather than manufactured with energy-intensive industrial processes, like the BioMASON bricks. DNA could be manipulated to give materials special properties—for example, the ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, reflect heat during the summer, or glow at night.

“We’ve mapped the DNA genome of all of those things, so it is now actually possible we could grow building materials that do the things we need them to do,” Freed says. “Most materials, when we manufacture them, contribute to the climate crisis. By growing our materials, we could essentially avoid that—and even reverse it.”

Biomimicry Sustainable Architecture Hempticture
Products catalogued by mindful MATERIALS include HempWool plant-based, vapor-permeable fiber insulation. Courtesy of Hempitecture.

The Future of Biomimicry Is Multidisciplinary

It may seem strange that copying the way the natural world works is just now coming to the fore, but worldwide emphasis on sustainability is forcing people to look at efficient systems of all types. And until recently, engineers didn’t have tools to simulate natural processes.

So what can architecture and engineering learn and emulate from nature? The answer is much more, as long as there’s a rise in multidisciplinary collaboration. The more biologists, architects, mechanical engineers, and materials scientists collaborate, the more likely it is that hybrid fields like biomimicry in architecture can take root.

“If you trap biomimicry in design or engineering as though any one field owns it, you poison its potential,” says Niewiarowski.

Sarah Wesseler contributed additional reporting to this article, which has been updated. It was originally published in 2016.