Nature has had a 3.8 billion years' head start on humans learning how to solve complex challenges. Humans have been mimicking the natural world to solve the complexities and challenges of the built environment for millennia — from ancient Indian rock-cut architecture in 6000 BCE to gothic cathedrals.
With the growing realization of how urbanization, industrialization and unfettered economic growth are affecting our world, we must look to nature for sustainability solutions.
Modern building techniques are material-intensive and polluting — it’s responsible for around one-quarter of land system change and 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And with an area the size of Paris being built up each week, we need to do better.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued yet another dire warning and calls out the critical role of the built environment in climate change mitigation. The construction industry has the power to shape a more resilient, nature-positive economy, and nature can show us how: from the city level to the building design level to the material and component level, there’s a wealth of examples from which to learn.
Biomimetic design at the city level
The Mobius project's futuristic-looking greenhouse showcases just what cities need now: a way to manage a city’s infrastructure system — from waste treatment to the water system, for example — through a closed-loop circular economy approach.
Iguana Architects, the project’s creator, modeled this after the oak tree, one of nature’s brilliant examples that has the potential to reuse its output resources such as materials, energy and water, therefore acting as a closed-loop system and conserving resources. By mimicking a natural ecosystem, Mobius rethinks water treatment, energy generation and waste management. Biological waste, for example, is turned into locally grown food, cutting down on the food miles — or it’s turned into methane to generate electricity for the greenhouse.
Many cities struggle to plant their own food — particularly those in drier regions. The Sahara Forest Project is trying to create life in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, learning from nature’s innovations for desert life. Researchers studied how the Namibian fog-basking beetle survives in such an arid environment, finding that it attracts and collects water droplets from fog and wind to drink. The beetle’s hydrophilic shell allows it to survive in a climate that only receives 1 centimeter of water per year. Based on this finding, the idea of the seawater-cooled greenhouse was born.
That’s not all — solar panels were also arranged to receive light reflected from a mirror to harvest the sun’s power at an exponential rate. Exploration, the architectural firm behind this project, created a 2.4-acre pilot project — such a success that they claim that "a facility with [148 acres] of greenhouses could provide all the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines currently imported into Qatar." The project has been scaled and successfully implemented in Jordan and Tunisia.
While single creatures have a lot to teach us, so do entire ecosystems. Inspired by the concept of ecological succession, in which the structure of a biological community evolves over time, Jan Kudlicka and his team came up with a plan to regenerate the low-income Rio settlement favela da Rocinha. His plan: organizing the region in vertical levels, with the ground floor for stores, medical offices and other services, the middle layer for living and the rooftops destined for playgrounds, open air cinema and gardens. This optimizes the use of space in a crowded area that cannot grow out but must grow "up," as space is limited by the mountains above and the city below. The project also seeks to regenerate the structure of existing buildings instead of tearing them down to build new ones — thus saving on materials and minimizing pollution.
Biomimetic buildings: How nature has inspired centuries of architecture
Renowned architects — from Antonio Gaudi to Buckminster Fuller to Frei Otto — have drawn inspiration from nature when dreaming up their buildings. Even the Eiffel Tower is said to have been based on the structure of the human femur. While biomimicry has been on architects' minds for a while, now it is being explored at a new level.
Recently, inspiration has been garnered from something that appears fragile at first glance. The Eden project, a giant greenhouse inspired by the biblical Garden of Eden, was designed to resemble soap bubbles — optimally positioned in the sun to allow for complete self-heating. Dragonfly wings served as inspiration for the best way to assemble pieces of steel —allowing for a lightweight structure that required fewer carbon emissions to transport from place to place.
Lightweighting is a primary concern in designing the built environment: doing more with less. While hemp and bamboo are standout options, we can also draw inspiration from the abalone shell. Chemically, its composition is similar to that of blackboard chalk, although there’s a key structural difference between the two — the manner in which the shell’s calcium carbonate discs are layered make the formation 3,000 times stronger. By mimicking the discs, we can create strong structures with half the volume of materials, reducing the need for virgin materials in construction. Inspired by these abalone discs, scientists are working towards developing bendable concrete that can extend infrastructure’s service life while reducing costs.
Biomimicry for building materials: Zooming in to the microscopic level
We can narrow down to a microscopic level to learn which other tricks nature has up her sleeve. The lotus leaf, for example, boasts tiny hairs covered with a waxy coating that allows it to stay dry. The lotus leaf’s structure has inspired a protective coating for external areas that is water — and dirt — repellent, decreasing buildings’ need for maintenance. When it rains, the droplets roll off, picking up dirt on the way down. This decreases the need for protective finishings, which are usually toxic and can be harsh on the environment.
Limestone-producing bacteria have also served as inspiration to cut maintenance costs by millions of euros while extending buildings’ lifespans. Hendrick Jonkers, a researcher from TU Delft, was fascinated by the way bones regenerate themselves after being broken, and wanted to translate this into regeneration in the built environment. He discovered that certain bacteria can produce limestone, filling the gaps and cracks that affect concrete structures over time.
From the micro to macro level, nature has the power to inspire
Nature can be used to guide urban planning for sustainable cities, shape individual buildings and even act as a muse for material innovation. We already have an expansive library of solutions — we just have to roll them out at scale.
Given the built environment’s impact, it’s time to get serious about building in a way that harmonizes with, rather than harms, nature. While biomimetic design is definitely not the holy grail towards achieving a regenerative built environment, it could become a source of inspiration. We like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent species — but Mother Earth has many more years of experience and she is happy to share her free intellectual property.