Biomimicry: Nature’s Lessons

Feb. 17, 2009
Design echoes natural life with the science of biomimicry

By Barbara Horwitz-Bennett

Whether it’s the passively cooled Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe, which mimics the way termites maintain constant internal temperatures, the Singapore Art Center’s building skin louver system inspired by the way polar bear hairs regulate light and heat absorption, or the Waterloo, Canada, airport terminal with its plates of glass hinging together like the scales of the armadillo-resembling pangolin, architects are looking to nature for innovative design solutions.    

Although biomimicry, the science of studying nature and applying its principles to solve design challenges, has already influenced a handful of products and building projects around the world, two significant new initiatives promise to speed the transition from theory to practice in the built environment.

“We’re surrounded by genius. What if every time you, or any other designer in the world, had a challenge you could ask, ‘How would nature solve it?’ ” challenges Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Guild, Helena, MT, in a keynote address at Greenbuild 2008 in Boston.

To better enable building designers to do just that, the Biomimicry Guild recently entered into a consulting partnership with HOK, in addition to launching a new informational resource called

The project, run by the non-profit Biomimicry Institute and funded by Autodesk, is a searchable database whereby designers input a design challenge, such as “ventilate” or “distribute resources,” and can then view a number of nature’s design solutions in that category.

How has the sustainable community responded to this new tool? “It’s been amazing,” reports Bryony Schwan, executive director of the Missoula, MT-based Biomimicry Institute. As of mid-December, “we’ve already had 15,000 unique visitors to the site from 125 countries since our launch at Greenbuild.” 

Bumble Bees and Internet Servers

One of the handful of places where biomimicry, applying nature’s solutions to man’s design challenges, is alive and well is at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. In fact, in addition to a course on Bio-Inspired Design, researchers like Craig Tovey, a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and College of Computing, are involved in a number of such projects.


Interestingly enough, Tovey’s biomimicry claim to fame was figuring out how to apply the way bees scout out and strategically collect nectar to the design of an Internet server system that optimally adapts and responds to changes in user demand.


“I had studied honey bee colony foraging for several years with colleagues, so, more than 10 years later, when a student described a web host problem, I saw the similarity,” Tovey recalls. Essentially, foraging bees “are actually solving a difficult allocation optimization problem when they collect nectar from various patches [some closer, some further away]. The problem of allocating servers at a Web host facility is remarkably similar, as each server is like a bee.”


By designing the system to conserve resources during idle times and harness additional support (i.e. recruiting more bees) during spikes in Internet use, one Web-hosting company has improved its bottom line by 20 percent.


But, beyond Internet servers, Tovey sees biomimicry as an exciting and promising field, given a few conditions. In addition to scientists and engineers becoming more versed in biology, Tovey states, “We need several more visible prototypes … and we need them to be publicized! We then need entrepreneurs who will see these prototypes, conceive of a general-use product based on these prototypes, and create a business.”

To the Next Level                                                                

As for the Guild’s relationship with HOK, the seeds of this recent initiative were actually planted 4 and a half years ago when Benyus spoke at an HOK global leadership retreat. “People were incredibly engaged by that and saw the potential that it could have for our work,” recalls Mary Ann Lazarus, AIA, LEED AP, director of sustainable design, HOK, St. Louis. “We were ripe to ramp it up and make this leap with the Guild, to really take biomimicry and life’s principles and apply them to the built environment.”

Although the formal partnership was just launched a half a year ago, the Guild has already been invited to offer input for more than a dozen HOK projects and support internal HOK educational programs.

“We’ve already seen some real value in the early stages of a few projects,” relates Lazarus.

For example, amidst the development of a new hill station community in Lavasa, located near Pune, India, the Guild was brought in to conduct a site analysis of local organisms and conditions.

Ultimately, what they discovered were a few factors, unique to the site, which may potentially translate into actual design solutions as HOK masterplans and designs this community. First, the area’s unusual climate brings in 3 months of intense, monsoon-like rain, followed by 9 months of drought. As a result, water use during the drought months is an issue, soil erosion is another challenge during the monsoon months, and the community’s lake level fluctuates significantly between seasons.

Essentially, by studying how the natural environment adapts to and thrives under such conditions, these insights promise to help HOK designers plan a community to best blend into the environment and optimally use its resources. As Biomimicry Guild Co-Founder Dayna Baumeister explains, “We’re analyzing the ecological performance standards to match what the local ecology is doing before developing on top of it.”

In terms of practical design strategies emerging from this analysis, Lynelle Cameron, director of sustainability for Autodesk, San Francisco, explains, “Soil stability represents one of the biggest challenges of building in this location because of steep hillsides and extreme weather conditions, which alternate between drought and monsoon. Rather than drilling piers to secure buildings into the soil, the team is exploring a biomimetic approach that uses foundations that mimic a tree’s tap roots.”

The trees take in water during the rainy season and store it for use during the dry season. “Taking this idea into the buildings, can we create a structural system to absorb water or create something like an underwater rainwater storage system?” poses Baumeister.

Another potential approach to the erosion issue is learning from how the area’s natural systems offer several layers of canopy to slow down the rate at which the rain hits the land. “We’re looking at roofing and other ways of structurally breaking up that water so that when it lands there isn’t as much erosion and damage from the downfall,” explains Lazarus.

In addition, “because the lake levels change so dramatically – during the dry season it loses a whole meter, which is quite a bit of water – we’re looking at ways to pump water from the underground and at floating structures to accommodate rises and falls in the water levels,” says Baumeister.

Although it’s early in the project, the client is so excited about the Biomimicry Guild’s involvement that they’re even exploring the possibility of opening a Biomimicry Center on-site.

Other Endeavors

Beyond Lavasa, another collaborative project has been a high-rise in Saudi Arabia where the Guild and HOK are studying the region’s natural systems to draw out some ideas to address issues of heat gain, water scarcity, and sand storms. In other words, is there a way to optimally design the building envelope and façade to reduce heat gain, gather water, and clean sand off the glass?

And, on the firm’s internal front, the Guild recently conducted a workshop for 21 HOK designers at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2. “We took a design problem, looked at four different habitats represented in the Arizona biosphere – desert, marsh, rainforest, and savanna – and analyzed how to take natural systems, biomimic ideas, and apply them to the built environment,” Baumeister explains.

Let’s Ask Nature

As for the Biomimicry Institute’s portal, Benyus, in her recent Greenbuild address, outlined the project by proposing, “What if you could type a question and flip through a catalog of life’s most ingenious designs furnished over 3.8 billion years?”

Although still under development, the site already contains case studies, products developed from biomimicry, and hundreds of natural design solutions and potential applications to the man-made world.

Regarding Autodesk’s interest in the project, “We wanted to support making nature’s design intelligence more readily available,” explains Cameron. “Through, designers and engineers can access and harness nature.”

For example, under the site’s “self-cleaning” section, the lotus leaf’s ability to remain dirt-free is presented at: By creating water droplets on its surface, dirt particles stick to the droplets and then roll off in the wind (see photos). Biomimicking this strategy, a number of products have already come to market, including self-cleaning paint, glass, and clay roofing tiles.

Taking another example, researchers at Columbia Forest Products have developed a new group of adhesives for wood products inspired by the ability of mussels to cling to rocks using flexible, thread-like tentacles. “This non-toxic glue replaces formaldehyde glues, which are quite commonly used in new construction,” explains Biomimicry Institute Communications Coordinator Stacy Malkan.

Following the website’s beta phase, the Institute is planning to enable users to add data, albeit in a moderated way, to maintain the site’s scientific integrity.

And, on the boards for Autodesk, in addition to serving as the site’s sole corporate sponsor, “we’re already having discussions about incorporating biomimicry principles into their software,” reports Schwan, who adds that the company’s long-term goal is “embedding biomimicry’s life’s principles into design software so that it becomes inherently part of the tools that architects and engineers use to design, which is our big dream.”

Barbara Horwitz-Bennett ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to publications and organizations in the design, building, and construction industry.

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