Biomimicry: Engineering and technology inspired by Nature
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Biomimicry: Engineering and technology inspired by Nature

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Author | Elvira Esparza

The maxim “nature is wise” serves as the foundation for biomimicry, a methodology, and perhaps a philosophy, applied to engineering, which draws inspiration from the environment to enhance human activities, aiming for greater efficiency, resilience, and sustainability, whether applied to transporting people and goods or the construction of buildings.

What is biomimicry?

The term originates from the Greek root word “bio”, meaning life, and “mimicry”, meaning to emulate or imitate. Therefore, biomimicry literally means “imitating life”. The Biomimicry Institute defines biomimicry or biomimetics as an innovative approach aimed at finding sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating the patterns and strategies refined by nature. The goal is to develop products, processes, and policies that are finely attuned to the conditions of life on Earth, with a focus on long-term sustainability and resilience. In simpler terms, it is the practice of imitating nature’s designs to develop more sustainable processes, systems, and strategies.

What is the first example of biomimicry?

The earliest instances of biomimicry can be traced back to the first humans who observed and imitated animals to develop hunting and survival techniques. They understood the advanced physical abilities of animals and adopted similar strategies to improve their own chances of success. Since those early days, numerous instances of biomimicry have emerged, many of which remain unknown to most people. From the simplicity of Velcro, inspired by the way certain plants disperse their seeds through animal fur, to the design of swimsuits modeled after shark skin to reduce turbulence and water resistance, there are countless examples of biomimicry that have quietly revolutionized various fields.

In engineering, a standout example is Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train, which draws inspiration from the kingfisher’s beak, with a unique design that allows it to dive into water without creating a splash. Thanks to this innovative design, the bullet train achieved a 10% speed increase, by reducing air resistance, utilizing 15% less electricity, and eliminating the noise typically generated when exiting tunnels.

How does biomimicry solve problems?

Biomimicry involves mimicking nature, ultimately saving energy and minimizing waste. Compared to the industrial economy, which generates significant waste, pollution, and energy inefficiencies, proponents of biomimetics advocate for continued emulation of nature’s principles, since this approach can leverage waste and utilize energy more efficiently. Striving to make our world more like the natural world holds immense potential for enhancing survival and ensuring a sustainable future.

Despite the term biomimicry first being coined in 1969 by the engineer Otto Herbert Schmitt in an educational article, it was in the 1990s that this concept gained significant traction, particularly through the work of the scientist Janine Benyus. Her belief was that humans should emulate the strategies and behavior of nature when seeking solutions to their problems. In recent years biomimicry has extended to different disciplines such as sustainable design, engineering, farming and architecture.

How is biomimicry applied to architecture?

In architecture, biomimicry manifests in the design of more sustainable and efficient buildings, in harmony with nature. It is not merely about replicating natural forms; rather, it is about understanding the principles that govern natural systems, since experience has shown that these principles work better, require less energy, and generate less waste.

Biomimetic architecture draws inspiration from nature to design buildings and structures that mimic natural processes such as photosynthesis, heat regulation, or the ability to adapt to changes. This relationship between biomimicry and architecture is evident in various aspects:

  • Energy efficiency. It endeavors to replicate nature’s solutions to optimize the utilization of water, sunlight, and wind, integrating these principles into the natural design of buildings.
  • Bioclimatic design. This consists in designing efficient buildings that consider the climate and environment of their location.
  • Sustainable materials. This refers to construction materials that mimic the properties of natural materials, such as the strength and flexibility found in certain plants.
  • Organic forms. This refers to the design of buildings inspired by natural forms, seamlessly integrating buildings into their surrounding environment.
  • Adaptive systems. These include solutions such as facades that can open or close to regulate light and temperature, as well as rainwater management systems that adjust according to climate conditions.
  • Resilience and sustainability. The sustainability of architecture is enhanced by its alignment with natural cycles, thereby reducing its environmental impact.

Examples of buildings that incorporate biomimicry principles into their design.

Among the most representative buildings of biomimetic architecture are:

Zimbabwe’s Termite building

Inspired by African termites’ ability to regulate temperature and humidity inside their mounds. The architect Mick Pearce employed this concept to design a building integrating a natural ventilation system through conduits that regulate incoming and outgoing air, maintaining the temperature inside the building without the need for heating or air conditioning.

BIQ House in Hamburg

This is the first building to utilize algae for energy production. The facade is comprised of glass panels filled with water and algae that produce biomass, which in turn generates energy. This energy is then utilized for lighting and regulating air temperature and quality.

Beijing National Stadium

Designed by Herzog & De Meuron, it is made up of a steel frame inspired by the structure of a bird’s nest. The steel lattice structure is covered by a transparent membrane engineered to withstand seismic movement.

Eden Project Building in Cornwall (United Kingdom)

Designed by the Grimshaw Architects studio, the Eden Project consists of two main buildings featuring numerous domes connected in the middle by the Kink building. The project was inspired by natural biomes and incorporates biomimicry into its design, featuring geodesic domes that house different ecosystems. The dome structure imitates the geometry of cell structures found in nature.

Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia

Antonio Gaudí could be considered the precursor of biomimetic architecture, since the Sagrada Familia design incorporates a load and pillar distribution system inspired by the growth of tree branches.

What will the buildings of the future be like?

In the future, there is expected to be a greater integration of natural processes in the design and construction of buildings, characterized by the following:

  • Technology integration: Technology will play a crucial role in the integration of biomimicry in architecture. This will involve the utilization of generative design algorithms inspired by nature, computational simulation to optimize energy efficiency, and digital manufacturing to create complex biomimetic forms and structures.
  • Innovative materials: They will draw inspiration from nature, incorporating features such as self-repairing and self-cleaning materials, and materials that mimic the properties of animal skin to regulate temperature and humidity.
  • Adaptability and resilience: Buildings will be more adaptable and resilient, equipped to respond efficiently to changes in the environment, including variations in climate, lighting conditions, and urban density.
  • Urban ecology: There will be a greater integration of vegetation in the design of buildings and public spaces, with green belts and natural habitats within dense urban environments. In addition, architects will adopt a holistic approach to design, considering not only the aesthetics and function of buildings but also their impact on the environment and the health of people, resulting in the creation of green buildings.

All of these advancements will stem from increased collaboration among various disciplines, including architects, biologists, engineers, ecologists, and experts capable of developing innovative biomimetic solutions applicable on a large scale. As a result, more sustainable and resilient buildings and environments will be created, fostering harmony with nature.

Images | Bernd Dittrich Giulia Angotti Fikri Rasyid Laker


 

Tomorrow.Building World Congress (7-9 November 2024, Barcelona) is the new global event empowering the green and digital transition of buildings and urban infrastructures. Celebrated in parallel with the Smart City Expo, it’s a sector-focused summit gathering the most forward-thinking brands and experts disrupting urban construction. Discover more ⁠here.

 

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