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Tyler Dennison December 9, 2009

Design History 201

Design Case Study

Biomimcry: Sustainable Solutions for Urban Populations

Life has been evolving on Planet Earth for billions of years. Through this

evolutionary process life forms have adapted to their surrounding environments,

using unique solutions to ensure their species prolonged existence and niches

within their ecosystems. The richness in biodiversity and the complexity of

ecosystems depend on the ingenuity of organisms to use their settings and

abilities to their advantage. Human evolution has largely depended on

advancements in the consciousness and intellect. We have evolved to use

materials and resources for our benefits, analyzing and controlling our

surroundings to improve and perpetuate our species existence and. As we

construct expand and evolve in our terrestrial environments our actions have a

noticeable, often severe impacts on the ecosystems we inescapably coexist with.

Using our evolved intelligence to examine and understand natural processes

allows biomimicry to harness the power of nature to solve unconventional human

scenarios. Applying evolutionary practices of the planet’s species to our

problems and challenges helps us to better understand the systems we live in,

adapting our societies to better sustain ourselves and our environments. This

practice and study of biomimicry allows humans to design around our

environments instead of adapting the environment for design and civilization.


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While biomimetics has led to many inventions designs and practices most

important ideas boldly stand out from the pack. Termite-mound inspired self-

cooling buildings are a highly applicable sustainable biomimetic design for the

urban centers of humanity.

Sustainable practices are the cornerstone of biomimetic theories. In nature

species don’t consume their ecological capital, they fit into their surroundings

instead of seeking to harness and manipulate their environment. The TERMES

(Termite Emulation of Regulatory Mound Environments by Simulation) project

and the resulting building design enact the sustainable principles of biomimetic

design a welcome solution considering powering conventional buildings accounts

for almost half (forty percent) of all energy produced and consumed by humanity

(Architecture). Termites require a consistent temperature of 31 degrees for

survival. As temperatures in Zimbabwe fluctuate from 35 degrees at night to 104

degrees during the day, termites dig a kind of breeze-catcher at the base of their

mound cooling the air by means of chambers carved out of the wet mud below,

sending hot air out through a flue to the top. They constantly vary this

construction by alternatively opening up new tunnels and blocking others to

regulate the heat and humidity within the mound. Janine Benyus, a leader in the

field of biomimicry, sets out the principle dynamics of natural design: “Nature

runs on sunlight, Nature uses only energy it needs, Nature fits form to function,

Nature recycles everything, Nature rewards cooperation, Nature banks on

diversity, Nature demands local expertise, Nature curbs excess from within, and

Nature taps the power of limits” (7). TERMES uses high tech 3-D digital scans of
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termite mounds to gain understanding of how the tunnels and vents regulate

airflow and maintain a consistent temperature (Baumeister). This data helped

provide illuminating evidence allowing architects to design several buildings

modeling the termite mounds. Architect Mick Pearce designed the Eastgate

Building in Harare, Zimbabwe mimicking the termites’ the passive heating and

cooling system. This system keeps the building fresher and cooler with less

energy. The Eastgate building employs the mass of the building as insulation and

the daily temperature fluctuations outside to keep its interior uniformly cool. Fans

suck fresh air from the atrium, blowing it upstairs through hollow spaces under

the floors and into each office through baseboard vents. As the air rises and

warms, it is drawn out of the building through 48 round brick funnels on the roof.

During cool summer nights, big fans circulate air through the building seven

times an hour to chill the hollow floors. By day, smaller fans circulate air twice an

hour through the building. As a result, the air is fresh, much more so than from an

air conditioner which recycles 30 percent of the air that passes through it.

“Eastgate’s ventilation costs one-tenth that of a comparable air-conditioned

building and it uses 35 percent less energy than six conventional buildings in

Harare combined. In the first five years alone, the building saved its owner $3.5

million in energy costs.” (Lefaivre). This cooling system follows most, if not all of

Benyus’s rules of nature. Not only does Pearce’s city center naturally cool, curb

excess from within, fit its form to its function, and use only the energy it needs but

also it draws on local expertise. A Harare local, Pearce no doubt was familiar

with the termite mounds that rise out of the Zimbabwe savannah. Looking
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towards the local ecology is crucial for discovering bio-solutions.

Humans tend to import technology expecting it to be all-inclusive due to

our now globalized economy and culture. This solution can be both costly and

ineffective. Local culture and the realities of the natural geo-climatic region have

much to teach those who are willing to reject standardized ready-made solutions.

(Lefaivre). Biomimicry suggests we look at how the species of local origin have

adapted to the region. Observing these evolutionary progressions should suggest

how to shape our own buildings and societies in order to save energy and

resources, emulating the local ecosystems. This is not an entirely new concept,

modern societies have just become reliant on wasteful and convenient habits.

We have gravitated so far from our origins that we sometimes forget that the

earth was not put here for our use but that we are in fact a small part of the

natural world. If used properly biomimicry can mend this disconnect that has

been instilled, handed down through the western paradigms of dominion and

hierarchy over nature.

Attitudes of a separation or dominion from the rest of the natural world

have permeated all levels of our culture. From the way we build our homes and

cities to the way we choose to farm and raise livestock. We expand and consume

at frantic rates chasing ephemeral dreams of success and satisfaction. What we

often fail to realize is our connection to the natural, however suppressed or

buried in the subconsciousness, is a source of joy and great knowledge.

Pausing, trying to understand this timeless knowledge is what successful

biomimicry is all about.


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Benyus reminds us “all our inventions have already appeared in nature in

a more elegant form at a lot less cost to the planet” (6) Mick Pearce understands

this concept. Most people would classify termites as pests, terrifying or disgusting

insects, living in unsightly mounds of mud and dirt, causing us problems. In

reality termites actually build better, more efficient structures than us. This

arrogance in our species is all too common. Pearce was able to look beyond our

pre-constructed hierarchical view of other life on the planet, and his innovation

brought great success and sustainable solutions to the energy problems looming

for civilization.

Leaps in science, innovation and even evolutionary success tend to be

brought on by impending danger or severe crisis. Our monolithic culture and non-

living environments of steel concrete and smog are the destabilizing element; we

are our own crisis. In contrast, living things maintain a dynamic stability without

waste (Benyus 7). Since the industrial revolution, reliance on manufactured

objects designed to fit the constraints of commercialized modern life has shaped

our expectations of design have been narrow and anthropocentric (Reed). We

marveled at the achievements of the human race, excess and speed became the

norm. Assembly-line factories, mass-production, consumption engineering,

ownership and proliferation were the propagated cornerstone of human

existence. As we face the threats of – growing concentrations of CO2, melting

icecaps, warming oceans, disappearing species and resources, and an exploding

population – we must, without hesitation, reevaluate the direction and goals of

design and the conventions of society.


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With all our knowledge of history and science we can jump-start the

evolutionary process through ethical and ingenious biomimicry. If we take steps

in the right direction before the full effects of serious crises sink in, we may be

able to circumnavigate frightening predictions of our doomed future. If all new

buildings used ninety percent less energy than their present-day counterparts,

urban areas would take less of a toll on their environments. Effective design has

the potential to change population centers and urban growth into areas of

harmony and production, instead of open sores on the planet’s surface. Not only

borrowing from nature but also appreciating and interacting with it, is the key to

prolonging humanity’s existence as well as the planet’s health. The collaboration

of the biomimicry field and responsible design has already produced efficient,

effective and sound products and ideas for a sustainable world. Since the vast

majority of humans rely on energy powered dwellings and structures, it is a

logical jump-off point for crafting a sustainable future inclusive of all cultures and

species. If any one thing can be learned from Pearce’s architecture projects it is

that we can solve the challenges of sustainable design working outside the

parameters of convention. Looking at the mechanics of the natural world, which

have been adapting and cooperating eons, can teach us design in a low-impact

and harmonious manner more like the world which designed us.
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Works Cited

"Architecture: Learning from Termites How to Create Sustainable Buildings".

Biomimicry Institute. December 9 2009

<http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/case-studies/case-

studies/architecture.html>.

Baumeister, Dayna. "The Darwinism of architecture - how Biomimicry will evolve

architecture". Biomimicry Guild. December 10 2009

<http://www.worldarchitecturenews.com/index.php?

fuseaction=wanappln.commentview&comment_id=162>.

Benyus, Janine M.. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York: William

Morrow and Company Inc., 1997.

Lefaivre, Liane . "Mick Pearce Profile". Architects for Peace. December 9 2009

<http://www.architectsforpeace.org/mickprofile.php>.

Reed, Philip A. "A Paradigm Shift: Biomimicry Biomimicry Is a New Way of

Linking the Human-Made World to the Natural World". The Technology

Teacher 2003: 80-86.