“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” is a quote that people often use in the context of relationships. However, it also works well for humankind’s use of natural resources. Climate change and the impact of uncontrolled use of natural resources have always been problems, but it is only in recent times, faced with the very near possibility of no longer having these resources, there has been a shift in mindset towards exploring alternative, more sustainable ways of living. And since the preservation of nature is the goal, we have looked to nature and nature-based practices to guide us in this endeavour.
What is biomimicry?
In simple terms, biomimicry is the concept of taking inspiration from nature or natural processes. After all, nature has had millennia to refine forms and systems to become self-sustainable and climate-responsive. It, therefore, makes sense that if these forms and processes are carefully studied and adapted, it can lead to solving problems in fields like architecture, engineering, and agriculture in more environmentally sensitive ways.
Though biomimicry has increased in prominence in the quest for sustainability only in recent times, the actual idea of deriving inspiration from nature has been around for centuries—Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, conceptualized ‘flying machines’ based on the wing-form and flight pattern of birds, and many traditional indigenous practices are based on natural cycles. However, biomimicry today is a broader, more refined field that looks for inspiration from multiple aspects of nature beyond just form.
Biomimicry and Sustainability
Technically, any design or product that mimics or takes inspiration from nature falls under the category of biomimicry. However, this does not mean that all products of biomimicry are necessarily sustainable. A non-architectural example is Velcro, which mimicked the hook-like surface of burdock seeds. Velcro, despite being a product of biomimicry, is not necessarily sustainable. There thus exists an overlapping Venn diagram between biomimicry and sustainability, within which most designers and architects today aim to fall.
a. The Organism Level of Biomimicry
Initially, biomimicry focused on drawing inspiration from specific organisms, and the results ranged from a purely aesthetic form exploration, such as in the Lotus Temple of Delhi, to a more functional conceptualization, such as in the Beijing National Stadium, where the tightly knit shape of a bird’s nest served as the inspiration for its structural and aesthetic design, providing support while maintaining sightlines. The Biomimicry Guild, 2007, considers this organism level of biomimicry the first of three levels of biomimetic design.
The organism level often mimics specific characteristics of organisms, such as form, structure, or material. However, in nature, these characteristics are often designed to benefit the creature itself, without any impact on its surroundings.
As a result, biomimetic design based on the organism level may not be detrimental to the goal of sustainability, but a direct translation of these concepts does not often lead to sustainable products. Ultimately, organism-level studies often require a more nuanced approach that branches out into one of the other levels of biomimicry to become sustainable.
b. The Behavior Level of Biomimicry
Behavior is the second level of biomimicry. At this level, the research aims to study the interaction between an organism and its environment. Perhaps the most famous example of this level in architecture is the design and functioning of termite mounds. Termite mounds are a great example of passive cooling ventilation and temperature regulation. The Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe, and CH2 Building in Melbourne, Australia, are examples of this functionality translated into architecture.
Behavior level biomimicry does tend to produce more viable options for sustainability when compared to the organism level. However, a more in-depth study of the organism and its environment is required, and some processes that work effectively for one species might not work as well for humans, so the behavior to be mimicked must be carefully chosen.
c. The Ecosystem Level of Biomimicry
The ecosystem level of biomimicry looks into the interconnection and working of various elements, rather than on a specific aspect of an organism. This is the most complex level of biomimicry and is often used for larger-scale projects. The aim is to ensure that multiple design considerations work in tandem, the same way an ecosystem of various organisms does. This level has the advantage of taking into consideration the previous two levels as well.
Ecosystems in nature function as closed systems, capable of being self-sustaining, and therefore have served as inspiration for biomimetic designers in the field of waste management, climate control, and low impact construction. HOK’s proposed city in Lavasa, India derives its water run-off system from the banyan fig leaf, and its channels for excess water from harvester ants.
Is Biomimicry Sustainable?
As with most design factors, sustainability needs to be considered at all stages of the design process. Biomimicry lends itself well to this task, due to how deeply rooted it is in natural processes. However, biomimicry is a vast field, and while it can become a good starting point to designing and building sustainable, green buildings, it is not inherently a perfect model of sustainability. It is the architect or designer’s responsibility to ensure that the processes they are seeking inspiration from can be adapted and innovated into something comfortable, aesthetic, and, yes, sustainable.
- Benyus, J. (1997). Biomimicry – Innovation inspired by nature. New York: Harper Collins Publishers
- Biomimicry Guild (2007). Innovation inspired by nature work book: Biomimicry Guild
- Dhakhwa, T., 2021. Does nature hold the answer to sustainability? Biomimicry as ecological innovation. [online] Yale Environment Review. Available at: < https://environment-review.yale.edu/does-nature-hold-answer-sustainability-biomimicry-ecological-innovation-0 > [Accessed 18 April 2021].
- Designbuild-network.com. n.d. Beijing National Stadium, ‘The Bird’s Nest’, China. [online] Available at: < https://www.designbuild-network.com/projects/national_stadium/ > [Accessed 18 April 2021].
- Pawlyn, M., 2016. Biomimicry in Architecture, 2nd Edition. 2nd ed. [S.l.]: RIBA Publishing.
- Zari, M., 2010. Biomimetic design for climate change adaptation and mitigation. Architectural Science Review, 53(2), pp.172-183.