Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Proto-modern Theory of Architecture Biomimicry

By Michael P. Rybin

Arch 4270 Architectural Theory and Criticism                                             
Professor Dr. Ole W. Fischer
Scientific Research Paper, v77
April 30, 2014

Table of Contents




        High Cost

        Current Standards

        Examples of successful architecture biomimicry



Every weekend, the man loved to race his Porsche through the dangerous mountain roads to his cabin.  One weekend he was approaching his favorite curve, when another car came around the corner swerving out of control and almost hit him.  As the other car barely squeezed by, a beautiful woman yelled at him “Pig!”  He was shocked, and immediately yelled back at her “Sow!!”  Enraged, he thought how dare she call me a pig.  She was the one careening out of control.  However, he felt satisfied she did not pass without hearing his angry retort.  Then he promptly stepped on the accelerator and raced around the curve - and ran into the pig.  Joel Barker shared this story in his book “Paradigms, The Business of Discovering the Future.”  He explained that sometimes people would be yelling seemingly insulting things at you.  If you have paradigm paralysis, you will be offended, but if you have paradigm pliability, you will stop and listen for an opportunity.  Moreover, so it is with architecture and biomimicry.  Some people are unable to see any connection between the two, let alone any real success with architecture biomimicry. 

What is the proto-modern theory of architecture biomimicry all about?  Do not feel intimidated, even many college architecture students do not know about the subject of biomimicry.  Ecology and biology are not commonly thought about as key components or tools of architecture design.  At least, they are not like the well-known college degrees of computer engineering or bioengineering.  As a consolation, computer college degrees have only existed for a fraction of time compared to ecology, biology, and architecture.  Furthermore, some professional architects are unfamiliar with the scientific details about ecology and biology.  Correspondingly, ecologists and biologist know little about architecture design or construction.  As unexpected and seemingly unrelated as biomimicry and architecture may seem, this lack of knowledge about the other profession is one reason for this paper.  Even though architecture biomimicry comes with a high cost, it is a valuable tool because it fills a gap where some current standards fall short, and there are an increasing number of successful incorporations in architecture. 

First, as a point of clarification and context for any reader who is not familiar with architecture biomimicry, some definitions, and history are included here.  Biomimicry or biomimetics means “the study of the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances and materials … mechanisms and processes … especially for the purpose of synthesizing similar products by artificial mechanisms which mimic natural ones” (Merriam-Webster).  Michael Pawlyn suggests biomimicry means, “trying to learn from the way functions are delivered in nature” (Pawlyn).  Janine Benyus says, “Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) is a design discipline that seeks sustainable solutions by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, for example, a solar cell inspired by a leaf.  The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well adapted to life on earth over the long haul.  Biomimicry thinking helps create products and processes that:

·         Are sustainable – follow “Life’s Principles” and use life-friendly materials and processes, and enhance the bio-sphere  
·         Perform well – Nature has been vetting organisms and their strategies for 3.8 billion years … study the successful strategies of the survivors that thrived in their habitats
·         Save energy – like plants and animals - life tends to organize extremely energy-efficient designs and systems, optimizing energy use at every turn
·         Cut material costs – Nature builds to shape, because shape is cheap and material is expensive
·         Redefine and eliminate “waste” – mimicking how nature transitions materials and nutrients within a habitat (Ask Nature)

Finally, because of sustainability’s close relationship to architecture biomimicry, let us review the terms sustainability and architecture sustainability.  “In ecology, sustainability is how biological systems endure and remain diverse and productive” (Wikipedia Sustainability).  “Sustainable architecture is architecture that seeks to minimize the negative environmental impact of buildings by efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy, and development space” (Wikipedia Sustainable Architecture). 

From a historical perspective, the British writer Geoffrey Grigson first used the term biomorphism in 1935 (Grigson).  In addition, Alfred Barr used the term in Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936 (Barr).  However, this is not really the first consideration or observation of nature in architecture.  Although not the earliest, Leonardo Da Vinci (1452 – 1519) is famously remembered for a number of works and quotes about nature including, “Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are laboring in vain” (Haddock).  In addition, the famous architect Antoni Gaud√≠ (1852-1926) was known for his organic style inspired by his love of nature.  A wonderful example is “The nave in the Sagrada Familia with a hyperboloid vault.  Inspiration from nature is taken from a tree, as the pillar and branches symbolize trees rising up to the roof (Wikipedia Gaudi). 


More recently, Peder Anker’s 2005 article, “The closed world of ecological Architecture” in The Journal of Architecture, sheds some light on the history of ecology and biology relative to the culture of architecture. 
“In 1976 the architectural students at the University of Minnesota … [built] their own self-sustaining ecological house.  They named it ‘“Ouroboros” after a mythical dragon which survived by eating its own tail and faeces’.  This is a telling image of what ecological architecture came to be in the 1970s: a way of designing which fed on its own ideas and gradually closed itself off from developments in the rest of the architectural community.  Its followers sense of self-sufficiency resulted in a sect-design for the believers whose recycling of resources and ideas led to a lack of interest in an outside world simply described as ‘industrial’ and thus not worth listening to” (Anker). 

While architects were aware of ecological issues, Anker’s critique suggests that they were not ready to listen to biologists or ecologists.  Although the term architecture biomimicry is relatively new, by virtue of the above examples, it is clear that the understanding of the environment by some architects is not new. 

Another historical example is the January – March 2013, exhibit “Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Considerations in 20th Century Architecture, 1925 – 1970” (The Cooper Union).  “This exhibition was presented by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture and The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design” in New York.  It is an “analysis of the influence of nature and the environment in architecture design” (The Cooper Union).  The exhibit comprised an examination of twenty-five case studies and their “environmental strategies - long before they were commonly used in 21st century buildings” (The Cooper Union).  Kevin Bone’s forthcoming new book titled “Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture, 1925 – 1970” will be a welcomed edition covering this subject.  The exhibition and book will include but not be limited to the works of:

·         Le Corbrusier and Pierre Jeanneret ~ New Dwelling for Bordeaux
·         Oscar Niemeyer ~ Building for the Emprezas Graficas o Cruzeiro
·         Frank Lloyd Wright ~ Jacobs House I and Jacobs House II
·         Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell ~ Cocoon House
·         Jean Prouv√© ~ Maison Tropicale
·         Arne Jacobsen ~ Soholm 1
·         Alvar Aalto ~ Housing at Sunila Pulp Mill

What is the point of these two historical references?  Simply that concerns about the environment have existed for a long time before the post-modern crisis of global warming and our current understanding that American buildings use roughly 48% of our nation’s total energy, more than industry (24.4%) and transportation (28.1%) (Architecture 2030).  However, it is sad to think since 1925 or after almost 90 years, that sustainable architecture has not made more progress.  At the same time, it is good to see that architects have not given up and are trying again with architecture biomimicry. 

Biomimicry success comes with a high cost.  In April 2008, National Geographic’s Tom Mueller published the article, “Biomimetics: Design by Nature”.  He highlights many inspirational stories yet concluded with a candid reality check.  “For all the power of the biomimetics paradigm, and the brilliant people who practice it, bio-inspiration has led to surprisingly few mass-produced products and arguably only one household word—Velcro, which was invented in 1948 by Swiss chemist George de Mestral” (Mueller).  Scientists have yet to develop or industrialize several other highly advertised examples that Michael Pawlyn and Janine Benyus cite in their biomimicry speeches.  No one has matched the gecko lizard’s strong adhesion ability nor the strength of the abalone nanostructure, nor spider silk.  Several well-funded biotech companies have gone bankrupt trying.  Another reason why biomimetics is a gigantic challenge is that nature is staggeringly complex.  “To make the abalone’s shell so hard, 15 different proteins perform a carefully choreographed dance that several teams of top scientists have yet to comprehend” (Mueller).  Beyond the proteins of the spider’s silk, is the mystery of “600 spinning nozzles weave seven different kinds of silk into highly resilient configurations” (Mueller).  While there is always short-term expectations from venture capitalist, critics of architecture biomimicry have a solid argument because the fact is that research is time-consuming and expensive.  Consequently, some people feel it is useless for ecologist, biologist, and architects to collaborate and seek to discover new solutions, let alone establish standards and certifications.  Janine Benyus admits there are constraints.  However, she adds, people do not have to create a brand new product.  They can begin with short-term goals by modifying current products.  Janine optimistically responds, “Life taps the power of limits and like Picasso makes art out of taking things away” (Benyus).  Time and money will always be the trade-off to initiative and progress. 

Despite the fact that architecture biomimicry comes with a high cost, it is a valuable tool because it fills a gap where some current standards fall short.  More Federal and State government departments now require higher energy efficient standards in new public buildings.  New county and city laws plus actively revised civil construction and building codes are added to the issue.  For example the U.S. Department of Energy created the “Energy Independence & Security Act” that establishes new energy management goals and requirements to reduce energy consumption per gross square foot of Federal government buildings on an increasing scale from 2 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in 2015 (U.S.D.E.).  Building companies with architects and engineers are implementing these new high-energy standards with promotional marketing about the energy savings and positive financial return-on-investment benefits for both commercial and residential construction.  The general public homeowner is gradually becoming more knowledgeable about the reality of net-zero and passive energy homes plus the monthly savings and increased financial worth and marketability of these new homes, not to mention their improved living comforts.  This is definitely a bonus to society’s existing love of great architecture. 

While architecture has never been loved more, or more energy efficient, there is a very long list of competing products and standards, which have provided limited progressSeveral national and international high-efficiency energy standards are becoming common practice, but are in various stages of maturity, legalization, and development.  Regrettably, they are in serious conflict with each other.  Despite the fact that their overall goal is virtually the same, they share little unity between themselves or their community of followers. 

The most common of these standards include:
1.  Net-zero energy architecture
2.  Passivhaus Institute, (i.e., Passive House)
3.  Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ~ (USA)
4.   National Green Building Standard (Previously: ASNI-ICC 700)
5.   Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star ~ (USA)
6.   Home Energy Rating Index (HERS) developed by
7.   Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment
Method (BREEAM) ~ (United Kingdom)
8.   Comprehensive Assessment System for Building Environmental
Efficiency (CASBEE) ~ (Japan)
9.   GBTool (International)
10. Green Globes™ US ~ (Canada)

The length of this list in and of itself speaks to the conflict of values and misunderstanding about the definition of environmental efficiency standards.  There are no agreed-upon standards globally, not in any country, nor region, nor state.  Personal and political motives and incentives with a vast chasm of ethics abound within organizations and between competing groups.  Marketing and social popularity is unfortunately taking a front seat to science, perhaps because of the escalation of opposing scientific opinions.  There is little evidence of published reports that objectively compare these different standards, not by the company’s that represent the individual standards, nor by third party organizations.  Another reason for so many competing standards is probably the long time it takes for an organization to agree and make improvements to their owner standard.  Consequently, people simply start a new special interest group and create their own standard.  Economic and financial incentives are a key factor to a standard’s success and yet another reason for the conflict. 

In addition, most standards do not incorporate architecture biomimicry.  I have not recently reviewed the details of all these standards as a comparative analysis – this is outside the scope of this research paper.  Cradle-to-Cradle is now integrated as a Key Element of LEED.  However, it is unclear how integrated architecture biomimicry or The Biomimicry 3.8 Institute is with LEED.  This is not to pick on LEED anymore than Passive House Institute or Home Energy Rating Index (HERS).  In addition, to be objective and reiterated, each of these standards has a particular focus and intent, about which architecture biomimicry is not covered. 

Furthermore, some standards like “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” or LEED, based in the United States, have a history of law suits where scientists have proven that some LEED certified buildings are using more energy than their neighboring buildings which are many years older.  To their credit, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Council has updated its standard requirements to include post-occupancy monitoring and analysis to verify their certification standards.  Simultaneously, how can a new building earn a LEED certificate and be praised as “sustainable” when it cheats the system by building a football field of solar panels – the purpose for which is to maintain the exploitive use of the building’s electricity demand for large mechanical heating and cooling systems and more electric lights?  In other words, the building could have been more intelligently designed by an architect to take advantage of daylighting and natural air circulation.  A one-time cost of more insulation could reduce the size and frequent use of a mechanical heating and cooling system.  Whereas, a mechanical system has a certain end of life that will require purchasing a replacement.  Shaded windows by exterior awnings, louvers, or deciduous trees would reduce overheating from direct sunlight and the need for larger air conditioning system.  These are only a few examples, yet it is very clear that these standards fall short of honest building sustainability and environmental conservation.  Perhaps the standards themselves are not to blame, but it is our individual integrity.  Obviously we cannot create laws to compel everyone on every behavioral or construction detail.  Regardless, the facts surrounding these types of circumstances do not help our environment nor the building standards. 

What is different about architecture biomimicry compared to these standards?  Most standards are almost myopic in their focus on reducing fossil fuel energy consumption, or some other facet.  That is an excellent goal.  However, it is only a small fraction of the environmental and ecosystem problems caused by our current building methods and product manufacturing – much of which is poison, not biodegradable, nor recyclable.  “As William McDonough and Michael Braungart argue in their provocative, visionary book “Cradle-to-Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” … why not take nature itself as our model” (Braungart and McDonough)?  In addition to the above definition of architecture biomimicry, the short answer is “nature is the standard”.  In the words of Janine Benyus, biomimicry is “Consulting Nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor” (Benyus).  Architecture biomimicry is a valuable tool that fills the gap and builds a bridge between nature, people, and architecture where these other standards have limited effectiveness or fall short. 

The most important reason architecture biomimicry is a valuable tool is because there are an increasing number of successful implementations.  The following is a partial yet respectable list of successful products and solutions from several key sources that clearly show the positive results of discovery and invention between ecologist, biologist, and architects.  Let us begin at the University of California Berkeley College of Environmental Design 50th Anniversary: Visualizing the Future of Environmental Design.  Janine Benyus presented Biomimicry in the Build World: Consulting Nature as Model, Measure, and Mentor.  Here are some of her examples referenced from that transcript and the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute website,

“How do we use Mother Nature’s polymer architecture to think about new materials?  The natural world uses five very simple polymers to create everything.  Organisms take these very simple five building blocks and add design, structure, and architecture to matter.  Then they are able to recycle or upcycle that material into something else very easily” (Benyus, Sustainability in Seven: Janine Benyus on Biomimicry).  People have created 350 polymers or plastics that clog landfills because they are not recyclable nor biodegradable, and some are poisonous.  The challenge is to make products out of five polymers so that they are all less expensive and recyclable.  One company has taken on that challenge and has learned that all the colors in the peacock feather come from one color, brown.  The peacock feather colors are created by layered structures that bounce light back to create multiple colors to our eyes.  The company, Qualcomm created a new monitor with layered pixels that do the same thing with no backlighting and less power than traditional monitors.  Wow, that a great success story about architecture biomimicry. 

How does nature use co2 or Carbon dioxide?  Can you imagine making cement the way coral does it, out of thin air?  Organisms do not think carbon dioxide is a poison.  Sea coral thinks carbon dioxide is a building block.  Cement usually emits a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement manufactured.  Calera Carbon Sciences, a cement manufacturing company in the United States, used the coral reef recipe or blueprint and now uses carbon dioxide to make cement.  They take the waste product carbon dioxide out of smoke stakes, combine it with seawater, and make the raw materials for concrete or cement.  By this process, they are sequestering a half-ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of cement manufactured.  Concrete is the building material most used around the world.  Six to eight percent of all carbon dioxide comes from manufacturing concrete.  Obviously concrete is a vital element of buildings and architecture.  This is an excellent example of a successful and profitable incorporation of architecture biomimicry (Ask Nature). 

            Is water without wells possible through fog or water vapor harvesting?  The company, QinetiQ is using hydrophobic and hydrophilic squares next to each other to mimic the Namibian beetle that collects water from fog.  “Several prototypes of these beetle-inspired materials have been created thus far, and have shown to be more effective than "net harvesting" and other traditional methods for collecting water from fog” (Ask Nature). 

The architecture company Grimshaw, founded in 1980 is a pioneer of high-tech architecture.  Among a long list of successful projects, they are well known for the famous Eden Project, plus their design of the award winning Southern Cross railway station, recipient of the Royal Institute of British Architects Lubetkin Prize.  They are exploring the concept of surface structures that harvest water vapor from fog off the coast of Spain (Grimshaw Architects).  Though this work is still in the exploration stages, it is a good example how more companies are venturing to apply architecture biomimicry. 

Envision building structures with high strength yet without bulk or heavy weight.  MIT is developing materials and shapes based on the Toucan bird’s beak.  The Toucan has a very large beak that is lightweight with an amazing material to strength ratio.  “The Toucan's beak measures one-third the length of the bird but accounts for a mere one twentieth of its weight (Acta Mater.  2005, 53, 5281)” (Ask Nature).  This idea has direct implications to building structures of all types and therefore fully supports the theory of architecture biomimicry. 

Professor Claus Mattheck has studied tree biomechanics for thirty years.  He discovered that trees try to equalize stress along all surfaces.  He also discovered that human bones try to equalize stress by taking away material from areas where it is not needed and putting it where it is needed.  Mattheck created one software program to mimic trees and another software program for bones.  The results of both software programs were combined to optimize the structure for the Mercedes-Benzes concept car.  The structure of the car is a lightweight frame that uses a minimum amount of material to provide the maximum protection.  Building products and structures require earthquake stress tests and standards.  This example of structure optimization software based on biomimicry is further evidence of the value of architecture biomimicry. 

Professor Joanna Aizenberg from Harvard is a material scientist in the biomimetics world.  She studied the skeleton of a Sea Sponge to discover it has filaments that are like fiber optic waveguides.  She also studied the structure to discover it is very delicate yet very strong on many different levels.  Her team conducted a study and discovered the Sea Sponge uses seven construction methods currently used in building.  The structural elements of the Sea Sponge are unexpectedly similar to the Swiss Re building in London (Ask Nature).  In addition to structure, the possibility of transmitting daylight into interior spaces via fiber optics to reduce the need for electric lighting is another reason architecture biomimicry is advancing. 

Imagine living buildings that respond without motors.  Imagine buildings that are responsive and adaptive, and aware of the climate seasons: the height and direction of sunlight, the speed temperature and direction of the wind.  The building would automatically close the awnings or open the windows.  A building that responded like a leave or a flower that opens and closes in response to the sunlight would be the Holy Grail of architecture. 

            From, Design Will Save the World, Abigail Doan published an informative article about the Eastgate Centre in Africa.  Harare, Zimbabwe in Africa has an annual high temperature range from 70-83 degrees F.  This is low for the tropics because of its high 4,865 feet elevation and prevalence of cool southeast winds.  Nonetheless, can you imagine gigantic mid-rise building with no air-conditioning or heating system?  The Eastgate Centre has five-thousand-six-hundred square meters (5,600 m2) of rental space and twenty-six-thousand square meters (26,000 m2) of office space, plus parking for four-hundred and fifty (450) cars.  This is the country’s largest office and shopping complex recognized around the world as an “architecture marvel because of its use of biomimicry principles” (Doan).  Architect Mick Pearce and engineers from Arup Associates designed the Eastgate building mimicking the air circulation of tall aboveground self-cooling mounds of African termites.  While temperatures outside the mound range from 35 to 104 degrees F, the termites maintain an exact 87 degrees F required for their food supply of fungus to grow.  The building uses an astonishing 10% less energy than conventional buildings its size saving the owners $3.5 million dollars.  This savings has trickled down to the tenants whose rent is 20 percent lower than the cost of surrounding buildings.  The Prince Claus Award was given to Pearce in 2003 for his architecture design work on the Eastgate.  This is an exceptional and very profitable initiative about architecture biomimicry that “typifies the best of green architecture and ecologically sensitive adaptation” (Doan). 

Eastgate, Harare, Zimbabwe; Archnet.

On TED, Doris Kim Sung spoke about “Metal that breathes”.  She was a biology major before she studied architecture.  Imagine glass skyscrapers with spectacular views that use less energy to cool because of smart material shades that require no motors or human interaction.  Sung “works with thermo-bimetals, smart materials that act more like human skin, dynamically and responsively, and can shade a room from sun and self-ventilate” (Sung). 

Architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart joined to articulate a new manifesto of radical change, away from the current cradle-to-grave pattern and towards a Cradle-to-Cradle standard – which is a close relative to architecture biomimicry.  They explain why current methods and programs like "reduce reuse recycle" are really “Less Bad” which is “No Good”.  They discourage downcycling and encourage upcycling when a product that reaches its end of life.  Products or their minerals, become either "biological nutrients" that safely re-enter the environment, or "technical nutrients" that are recyclable and remain within closed-loop industrial cycles.  More importantly, they practice what they preach.  Their book is not made of paper, but safe synthetics created from plastic resins and inorganic elements that are upcyclable.  In addition, to help other companies reach the high the Cradle-to-Cradle standard, McDonough and Braungart analyzed thousands of chemicals down to parts-per-million and identified 38 safe chemicals for manufacturing.  They published their findings so designers can make products that are people and ecological healthy.  Furthermore, McDonough cites product and buildings examples that follow the Cradle-to-Cradle principles.  A company takes back its worn out carpet and remanufactures it into new carpet.  Nike offers shoes that are polyester and recyclable plus the souls are biodegradable.  They designed a building in Oberlin College that makes more energy than it uses.  They saved Ford 35 million by designing a new manufacturing plant with a green roof and imitating nature’s water purification process.  To be objective, Peder Anker criticized William McDonough’s Ford building because it used poor materials that did not reach the high Cradle-to-Cradle standards.  Finally, the president of China commissioned McDonough’s company to design twelve Cradle-to-Cradle ecological and biological cities.  Some goals include making sure everybody in the city will have fresh air and clean water, direct sunlight in every apartment at some point during the day, plus everyone will be within a five-minute walk of mobility.  In addition, the cities will utilize completely recycled sewage in a fertilizer factory to make their own natural gas. 

These examples provide ample evidence to articulate how ecologists, biologists, and architects have collaboratively discovered new and profitable products and building solutions.  These examples represent more than hope, they are positive progress and profitable results. 

In conclusion, you can see that although architecture biomimicry comes with a high cost, it is a valuable tool for two main reasons.  First, it fills a gap where some current methods have limited effectiveness or fall short and do not solve the root cause to our building problems and natural ecosystem.  Second and most importantly, there are an increasing number of successful implementations.  So what are you going to do about it now?  People have been asking this question in every field of science and engineering for centuries.  However, that is not the right question.  The question is: What is impossible to do, but if it could be done, would fundamentally advance architecture (Barker)? 

In the context of all this information regarding the good and bad points about the theory of architecture biomimicry, starting with the “Pig” and “Sow” name-calling, I submit the choice of what you hear is up to you.  Will you utilize the tool of architecture biomimicry or ignore it.  Finally, ponder this insightful thought from Albert Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them” (Wikiquote). 


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Barker, Joel. Paradigms, The Business of Discovering the Future. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. April 2014.

Barr, Alfred H. Cubism and abstract art: painting, sculpture, constructions, photography, architecture, industrial art, theatre, films, posters, typography. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1936. <>.

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Michael P. Rybin~۩~
Architecture is a wonderful life ™
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