Because the natural world around us has been evolving for literally hundreds of millions of years, it has developed some remarkable innovations for coping with the everyday problems of simply existing. The biological world is no exception. Living things, be they plant, animal, or something else, have developed some very clever ways of adapting to their environments. Humans are finally starting to learn these lessons and are calling this study “biomimicry.”
One of the most commonly cited examples of the success of biomimicry in the field of architecture today seems to be the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Designed by architect Mick Pearce, it uses an innovative technique for cooling the building without the need for traditional mechanical air conditioning equipment. Mick is said to have gotten the inspiration for his design from studies which had been done to determine how termites are able to maintain a constant temperature within their mounds despite widely fluctuating outdoor temperatures.
Although the success of the Eastgate Centre is commendable, the architectural community needs to study the lessons offered by nature much more seriously. When one examines many of the architectural works offered as examples of biomimicry, one often finds that an attempt to emulate nature has fallen short of true innovation, and has simply been used to justify a visually unusual design. This is not what biomimicry is supposed to do.
There are many areas in which architects could benefit from a serious study of living things. Take spider webs, for example. Granted, the material is phenomenally strong, but it is also extremely thin. If it were not for the way in which the spider constructed the web, it would not have the amazing strength that it does. It would seem that this could be a lesson when using any structural element in tension. Perhaps it would be useful to have someone with biological expertise involved in the design of any building aspiring to use biomimicry. Better yet, perhaps it would be useful to have that type of expertise involved in (at least the early stages of) every building’s planning to determine whether biomimicry could in fact be applied to the project. Nature has many lessons to teach us; we only need to pay attention.