Architecture is going back to its roots, taking inspiration from the natural world to create innovative designs. Biomimetic architecture is emerging as the industry's future, drawing inspiration from nature itself.
With modern technologies like computational design and 3D printing, biomimicry is enabling architects to create efficient, sustainable and aesthetically stunning buildings. Here’s an overview of the trend and its impact on building design and performance.
What Is Biomimicry and Biomimetic Architecture?
Biomimicry is all about finding solutions to design challenges in nature and translating them into artificial, built environments. Nature has perfected efficient design in plants and animals through millennia of evolution. The way bones, branches and natural structures are formed can tell scientists, engineers and designers a lot about how artificial structures could be improved. Biomimetic design is used in various fields, such as robotics, biomedical engineering and architecture.
Biomimetic architecture applies this practice to buildings. It can manifest in countless ways, some of which might be surprising. For example, a building in Zimbabwe uses ventilation technology inspired by termite mounds. Similarly, the way things like tree branches and shells form can give designers ultra-efficient solutions to many architectural problems.
How Has Architecture Embraced Biomimicry?
Until recently, biomimicry was difficult to truly achieve in architecture. Nature has evolved to be extremely efficient and innovative, but natural structures are also highly complex. Modern technologies like 3D printing and computational design allow architects to fully take advantage of what they have learned from nature. These tools can harness its complexity and apply it to built environments.
There is a growing number of stunning biomimetic buildings in the world. Sometimes they take structural inspiration from nature, but other times biomimicry is used in more technical features, such as heating and ventilation.
One great example is a building in Hamburg, Germany, that uses an adaptive algae bioskin to control heat and shade. The sides of the building are fitted with special glass panes containing microalgae. The algae respond to sunlight levels, growing more when the sun is brighter and retreating when it is dimmer. This naturally adjusts the translucence of the glass to keep interiors cool and properly shaded. Meanwhile, the algae itself can be harvested to produce biogas that heats the building’s water.
For an incredible example of structural biomimicry, look no further than the Esplanade Theatres at the Bay at the Singapore Arts Centre. This building is modeled after the durian fruit, taking a similar shape and engineering. Architects wanted the structure to offer a great view of the surrounding city while maintaining a comfortable interior environment in the hot, humid climate.
This was achieved using an exterior made of shields that adjust throughout the day in line with the sun’s path overhead. The shields and the shell they form were generated through complex computer modeling, which is becoming increasingly common in biomimetic design.
Environmental Benefits of Biomimetic Design
Biomimetic design is just as good for the environment as it is for architecture. The world is likely to see more biomimicry, with sustainability and natural inspiration emerging as top trends in design. Buildings that utilize biomimicry often also prioritize green building design principles, bringing these two movements together.
By nature, biomimetic design is more sustainable than traditional methods because of its emphasis on efficiency. Biomimetic architects may often be found asking, “how can I achieve this with minimal materials?”
Technologies like computational design help them apply what they learn from nature to create structures that use the minimum amount of materials needed to meet their goals. Responsible use of resources is an important tenet of green building design.
Additionally, biomimetic design frequently focuses on energy-efficient heating and cooling strategies. Achieving truly sustainable design requires prioritizing responsible energy usage and minimizing emissions. The algae-powered building in Hamburg is a great example of how biomimetic architecture can implement renewable energy sources into buildings. Hopefully, more structures will incorporate similar strategies in the future.
Challenges of Biomimetic Architecture
Biomimetic design is complex in and of itself. It requires a grasp of several fields, including biology, botany, engineering, design and architecture. People working in biomimicry have to be highly creative and willing to approach design with an open mind. The results are often atypical compared to traditional architecture, which tends to be more angular and block-like.
Beyond conceptualization, perhaps the greatest challenge in biomimetic architecture is actually building the structures. This has held back the field somewhat because construction technology simply did not exist until recently that was capable of creating these complex structures. Computational and generative design have helped advance the conceptual stage of biomimetic architecture, while 3D printing has done the same for the building phase.
Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, has recently emerged as the future of construction. In fact, the world’s biggest neighborhood of 3D printed houses is set to break ground in 2022 in Austin, Texas. This technology can create structures rapidly and achieve shapes that would be difficult to make with traditional construction. A stunning example of this in practice is NASA’s design for a 3D printed Mars habitat, featuring an egg-like exterior and a hive-like interior.
While these advancements are exciting, 3D printed construction has not quite come of age yet. The technology still needs to be refined, optimized and scaled further to truly take off. For now, biomimetic architecture still relies largely on traditional construction methods, which can limit possibilities to some extent.
Bridging Nature and Architecture
The future of architecture lies in sustainable, innovative design. Biomimicry is the key to evolving in a way that benefits humans and the environment. It is inclusive of multiple disciplines, generating collaboration that brings beauty and creativity to the sustainable designs of tomorrow.