Innovation inspired by nature

Written by Melissa Estable

February 25, 2016

Biomimicry brings together nature and technology in an exciting blend of human ingenuity and observation of nature. 

Biomimicry is a practice that invites us to value what nature can show us and apply it to our own design problems.  Nature has about 3.8 billion years of research and development, so if we wish to live in harmony with our planet, we are well-advised to build on that expertise.

“It’s learning to live gracefully on this planet by consciously emulating life’s genius. It’s not really technology or biology; it’s the technology of biology.  It’s making a fiber like a spider, or lassoing the sun’s energy like a leaf.”   Janine M. Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

The premise is simple: life creates conditions conducive to life, resilient and adaptive, let’s aim for the same.  All organisms on earth are facing the same “how-to’s” we face:

  1. How to capture energy?
  2. How to regulate temperature?
  3. How to make life-friendly materials?
  4. How to cycle materials within a system?
  5. How to make byproducts and waste disappear into systems?

From termite mounds to a mid-rise masterpiece.

By learning from and emulating nature’s genius, people worldwide are designing solutions that make great leaps towards earth-friendly products, systems and buildings.  One of my favorite examples of a biomimetic building is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. 

Temperatures in the subtropical highland climate of Harare swing from 7 to 28 degrees depending on time of year.  To take a biomimetic approach, the design team took a noun and made it into a verb.  Rather than asking ‘do we use an air conditioner?’ They asked, ‘how can we regulate temperature?’  And then observed the surrounding nature for solutions.  With this question and observation, the concept for the building was born.

Termites have been passively cooling their homes since they took up a diet of bacteria.  The variety that grows on rotting wood.  Their mounds need to be kept within a very slim temperature margin to keep their food alive. Dead bacteria are neither tasty nor nutritious, so the genius termites have designed a breeze-catching mound with a series of flues and vents to keep their homes just right.  The termites regulate airflow and temperature by opening and closing tunnels throughout the day.

By applying this concept to the Eastgate Centre, the building’s energy costs are reduced by 35% as compared to a comparable air-conditioned building in Harare and the capital cost for the ventilation was 90% less!


From the principles of Biomimicry below, which does Eastgate Centre use?

  1. Readily available materials and energy;
  2. Multi-functional design;
  3. Resource and material efficient design;
  4. Cycle all materials;
  5. Life-friendly chemistry;
  6. Locally attuned and responsive;
  7. Embody resilience through variation, redundancy and decentralization;
  8. Cultivate cooperative relationships: find value through win-win interactions.

Follow this link to discover more about biomimicry.

Harare is a long way from Ottawa.  What local observations might we make to assist in our projects?  How can we challenge ourselves to propel homebuilding to the next level of earth-friendly design?

Melissa Estable

Project Manager

February 25, 2016