From the Greek words bios (“life”) and mimesis (“imitate”), biomimicry is a form of study that seeks to integrate processes and patterns present in nature into designs and methods that serve as answers to man’s problems in different fields such as architecture, agriculture, and electronics. This concept sees various organisms- - animals, plants, insects, and the like- - as the Earth’s ultimate “engineers”, seeing as how they unknowingly struggled to figure out what works for the environment for 3.8 billion years. In line with this, concepts learned through biomimicry find their application in built environments through biomimetic architecture. In this discipline, architects adopt the behaviour promoted by biomimicry by analysing nature and its many inhabitants - - be they animals, plants, ecosystems, or whatnot- - and incorporating how these organisms respond to and live with their environments into solutions for structure-related problems.
In its practice, biomimetic architecture occurs on three different levels: The organism level, the behaviour level, and the ecosystem level. The level to which biomimicry is manifested doesn’t stop here though, since it can occur in terms of its form (the building’s appearance), its material (the building’s structural components), its construction (the process through which the structure was built), its process (the building’s way of working), and its function (the building’s capabilities).
Several forms of biomimetic architecture have occurred over the years. One early example is the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in Barcelona, Spain. Regarded as beautiful and hideous by many of its contemporaries, the structure was the creation of Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish architect who, inspired by his deep faith, decided to pay homage to God by creating structures that reflected His work: Nature. In doing so, he observed that nature made use of components that were tough and resilient, like wood and muscle, and opted to manifest its many features with curves instead of rigid, straight lines. With these ideas in mind, he began work on the Sagrada Familia, a project handed down to him from another architect. This exchange allowed Gaudi to revolutionize a cathedral based on old-fashioned neo-Gothic styles, with the transformation continuing to this day. Presenting the early stages of biomimetic architecture, the cathedral contained nature-inspired features such as staircases constructed as spirals, catenary arches, and roofs resembling cones. These roofs, designed to imitate the shape of the Magnolia leaf, had waves that allowed the transport of rainwater and less material due to their thinness and strength. Also, its tree-inspired columns made use of hyperbolic paraboloids as their bases, allowing the weight of the roof to be distributed evenly and adding to their overall strength.
A more recent example of this manifestation of biomimicry is the Eastgate Centre, a commercial building constructed in Harare, Zimbabwe. Began in 1991, the project was given by the Old Mutual investment group to Mick Pearce, a Zimbabwean architect, with the intention of it becoming the largest of its kind in the country. With this, however, came the problem of paying large amounts of money in order to provide ventilation for all of its 55000 square meters. Thus, it was up to Pearce to figure out how to do so while utilizing inert, sustainable climate control. Teaming up with Arup Associates, the solution came to him in the form of a system modelled after the ventilation produced in the mounds of Macrotermes michaelseni, termites found in his country. Sheltering a sizeable number of termites, along with other organisms such as fungi, a mound was usually very large, much taller than the insects that constructed it, so as to ensure its being able to reach the wind. The air was then able to pass through the pores of its penetrable outer layer and to travel to the inhabitants of the mound, creating an environment where cool temperatures were maintained while the outside environment experienced temperatures between 3 degrees Celsius and 42 degrees Celsius. In effect, oxygen was being pushed into the structure and carbon dioxide was being pressed out of it through pressure from the air outside the mound. Pearce mimicked this system by creating a building that depended on masonry-insulation. The permeability of the mounds was imitated by piercing spaces with ductwork that transported air into the structure, and chimneys that accumulated heat from the building’s inhabitants and equipment during the daytime in order to preserve a cool environment for the evenings were also incorporated. The structure also made use of soil around the building and concrete slabs in storing heat, particularly for warming up evenings that were cold.
As biomimetic architecture and biomimicry continue to be developed, nature becomes a central character in innovation, serving as a source of new ideas and working hand-in-hand with humanity in solving problems. Likewise, this correspondence with our environment allows us to become more in-tune with our surroundings, encouraging us to seek out more ways of preserving its sustainability. In the end, nature and man-made creations find their innovative and mind-blowing union in biomimicry.
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