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Hey, Don't Copy Me!: Integrating Biomimetics into Sustainable Design

Dallas, TX
Beijing National Stadium, inspired by science and natural phenomenon and geometry
Beijing National Stadium

The two-century old La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Beijing National Stadium in Beijing. The Esplanade Theatre in Singapore. The Gherkin in London. Marvelous pieces of architecture used for a variety of purposes; these splendid spectacles represent the pinnacle of human achievement, a merger of man and nature. For centuries, humans have looked to the natural world for inspiration in architecture. While those in the past primarily sought out artistic inspiration, artists and scientists nowadays seek out nature for its sustainable designs, pioneering a new field: biomimetics.


Integrating biomimetics into sustainable design involves mimicking natural properties and natural processes to improve the sustainability of architectural engineering, such as energy efficiency, water conservation, and the use of renewable resources. Using sustainable design—and maximizing it with inspiration from nature—allows for valuable resources to be preserved for use in future generations. Integrating biomimetics into sustainable design also improves the health and well-being of the building’s inhabitants by contributing to clean air and natural lighting. Finally, the effects of climate change can be decreased with more efficient use of energy resources, brought on by mimicking nature in architectural designs.


One of the most notable early figures in biomimetics was Leonardo da Vinci, who lived during the mid-15th century. His studies on birds and flight led to some of the earliest sketches of flying machines and airplanes. Later, in the early-20th century, Otto Schmitt termed the word “biomimetic”, and he was subsequently inspired by biological processes to make electronics and telephones. Then, in 1997, Janine Benyus published the groundbreaking book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” in which she described her research into biomimetics’s potential in solving societal issues and advocated for the closer working relationship between scientists and designers. Examples of such innovations include Velcro (inspired by burrs), self-cleaning surfaces (inspired by lotus leaves’ water- and dust-repellent surfaces), bullet trains (inspired by a kingfisher’s beak), and water bottles (inspired by desert beetle body shapes). 


Biomimicry has also been applied on a much larger scale, constituting the foundation for many urban projects. For example, the Eden Project in the United Kingdom involves building bio-domes inspired by the structure and properties of soap bubbles and pollen grains. These bio-domes sought to connect nature with people in order to foster more environmental awareness and to reclaim polluted/damaged lands. Another example are the WhalePower wind turbines, in which the blade designs were made more efficient, by being shaped to mimic humpback whale flippers.


While biomimetics has already been implemented in the real world (as shown with the aforementioned examples), fulfilling biomimetics' full potential requires overcoming many technical and economic challenges, such as, researching how to translate natural designs and processes into something tangible and reproducible. There is an additional need for greater interdisciplinary collaboration between biologists, physicists, engineers, designers, and advertisers to achieve a more harmonious balance between practicality and scalability. Current trends in integrating biomimetics into sustainable design include designing buildings that can adapt and self-repair in response to environmental changes such as changing temperatures, humidity, and wind direction. Scientists have also conducted considerable research into the symbiosis present within natural systems to figure how to more seamlessly integrate human architectural designs into nature to help mitigate the drastic effects humans can have on the natural landscape.


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