Biomimicry: does nature hold the key to sustainable design?

Michael Pawlyn believes in the power of biomimcry, which entails copying natural phenomenon and adapting it for man-made products. Pawlyn introduces this new term by comparing the silk that is spun by spiders, which simply and minimally requires the input of water and dead flies, to the comparable man-made aramid fiber, which requires the input of extreme pressures and loads of pollution. “It does suggest we’ve still got a bit to learn,” Pawlyn says. His recent TED talk described the potential of using biology and nature as a blueprint for architecture and design. My favorite quote from his talk states:

“You could look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion-year research and development period. And given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it.”

Pawlyn gives references several examples to back up this claim of using nature’s billion-year R&D to our advantage. Among others, he believes we can imitate the design of giant Amazon water-lilies to develop super-efficient roof structures, and build super-lightweight bridges inspired by plant cells. Pawlyn claims that there are 3 solutions that biomimicry can help us achieve:

1. Radical increases in resource efficiency.

2. Shifting our wasteful, polluting way of using resources to a closed loop model.

3. Changing our fossil fuel based-economy to a solar powered-based economy.


1. Resource Efficiency

He cites The Eden Project as a successful prototypic project of the future of biomimicry. The Eden Project involved the construction of a large greenhouse on a foundation that was on unequal grounds. The natural inspiration, soap bubbles, gave a building form that would work regardless of final foundation levels. Drawing additional inspiration from pollen grains, carbon molecules, and radiolaria, the team devised the plan of using hexagons and pentagons as a structure.The hexagons and pentagon panels couldn’t be made of glass because of its weight, so the team used a material known as ETFE, which could be manafactured in units seven-times the size of glass and still be stable. This material is one percent the weight of glass in comparable sizes, so the team made factor 100 savings. At the end of the project the overlying structure actually weighed less than the air that was contained inside it.

2. Closed-loop cycles

Closed-loop cycles describe the phenomenon in nature where particular elements recycle in a process so there is no actual resulting “waste.” An example is the carbon cycle, which looks something like this:

Pawlyn cites the Cardboard to Caviar Project by Graham Wiles as a success story of the real-world application of the imitationof closed-loop cycles. The project worked something like this: restaurants were producing lots of cardboard waste, this waste was in turn shredded and sent to equestrian centers for use as bedding, when that was soiled they were collected again and put into worm re-composting systems. This re-composting system produced lots of worms which were thus fed to Siberian Sturgeon, which produced caviar. Thus the cycle repeats in an infinite loop, a self-sustainable system that eliminates waste by imitating the dynamic cycles that we take for granted everyday.

3. Striving away from a fossil-fuel based economy

Lastly, Pawlyn discusses the Sahara Forest Project, which involves the reforestation of the Sahara, which thousands of years ago, was actually a completely forested area. Vegetation poses an invariably strong influence on local climates, and as vegetation began spreading hundreds of millions of years ago, the benign climate that we enjoy today developed as no coincidence.

The solution to desertificationis inspired by the Nambian fog basking beetle. This little fellow has adapted, over millions of years of evolution,to survive in desert climates, which have little water. How does it do this? At nighttime it’s jet-black shell radiates heat, enabling it to be relatively cooler than the surrounding temperature. Additionally, the beetle has bumps on its shell with waxy finishes in between, effectively making its shell hydrophillic (attracting water). After waiting the whole night for moisture to collect, the beetle tips its shell forward and drinks the collected water, which is enough to sustain it until the next night.

The Seawater Greenhouse Project used the inspiration from the ingenuity of the beetle to design a sustainable prototype for the reforestation of deserts. This is the way it works: the structure hasa wall of evaporator grills, seawater is trickled so the wind blows through, picks up the moisture, and is cooled in the process. Leaving the inside of the greenhouse to be cool and moist, meaning the plants require less water to grow. At the back of the greenhouse the water is condensed into freshwater in a process identical to the Nambian beetle. The result of this process concluded with excess amounts of fresh water being produced. This excess fresh water was spread around the local desert and after a year of the project being in action, the surrounding area had already begun to show signs of reforestation.

Additionally, concentrated solar power (CSP) requires a supply of freshwater to run, and is most effective in desert climates. The Greenhouse Project’s supply of freshwater an obvious solution to the production of CSP. We receive 10,000 times more energy from the sun than the total combined amount of all forms of energy consumed in a year. This fact alone serves to illustrate the great potential of solar power.


These 3 potential solutions that biomimcry can offer us are very promising. Projects like these, time and time again, keep pointing to sustainability, recycling/reusing, and green energy as staples of the future of design and architecture.

No longer is sustainability just a little word for politicians to throw around to round up extra votes and businesses to brush off as if it isn’t their responsibility. This growing movement of “green” design, architecture–green everything–is a full-fledged counter-culture and is gaining a following as more and more people become aware of the current circumstances. These changes are critical and vital to the well-being of society, preservation of nature, and the betterment of our global economy and politics.

Because once we release our dependence to fossil fuels and make these technologies more widespread, global conflicts and suffering will undoubtedly be positively affected by these changes.


About maxhasan

Student currently pursuing an economics degree at BU.
This entry was posted in Alternative Energy, Biomimicry, Eco-Innovations, Green Architecture, TED Talks and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Biomimicry: does nature hold the key to sustainable design?

  1. Pingback: House Blueprints - House 19148 plan

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