HVAC systems based on termite mounds can slash energy costs.

1 October 2013 — The greatest innovations of the 21st century will happen through the intersection of biology and technology. Biomimicry, a new science that studies nature’s models to solve human problems, and biophilic urbanism, the addition of ecosystems to urban environments, will drive this stream of innovation. It will revolutionise architecture, the building of cities and sustainable design.

Biophilic urbanism

Biophilic urbanism could transform city planning around the world. Biophilia, or “love of our living systems”, creates planning schemes that bring landscaping both into and onto buildings, walls, roads and concrete watercourses. Nature is incorporated into every element of the built environment. Benefits include the cooling of cities which prevents the heat island effect, reduced stormwater surges, as rain slows down in the same way that it does in a forest; reduced energy needs in buildings, due to the mantle of insulation from plant life, improved biodiversity and improved health.

Singapore is leading the way. In this paper, Peter Newman from Curtin University looks at lessons we can draw from Singapore. Its Streetscape Greenery Master Plan creates a “seamless green mantle” throughout the island with five distinctive landscape treatments based on ecosystem types: parkway treatment, gateway treatment, coastal treatment, forest treatment and rural treatment.

The Park Connector Network is an island-wide network of linear parks that connect major green areas and destinations. There are plans to have over 300 kilometres of green connectors throughout the whole island by 2015. That would make it possible to walk or bicycle around Singapore by travelling through the parks.

Singapore’s Public Utilities Board looks after stormwater and it has built concrete canals across the city to maximise flood management. As part of this biophilic trend, they are integrating water bodies and canals with parks and green spaces. The ABC (Active, Beautiful, Clean) master plan aims to enable water treatment as soon as the water touches the ground.

Newman says density in cities actually creates more opportunities for this sort of innovation.

“The importance of Singapore’s biophilic urbanism is that it illustrates the possibility of dense cities being able to regenerate natural systems and create far more natural urban systems. It is, in fact, already doing this both between buildings and all over buildings, using the existing structures to create new urban ecosystems never considered possible before… the positive element of biophilic urbanism is that dense cities with high-rise buildings can perhaps provide even more opportunities to build biophilic urban ecosystems than low-density suburbia, due to their extra habitat opportunities from high walls and flat roofs. This is a big issue, as the global planning world has generally recognised the need for increased densities to prevent car-dependent urban sprawl with all its oil, climate, health and economic implications.”

There are other examples around the world. The General Mills headquarters in Minneapolis, which has many trees, a lot of natural daylight and extensive amounts of natural ventilation through operable windows, and Kerry Foods in Wisconsin, where management has extended the company’s space into the landscape. In the front of the building, the floor to ceiling glass, especially on the ground floor, brings in the patterns from the outside landscape to the inside.

Public housing in Slovenia based on a honeycomb structure.


In an interview with entrepreneur, writer and strategist on sustainable business, Joel Makower, non-profit institute Bimimicry 3.8 founder Janine Benyus said biomimicry could transform cities. It forces builders, architects and developers to look at locations differently.

Benyus says: “We look at the place where a development or a city is being built, even just a building, and we say, ‘Okay, what is the ecological story of this place? What are its realities? Is it a fire regime? Does it get four seasons? Is the Achilles heel of this place that it’s got water scarcity, it’s about to lose its aquifer?’ Believe it or not, for most architects and builders and developers, that is something that gets skipped over. They know the solar angle. They may know what kind of soil they’re going to put their building into. But that’s about it. They don’t really know what makes the place tick and what could flip the place into losing its resilience.”

There are many examples of biomimicry. One is office buildings modelled on termite dens. Mick Pearce, an architect in Harare, Zimbabwe, studied the cooling chimneys and tunnels of termite dens. He applied those lessons to the 333,000 square-foot Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe, which uses 90 per cent less energy to heat and cool than traditional buildings. The building has large chimneys that naturally draw in cool air at night to lower the temperature of the floor slabs, just like termite dens.

He also used it for the Council House 2 building in Melbourne. As explained here, the heating, ventilation and cooling system is designed with strategies taken from a termite mound. In the termite mound, the cool wind is drawn into the base of the mound, via channels. The air warms and flows upwards and out of the mound via vents. This gives the mound a stable temperature. CH2 uses natural convection, ventilation stacks, thermal mass, phase change material and water for cooling. Another strategy used taken from nature is its skin system – the building skin. The façade is composed of an “epidermis” (outer skin) and “dermis” (inner skin). The dermis of the building consists of the outside zone to house the stairs, lifts, ducts, balconies, sun screens and foliage with the inner line defining the extent of the “fire compartment”. The dermis was designed with lightweight materials using a steel frame. The epidermis provides the micro-environment including the primary sun and glare control for the building while creating a semi-enclosed micro-environment.

Another is Velcro, which was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1955. He removed burrs from his dog and decided to take a closer look at how they worked. The small hooks found at the end of the burr needles inspired him to create Velcro, which is now found everywhere.

Researchers at Stanford have come up with the idea of saving airline fuel by getting planes to fly like birds. The research found that when a bird flaps its wings it creates a current known as an upwash; essentially, air lifts up and rises round the tips of the wings as they flap. Other birds, flying in the first one’s wake, experience an updraft, allowing them to fly further. Getting planes to fly in formation in a V-shape could use 15 per cent less fuel compared to flying solo.

A German company, Ispso, has developed a kind of paint that has a microstructure layer similar to a lotus leaf. It’s extremely rough, but it’s a fine structure that barely allows dust and dirt particles to stick to the surface. One rain shower washes it all away, which means the buildings are “self-cleaning”. Also, buildings don’t stay wet long, which means they are less likely to become breeding ground for microorganisms and fungus, which can do serious damage. The first lotus-like paint product was launched by Ipso in 1999 under the trade name Lotusan. Worldwide annual sales are now over $100 million.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a technology that takes water out of the air based on the Stenocara beetle in the Namib Desert of Africa. They found that tiny superhydrophilic bumps on the back of the beetle gathered moisture out of the wisps of morning fog. The water droplets then slipped off the bumps into superhydrophobic channels and rolled into the beetle’s mouth.

A company called Whalepower has developed a fan and wind turbine blade design using Tubercle Technology. This was inspired by the flippers of humpback whales, which have tubercles or bumps on the edges. It has greater lift, creates less drag, stalls at a high angle of attack and is nearly silent.

Surfaces mimicking sharkskin are used to build the bottom of boats. Created by a computer, the design is modelled after sharks’ placoid scales, which have a rectangular base embedded in the skin with tiny spines or bristles that poke up from the surface that prevent things from attaching to the shark’s skin. It’s a design that prevents algae and barnacles from growing on boats. Getting rid of barnacles and other organisms mean less cleaning. You also cut fuel costs when you don’t have to drag all that extra weight.

So what’s the difference between biomimicry and biophilia?

Simple really. Biophilia is the recognition that humans have an affinity to nature and its elements. Using that, we can create more liveable cities. Biomimicry on the other hand incorporates the actual processes of nature into products to avail ourselves of the chemistry, physics or biology of nature in our developed uses.

But as Philip Silva from Cornell University points out, the possibilities for urban planning are endless when you bring them together.

“All cities rely on technology,’’ Silva writes. “Their infrastructures are a complex tangle of human life-support systems, and like any cluster of technologies, they may be made more sustainable through biomimcry. We might think of ‘green infrastructure’ as low-hanging fruit; a kind of first pass, low-tech approach to biomimcry for urban technology. Instead of re-engineering a sewage treatment plant to function like a wetland, just create a wetland. In the process, you’ve created a place for humans to experience a biological system within the city. Green infrastructures are where the concepts of biomimicry and biophilia overlap.

“However, there remain countless technologies and industrial materials that don’t readily lend themselves to a green infrastructure alternative, all of them integral to the daily function of contemporary cities. Moreover, in dense mega-cities, green infrastructure may not be able to carry the burden of tens of millions of people, and you’d be hard pressed to plunk down a wetland in the middle of Manhattan. In these instances, it seems to me, biomimicry trumps biophilia. Build a sewage treatment plant, and design it to function as much like a wetland as possible, drawing on whatever science tells us about how wetlands work. The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s a continuum of feasibility that needs to be appreciated.”

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