Desiree Izecksohn
Sreeja Raghunathan
Built Environment
Circle Economy’s
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Lessons from nature: how biomimicry can help us ‘build back better’ and shape a sustainable built environment

Humanity’s got big sustainability problems with the built environment. Nature’s got many of the solutions.

This article was originally published by GreenBiz.

Nature has had 3.8 billion years to learn not only what works, but what works best. Mimicking the natural world to solve the complexities and challenges of the built environment isn’t new: we’ve let nature guide and inspire design and architecture for millenia, from ancient Indian rock-cut architecture in 6000 BCE to gothic cathedrals. Now, attention is turning to biomimicry once again for its sustainability benefits: with growing realisation of how urbanisation, industrialisation, and unfettered economic growth are impacting our world, we’re looking to nature for solutions. 

Our current way of building is material-intensive and polluting—it’s responsible for around one-quarter of land system change and 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, for example, and barrels past multiple planetary boundaries. And we’re not slowing down anytime soon: on a global scale, we’re building up an area the size of Paris each week. Amidst all this growth, we need to think smarter. The latest IPCC report issued yet another dire warning, and calls out the critical role of the built environment in climate change mitigation. The industry has the power to shape a more resilient, nature-positive economy, and nature can show us how: from the city level to the building design level to the material and component level, there’s a wealth of examples from which to learn.

Cities for the future: biomimetic design at the city level

The Mobius project's futuristic-looking greenhouse showcases just what cities need now: a way to manage a city’s infrastructure system—from waste treatment to the water system, for example—through a closed-loop circular economy approach. Iguana Architects, the project’s creator, modelled this after the oak tree, which is one of nature’s brilliant examples that has the potential to reuse its output resources such as materials, energy and water therefore acting as a closed-loop system and conserving resources. By mimicking a natural ecosystem, Mobius rethinks water treatment, energy generation and waste management.  Biological waste, for example, is turned into locally grown food, cutting down on the food miles—or it’s turned into methane to generate electricity for the greenhouse. 

Computer model for the Mobius project. Source: Iguana architects website

Many cities struggle to plant their own food, especially those in drier regions. While the desert has long been thought of as lifeless, the Sahara Forest Project is trying to create life in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Once again, nature had many lessons: researchers studied how the Namibian fog-basking beetle has always survived in such an arid environment, finding that it attracts and collects water droplets from fog and wind to drink. The beetle’s hydrophilic shell allows it to survive in a climate that only receives one centimetre of water per year. Based on this finding, the idea of the seawater-cooled greenhouse was born. 

That’s not all—solar panels were also arranged to receive light reflected from a mirror to harvest the sun’s power at an exponential rate. Exploration, the architectural firm behind this project, created a one hectare pilot project—such a success that they claim that ‘a facility with 60 hectares of greenhouses could provide all the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines currently imported into Qatar.’ The project has now been scaled and successfully implemented in Jordan and Tunisia. 

Computer model of the vision for the Sahara Forest Project. Source: Exploration architecture website

Single creatures may have a lot to teach us, but so do entire ecosystems. Inspired by the concept of ecological succession, in which the structure of a biological community evolves over time, Jan Kudlicka and his team came up with a plan to regenerate the low-income Rio settlement favela da Rocinha. His plan: organising the region in vertical levels, with the ground floor for stores, medical offices and other services, the middle layer for living, and the rooftops destined for playgrounds, open air cinema and gardens. This optimises the use of space in a crowded area that cannot grow out but must grow ‘up’, as space is limited by the mountains above and the city below. The project also seeks to regenerate the structure of existing buildings instead of tearing them down to build new ones—thus saving on materials and minimising pollution. 

At the first level is the zone for services, in the middle the living area, and above the recreation zone. Source: issuu website

Biomimetic buildings: how nature has inspired centuries of architecture

Renowned architects—from Antonio Gaudi (1852–1926) to Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) to Frei Otto (1925–2015)—have drawn inspiration from nature when dreaming up their buildings. Even the Eiffel Tower is said to have been based on the structure of the human femur. Biomimicry has been on architects' minds for a while, but now it is being explored at a new level.  

Recently, inspiration has been garnered from something that appears fragile at first glance. The Eden project, a giant greenhouse inspired by the biblical Garden of Eden, was designed to resemble soap bubbles—optimally positioned in the sun to allow for complete self-heating. Dragonfly wings served as inspiration for the best way to assemble pieces of steel—allowing for a lightweight structure that required fewer carbon emissions to transport from place to place. 

The Eden Project, which was inspired by soap bubbles. Source: Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

Lightweighting is a primary concern in designing the built environment: doing more with less. While hemp and bamboo are stand-out options, we can also draw inspiration from the abalone shell. Chemically, its composition is similar to that of blackboard chalk, although there’s a key structural difference between the two—the manner in which the shell’s calcium carbonate discs are layered make the formation 3,000 times stronger. By mimicking the discs, we can create strong structures with half the volume of materials, reducing the need for virgin materials in construction. Inspired by these abalone discs, scientists are working towards developing bendable concrete that can extend infrastructure’s service life while reducing costs. Nature is an ingenious engineer! 

The abalone-shell inspired design by Exploration Architecture. Source: Exploration Architecture website

Biomimicry for building materials: zooming in to the microscopic level

We can narrow down to a microscopic level to learn which other tricks nature has up her sleeve. The lotus leaf, for example, boasts tiny hairs covered with a waxy coating that allows it to stay dry. The lotus leaf’s structure has inspired a protective coating for external areas that is water—and dirt—repellent, decreasing buildings’ need for maintenance. When it rains, the droplets just roll off, picking up dirt on the way down. This decreases the need for protective finishings, which are usually toxic and can be harsh on the environment. 

Lotus leaves are water repellent. Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

Limestone-producing bacteria have also served as inspiration to cut maintenance costs by millions of euros while extending buildings’ lifespans. Hendrick Jonkers, a researcher from TU Delft, was fascinated by the way bones regenerate themselves after being broken, and wanted to translate this into regeneration in the built environment. He discovered that certain bacteria can produce limestone, filling the gaps and cracks that affect concrete structures over time. 

Self healing concrete containing bacteria. Image: UCL, Institute of Making/Robert Eagle via flickr  

From the micro to macro level, nature has the power to inspire

Nature can be used to guide urban planning for sustainable cities, shape individual buildings and even act as a muse for material innovation. We already have an expansive library of solutions—we just have to roll them out at scale.

Given the built environment’s impact, it’s time to get serious about building in a way that harmonises with, rather than harms, nature. While biomimetic design is definitely not the holy grail towards achieving a regenerative built environment, it could become a source of inspiration. We like to think of ourselves as the most intelligent species—but Mother Earth has many more years of experience and she is happy to share her free intellectual property. 

Learn more

At Circle Economy, we believe that it is essential to design a built environment that regenerates and restores the natural environment. We advise cities around the world on how to adopt and apply frameworks for a circular and regenerative economy. Read our report on The Amsterdam City Doughnut: A tool for transformative action to find out more. If you would like to work with us, don’t hesitate to send a message through our website

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