Buildings inspired by nature

One of the most fascinating ideas in the world of sustainability is biomimicry—the notion that we can design products, services, systems and processes to look more like nature. In nature, nothing is wasted. Everything is sustainable. And efficiency has been driven by 3.8 billion years of evolution.

Recently, HOK, one of the world’s big architectural firms, formed an alliance with the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Janine Benyus, the guru of biomimicry. They’ll work together to explore the question of how nature can help us better design buildings, neighborhoods and cities. Their work is the topic of today’s Sustainability column.

Here’s how the column begins:

What if the outside of a building worked more like a leaf?

About 30 years ago, a German botanist named Wilhelm Barthlott noticed the bumpy structure of the leaves of the lotus plant, which clean themselves by forcing rainwater to bead, collect dirt and wash it away. He patented what is now called the “Lotus-Effect” and licensed it to manufacturers of self-cleaning paints, glass and roofing tiles, which are used in thousands of buildings in Europe.

This is an example of biomimicry, an emerging discipline that draws inspiration from nature to design new products, systems, and buildings – even cities and towns.

The term was coined by science writer Janine Benyus in a 1997 book, Biomimicry, and lately it has become a hot topic in corporate America. General Electric, General Mills and Kraft Foods have all turned to the Biomimicry Guild, a consulting firm led by Benyus, for help as they design new products. Now she has struck a deal with HOK, one of the world’s biggest and most influential architectural firms, to see what biomimicry can do for buildings.

Janine Benyus spoke about biomimicry last April at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm: Green conference about business and the environment, and she was a big hit. I’m hoping to organize a panel for the 2009 edition of Brainstorm: Green about products inspired by nature, like the Speedo bathing suit influenced by shark skin and worn by Michael Phelps, below.

You can read the rest of the column here.


  1. says

    The sobering thought about “biomimicry” is how difficult it is for human beings to be able to conceive and create designs that have evolved through eons-long prototypying in the natural world. Sometimes people create value with biomimicry (eg. the inventor of Velcro who was inspired by burrs that caught in his dog’s hair). Other times…

  2. Darren Toth says

    I cannot think of a better place for us to pull our designs from than nature. From the structural integrity of the honeycomb to the streamline shape of a fish, or the insulating layers of a bird’s wing, we have been using the world’s example to improve our lives all along.
    I think it’s fascinating that buildings and homes are still built based on artistic styles and eras rather than the needs of the environment. Why are buildings in Tornado Alley not designed to lift wind around them, with fewer flat surfaces that resist against the wind?
    Nature is the ultimate engine, and if humans resist the vanity of our “superiority” over nature, we just might learn enough from our Environment to advance.

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