In the search for sustainable building design and technology, 'biomimicry' is a term we hear with increasing frequency. But as a concept, it is often misunderstood. The use of nature as a sourcebook has long been a motif and driving force in architecture, producing majestic works of architecture from Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal and Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax building to the esoteric realm Le Corbusier. But the contemporary concept of biomimicry stands distinct from the majority of references to the natural world: far from simply viewing nature as a source for unconventional forms, it looks to nature for its function.

Biomimicry is about solutions. Biological organisms, refined and developed by natural selection over a 3.8 billion year research and development period, can be seen as embodying technologies, functions, and systems that are solutions to the problem of surviving in nature. These problems are often equivalent to those encountered by humans as we seek new ways to design and live sustainably, and in many cases have solved the same problems with a far greater economy of means.

RIBA Publishing's new book, Biomimicry in Architecture, to be published in September of this year, is aimed at architects, urban designers and product designers, revealing how radical increases in resource efficiency can be achieved by looking to the natural world for inspiration. Topics covered include structural efficiency, water efficiency, zero-waste systems, thermal environment, energy supply and biomimetic cities, while biological examples include rainforest ecosystems, the Namibian fog-basking beetle and other animals and plants that survive in the desert, the giant Amazon water lily, animal skeletons and bladderfish – each with fascinating technological tricks and adaptations that can be applied to the buildings we are designing today.

In a short article there is little room to expand on how these can be used to practical effect in design. Instead, here are some general rules about design-led thinking, distilled from the world of biomimicry:

  • General
    • Learn to collaborate which means knowing enough about other disciplines to ask the right questions. There are no shortcuts here.
  • Aim for radical increases in resource efficiency
    • Define challenges in functional terms and then see how that function is delivered in biology
    • Use BioTRIZ to develop as yet unknown solutions
    • Rethink the problem from first principles and optimise the whole system
    • Put the material in the right place (use efficient overall structural forms and individual elements that use shape and hierarchy to maximum effect)
    • Design in a way that is both adapted to the specifics of the location and adaptable to changing conditions
    • Look for 'free' sources of energy (the steady temperature of the ground, the cool temperature of deep seawater, reliable wind direction, etc.)
    • Design out functions that use energy, through improved information flows
    • If the ideal solution is prevented by the brief then you will need to apply a lever higher up in the chain of influence
  • Shift from linear to closed loop systems
    • Look at under-utilised resources as an opportunity rather than a problem – add elements to the system that transform waste into value
    • Widen the system boundaries and connect with resource flows in adjoining schemes
    • Look for synergies between technologies by assessing the inputs and outputs of each
    • Reconsider conventional approaches to resource ownership and explore opportunities for leasing services rather than purchasing products.
  • Shift from a fossil-fuel economy to a solar economy
    • Develop a plan for running the scheme on current solar income with numbers that add up
    • Think about opportunities for buildings to become net producers of energy rather than net consumers
    • To get the economics of solar energy to stack, offset the cost by fully integrating the systems so that they are part of the skin or structure of the building rather than separate elements
    • Fossil fuels should be used for making high performance materials, not burning.

It could be argued that biomimicry is the logical conclusion of a shift that has gone from attempting to conquer nature, then trying to preserve it and now striving for a reconciliation in which, using biomimetic principles, we can retain the many wonderful things that civilisation has developed but rethink the things that have proved to be poorly adapted to the long term. Biomimicry, therefore, should be central to sustainable thinking.