Biomimicry is an approach to design that looks to foster sustainability by emulating nature’s tried-and-true solutions. The word biomimicry traces its roots to the Greek words “bios”, which means life and “mimesis”, which means imitate. The idea behind biomimicry is simple: Nature has already solved a myriad of the problems that we are facing now, so why not use that to our advantage? There really is no need to “reinvent the wheel” or create a solution when there is already a working solution in place, so why do it? With billions of years of experience, microbes, foliage, and the world’s animal life have proven themselves the ultimate engineers. They have already determined what works and what doesn’t – creating long term solutions that work in tandem within their various ecosystems; the epitome of sustainable design1.
Levels of biomimicry
There are three levels of biomimicry that can be achieved:
Level one: mimicking natural form – At this level, you’re not necessarily creating something sustainable, but mimicking shapes, patterns, textures, colours, etc.; replicating specific organic components without addressing how that organism functions or responds to and interacts with the wider world.
Level two: mimicking natural process – The second stage of biomimicry goes beyond form and looks at how that form is made, mimicking movement and articulation. This level of biomimicry looks at the organism as a system with specific behaviours.
Level three: mimicking natural ecosystem – In this third stage, design takes the whole ecosystem into account; looking beyond the organism and its behaviours to mimic how it interacts with the wider world.2
Differentiating between biomimicry and other bio processes
Biomimicry is the mimicking of an organism; it is not harvesting, extracting or domesticating one. By looking at other bio processes, you can begin to discern the difference.
Bio-utilisation is the harvesting or extracting of a natural product; you’re using the organism, you’re not learning from it. For instance, if you use a natural sea sponge to bath with, that isn’t biomimicry. That sea sponge might or might not have been harvested sustainably, and you’re not really learning anything from it or using its form or process as inspiration for design. You’re just using a sponge that happens to be a natural versus man-made.
If you make a bio-inspired fabric using green chemistry, but you have workers weaving it in a sweatshop, loading it onto pollution-spewing trucks, and shipping it long distances, you’ve missed the point. Janine Benyus, A Biomimicry Primer
Bio-assisted is when we domesticate organisms for a purpose: to assist us with a task or process or to harvest them later. Waste water treatment plants use bacteria to help clean the water, cows are domesticated to provide us with milk, and fish farms allow us to harvest fish for food without having to source them from [often overfished] natural bodies of water. As with bio-utilisation, bio-assisted can be sustainable or not. For instance, genetically engineering cows or goats to produce more milk or bacteria to be more efficient cleaners is not sustainable design while allowing organisms to evolve through natural breeding is.
With biomimicry, you are not harvesting, extracting or domesticating, you are borrowing an idea, a formula, and/or a design. In an interview with treehugger.com, American natural sciences writer and biomimicry champion Janine Benyus uses mother of pearl as an example. An incredibly tough substance that surpasses even the highest tech ceramics, mother of pearl is formed inside an abalone at ocean temperatures; it does not need to be baked at high temperatures in a kiln. Using a bio-utilisation approach, we would just harvest the abalone for what’s inside; we’d take it from the ocean, crack its shell, and take the mother of pearl.
Adopting a bio-assisted method, we would farm (domesticate) the abalone in order to harvest it later. With biomimicry, we would study the design of the abalone and try to learn its formula for mother of pearl. With this approach, we get our super tough material, and the abalone gets to remain alive, unthreatened and in its natural habitat.3
Examples of biomimicry in action
Velcro and the sticker burr
One of the most well-known examples of biomimicry in action is Velcro, something that I personally have a love-hate relationship with. Velcro is the invention of George Mestral, a Swiss engineer who came up with the idea in 1941 whilst picking burrs out of his dog’s coat. Mestral noticed that each spine on the burr had a tiny hook that caught and held onto anything with a loop formation.4 This observation translated into the pairing of two fabric strips – one with hooks, the other with loops – and the creation of Velcro Industries.5
Turbines and the whale fin
In 2004, the US Naval Academy joined with Duke University scientists to study whales, specifically the effect that the bumps on the front edge of their fins had on their powerful movements and ability to manoeuvre efficiently, dive to deep depths, and remain there for hours. What they discovered was that the bumps serve to reduce drag (by 32%) and increase lift (by 8%). This knowledge has been used to create more efficient wind turbines, cooling fans, and airplane propellers and wings.6
Paint and the lotus leaf
Lotus leaves, which typically reside in muddy areas, are known for their ability to stay clean whilst expending minimal energy to do so. They accomplish this via a bumpy surface that uses wind and rain to remove any dirt and debris naturally. Since water cannot effectively adhere to the rougher surface, it forms droplets, which then attract dirt particles. A minor shift in wind direction or the effects of a rain shower alter the angle of the plant and gravity takes over. The droplets fall off of the plant, taking the dirt with it. This self-cleaning ability has been the inspiration for several surface finishes, including paint, glass and textiles, reducing the need for labour-intensive cleaning and even eliminating the need for harsh chemicals.7
Examples of biomimicry in architecture
The Gherkin, London
Despite its name, London’s Gherkin was not inspired by a pickle but rather a deep sea sponge called a Venus Flower Basket. Translating the sponge’s natural ability to filter water and nutrients, the Gherkin’s designers use gaps in the building’s floor to create shafts that allow air to be held in-between two layers of exterior glass, providing natural insulation to the building and reducing energy consumption by almost 50% when compared to similar buildings.8
Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s Eastgate Centre takes its cue from a rather unusual source: a termite den. With temperatures in Zimbabwe ranging from -1 degrees to over 40, the country’s termites have managed to create structures that remain a steady 30 degrees all year round, night and day – creating a very comfortable dwelling for the resident termites. Using this example of natural temperature control, architect Mick Pearce designed a 333,000 square-foot facility that uses 90% less energy than traditional builds. Just like in a termite den, Eastgate Centre uses large chimneys to draw in cool air at night, lowering floor slab temperature, which is retained during the hotter daylight hours, thus reducing the need for mechanical air conditioning. 9
Dives in Misericordia Church, Rome, Italy
Dives in Misericordia Church near Rome features a self-cleaning concrete that keeps it a beautiful white colour. Produced in the early 1990s by Italcementi Group, the concrete uses photocatalytic particles to oxidise atmospheric pollutants. The inspiration for the concrete came from, at least in part, self-cleaning plants. Over time, the self-cleaning design has resulted in not only keeping the building beautiful, but significantly reducing maintenance and repair costs.10
The agricultural living filtration system
University of Oregon landscape architecture students developed a living filtration system that mimics the filtration, sequestration and symbiotic behaviours in a variety of natural systems: earthworm, small intestine villi, soil biotic cycle, and wetlands characteristics. The closed loop drainage system uses micro-organisms to retain nutrients that would otherwise run off with excess water, providing both additional nutrition for the plants and eliminating one cause of eutrophication. The system is sustainable, and it requires minimal maintenance once installed.11
Information and application
Founded in 2006 in the US, the Biomimicry Institute promotes learning from and emulating nature’s form, processes and ecosystems within the built environment as well as other, varied applications.
When founded, the Institute’s first course of action was to approach and work with educators and informal learning environments like zoos and museums to integrate biomimicry into the educational system; teaching tomorrow’s architects, designers and creators to instinctually turn to nature for inspiration when undertaking any new project. Then, in 2008, they launched the free, open source AskNature website , which assists current practitioners as well as students to find, study and be inspired by nature in their sustainable design efforts. Most recently, in 2014, Biomimicry 3.8 – an experimental shared brand created in 2010 – became a for-profit consultancy that helps support the work of the not-for-profit Institute.
Our mission is to train, equip and connect engineers, educators, architects, designers, business leaders, and other innovators to sustainably emulate nature's 3.8 billion years of brilliant designs and strategies. About, Biomimicry 3.8
The benefits of biomimicry in the built environment
An article on biomimicry.org sets out the many benefits of biomimicry in the built environment according to value area: design, project, and community. This includes:
- Nurturing natural curiosity, which enhances a designer’s ability to offer new, sustainable solutions to age old problems.
- Encouraging practitioners to look beyond form to process and how nature’s design works in and with the wider environment, fitting form to function using materials that adapt well to their ecosystem.
- Boosting creativity (and productivity) by allowing more room to ‘play’. Psychological studies confirm that the ability to go outdoors and spend time amongst nature makes for happier, healthier human beings, and that translates into better creative thinking and enhanced productivity.
- Prompting the question, “How would nature do it?” when problem solving which, in turn, promotes brainstorming, innovative thinking, and finding sustainable solutions.
- Addressing multiple issues with one solution. Nature tends to get the most out of its tools. (For instance, bird feathers can serve a variety of purposes: aviation support, camouflage, mate attraction, communication, sensory enhancement, UV protection, and water repulsion.)12
- Adapting versus fighting. As we have advanced technologically, humans have moved away from embracing nature to working against it. By doing this, we have created the myriad of problems that we face now.
- Emulating ecosystems via city design. By studying the natural ecosystem, we can design streets, natural areas like parks, buildings, and water areas to perform in the same way as is found in nature. Benefits include: creating healthy habitats, mitigating flooding and harvesting water, confiscating carbon and producing cleaner energy.
- Thinking collaboratively. How do smaller systems fit into larger ones and how can they work together to reserve energy, share resources, and lower costs?
- Embodying flexibility. Our planet is the best example of flexibility and resilient design. It has been able to modify and diversify its systems to adapt to changes and disturbances over billions of years.
The future of sustainable environmental design
As the world’s population continues to urbanise, the planning and design of sustainable, resource-efficient, resilient cities is becoming an imperative. Biomimicry is a promising, viable and sustainable solution to the challenges we face; after all, nature has had 3.8 billion years of innovation to get it right.
However, designers and planners cannot do it alone. We need to turn to universities, scientists and biologists, as well as others who champion biomimicry in order to create regenerative environments that are aware, responsive and adaptable.
Taking our cue from the world’s most consummate engineers – her plants, animals, and microbes – and from the world herself in her resiliency is the natural next step to accomplishing true sustainability in the built environment.
This article has been edited and repurposed from “Biomimicry, taking our cue from the consumate engineers”, written for the Construction Information Service.
- Benyus, J. (2009) Biomimicry in action.
- Biomimetic architecture, three levels of mimicry (2016) in Wikipedia.
- Biomimicry in architecture (2016)
- Group, B. (2014) Biomimicry 3.8.
- GROUP, N.C. (2016a) 7 amazing examples of biomimicry.
- GROUP, N.C. (2016b) 7 amazing examples of biomimicry.
- Institute, T.B. (2008) Surface allows self-cleaning: Sacred lotus.
- Institute, T.B. (2015) What is Biomimicry? – Biomimicry institute.
- Institute, T.B. (2016) The Biomimicry institute – inspiring sustainable innovation.
- Khudiyev, T. (2014) ‘Biomimicry of multifunctional nanostructures in the neck feathers of mallard (Anas platyrhynchos L.) drakes’,Scientific Reports, 4, p. 4718. doi: 10.1038/srep04718.
- Lesson three: Three levels of biomimicry (no date) Available at:
- Mok, K. (2008) Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in design on TH radio (part One).
- Mok, K. (2009) Janine Benyus on Biomimicry in design on TH radio (part Two).
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- Stecker, T. and ClimateWire (2016) ‘Artificial leaf’ might provide easy, mobile energy.
- The living filtration system (2015)
- Velcro (2016) in Wikipedia.
- Vierra, S., Assoc, Design, L.Ap. and Services, E. (2016) Biomimicry: Designing to model nature.
- Wong, K. (2015) Biomimicry: Using nature’s designs to transform agriculture.
- Ziehl-Abegg (2011) AskNature.
- Sustainable Buildings and Infrastructure: Paths to the Future - Annie R. Pearce, Young Han Ahn and HammiGlobal
- Biomimicry in Architecture (2nd Edition) - Michael Pawlyn