From beehives to banana slugs, how animals influence design

From the night-time rests weaved by chimpanzees, to the papery nests hornets build, some animals are genetically and chemically inclined to build living spaces from the materials around them. Termites and ants, for example, secrete pheromones into materials that prompt others from their colony to add more material to the existing construction.

Animals’ architectural accomplishments vary dramatically- wasps build oval nests from paper, termites towering mounds from soil and sand, and weaver birds fragile nests from dry twigs. All are examples of excellent space optimisation, and impressively, some animal constructions are comparable in scale to the tallest skyscrapers.

As animals build microbially healthy environments, designed to foster social interaction and adapt to the changing climate, it is no surprise that when developing sustainable design solutions, architects can learn something from how animals construct their living spaces.

Chimpanzee rest. Image credits: Joey Verge

Beehives have excellent microbiological conditions, due to bee’s antibacterial secretions, which provide clean environments for their community to thrive. The hexagonal interior of a hive is mathematically perfect, an aesthetic that has been mimicked by various architects-  Luca Curci Architects ‘Organic Cities’ project, for example. In Organic Cities, the beehive-like buildings are linked to parks and roads; designed to support a healthy lifestyle; championing the development of social connections and a sense of neighbourhood.

Organic Cities. Image credits: Luca Curci Architects

Organic Cities. Image credits: Luca Curci Architects

Termite nests house thousands of creatures in tiny sections inside the construction. Each mound is designed to hold a large amount of moisture and kept at a regular temperature which keeps the insects healthy. The structure is made from porous walls for ventilation, allowing a copious amount of oxygen into the mound.

Termite Mound. Image credits: Dinesh Valke 

Mirroring the efficient constructions that termites build, some buildings are based on their structure; built with porous materials to allow to the building to ‘breathe freely’ and increase energy efficiency. One example is the EastGate Centre- an office and shopping complex in Zimbabwe, designed by Mick Pearce. The building has a ventilation system similar to a termite mound- air on the outside is either warmed or cooled depending on the temperature of the building.

EastGate Centre. Image credits: David Brazier

Via proto-architectural biometric design and knowledge of the biological properties of skin, surface material can be created that mimics the properties of animal skin, resulting in sustainable buildings which change according to the environment.

A conceptual research project which illustrates this growing interest is ‘Biomimetic Envelopes’ - an experimental program undertaken by graduates from the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Here, the students proposed facades inspired by the biology of various animal skin. 

The skin of the banana slug, also known as ariolimax columbianus inspired designers Astri Bang and Maya Alam to design a porous homeostatic protective material which when placed on the roof of a building, collects rainwater. A rigid material made up of inflatable air and water cushions, the material is designed to change according to the level of light and humidity within the space.

Banana slug. Image credits: Southern California Insitute of Architecture 

Banana slug. Image credits: Thomas Schoch

The urania moth uses its vibrant wing colour for communication. Influenced by this, designers Benedetta Frati and Nir Zarfaty proposed a material covered in bottles that changes colour when enough water is collected. Within each bottle, the water is purified and due to the various angles of light refraction upon the building’s facade, the colour of the building indicates when water is available for drinking.

 Urania moth. Image credits: Southern California Insitute of Architecture 

 Urania moth. Image credits: Charles J Sharp

The skin of the side-blotched lizard, also known as uta stansburiana inspired graduates, Yuan Yuan and Juan San Pedro to develop a material that has interconnected scale-like panels on its surface. The duo proposed photovoltaic panels which alter orientation via a flexible membrane. The interconnected panels regulate heat and keep the building at a constant temperature- a sustainable solution which increases energy efficiency within the building.

Side-blotched lizard. Image credits: Southern California Insitute of Architecture

Side-blotched lizard. Image credits: Jarek Tuszynski 

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