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How nature is changing architecture

Going back to our roots with bionics

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Every day we encounter objects that are inspired by bionics, perhaps without even realising it. Like the Velcro fastening on a jacket, whose little hooks are modelled on the burrs of the burdock plant. Or the grip of a car tyre – which is based on a cat’s paws. But it’s not just on a small scale that nature is a source of ideas for many an innovation. Numerous buildings have also been inspired by nature’s ingenuity. Find out how bionics is transforming architecture and what opportunities this opens up for a more sustainable future in our article.

The honeycomb facade of The Broad in Los Angeles An exterior facade inspired by the honeycomb structure of a beehive: Bionics is a fusion of architecture and nature that provides new possibilities for more sustainable construction. (Photo: Julien Moreau, Unsplash) 

Bionics in architecture – what’s behind it?

The term “bionics” is a combination of BIOlogy and electroNICS. Originally applied to electronic engineering, it now refers to imitating nature’s designs in all fields of engineering and technology. The idea is to abstract a natural function and use it to solve challenges. Architecture also makes use of the biological construction plans that evolution has been developing for millions and millions of years. One example is an innovative facade shading that took its idea from the petals of the South African bird-of-paradise flower. Another is the turtle’s shell, which has served since the 1920s as the model for a roof construction that has a remarkable load-bearing capacity despite having no beams or supports. The goal is usually the same: a sophisticated construction that saves as many resources as possible.

Three buildings inspired by bionics

Captivating bionic constructions can be found in a number of metropolises around the world. We’ve picked out three examples that are modelled on the fauna and flora of the natural kingdom:

Eiffel Tower, Paris: Admittedly, when you are standing right in front of it, the Parisian landmark doesn’t exactly bring its source of inspiration to mind. Or do you find yourself thinking of a human thigh bone when you see this French icon? From an anatomical perspective, the secret lies inside the femur, where a multitude of hollow spaces are separated by teeny-tiny bones known as “trabeculae”, meaning “small beams”. The advantage: The construction is lighter but still robust – just like the Eiffel Tower. Its steel beams fulfil the same purpose as trabeculae. And they are the source of an amazing fun fact: If the tower were melted down, it would measure just a few metres tall.

Olympic Stadium, Munich: One look at it and you make the connection. The 74,800 m2 tent roof of Munich’s Olympic Stadium really does resemble a spider’s web. But instead of strands of silk, it is formed of a mesh of steel cables tensioned between 58 steel masts. This design makes the structure a prestige project in the field of bionic architecture. Spiders’ webs were selected as the model because of their resistance to wear, which enables them to withstand enormous compressive and tensile forces.

Eastgate Centre, Zimbabwe: A termite mound as the model for a giant shopping centre and office complex? If the analogy sounds difficult to grasp, there is one thing you should know: Termites are experts at ventilating their ornate constructions. Air circulates in termite mounds via countless small holes that release warm air and draw in a cold breeze. For Mick Pearce, the architect who designed the Eastgate Centre, this was the ideal prototype for his insulation and ventilation system. Instead of inserting numerous small holes, he allows his complex to “breathe” through small air shafts and chimneys, thereby providing natural cooling.

Interior view of the Eiffel Tower

Built like a human thigh bone: The Eiffel Tower is made up of countless steel beams and ranks among the best-known bionic structures. (Photo: David Ortega, Pexels)

Bionics in homebuilding?

Large-scale projects inspired by nature appear one after another, but what about bionic homes? It’s a question some people are sure to ask when they consider urban housing developments. One reason is that bio-inspired architecture is still not widely practised. Due to time-consuming and complex planning permission requirements, bionic solutions still rarely set the tone in homebuilding. Yet the mass production of buildings has the potential to contribute enormously to reaching climate targets.

And alternatives to concrete would be a great place to start, given that its production accounts for a significant proportion of global CO2 emissions. More sustainable construction materials such as branched fibre-reinforced composite systems – modelled on the dragon tree – make a good filling material that reduces the quantity of concrete processed by 20–30% if lightweight concrete is used. Cassava root peel is another possible contender for an environmentally friendly construction material . When burnt, its ash can serve as a sustainable alternative to cement due to its high proportion of reactive silicon dioxide. This hard substance can withstand chemical attacks and weathering. If it’s a question of providing efficient thermal insulation for buildings with glass facades, the facade shading mentioned above is an option.

Forward-looking by nature

Requiring extremely low quantities of materials, lightweight and performing well in an environmental life-cycle assessment, bionic construction methods have the capacity to sustainably transform our architecture. They are an invitation to question and rethink established processes. But this can’t be achieved with each specialist field working alone. An interdisciplinary approach is vital: Physicists, biologists and other natural scientists must come together with architects and engineers and collaborate. This is the only way to research nature’s inexhaustible wealth of ideas holistically and apply the most innovative solutions in architecture.

By the way, it’s not just nature that is bursting with ideas. Exciting trends – in particular from the interiors industry – are lined up for you at the imm Spring Edition from 4 to 7 June 2023. Secure your ticket now .