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Nilay Akbas, Author

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Two Modes of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is a design field that seeks to find answers to human problems by imitating nature. Biology as its the main concept, it looks for ways to adapt nature’s function into design which is mostly referred as “biology to design approach”. The term was created by Janine Benyus who described biomimicry as mimicking form and processes in the natural eco system and creating ways for transforming these into design projects.

That nature is considered as a primary concept for design is not a new approach. In the history of architecture we can often witness that mimesis of nature was believed to be the main criteria of reaching or searching for perfect form, because perfect form could only be found in nature and the only way architects could achieve perfect form was by imitating nature. Not so far from this perception, biomimicry starts with the same concept of “using nature’s genius in architecture”. However, it does not only imitate or mimic the nature for the creation of form. It also aims to study and analyze nature’s working system to create an adaptation of a new design system that results in more efficient and effective structures. In biomimicry, nature is only perceived as an inspiration and source which is based on understanding and researching nature’s function. Therefore, the most important part is translating these findings to design by creation of form and a working system.  There are different modes of biomimicry that start with this very same goal, but significantly differ in the process and the end result. Therefore, one mode of biomimicry becomes superior to another. The two most significant and different modes of biomimicry in architecture are the studies of sustainability and biodigital architecture.

Michael Pawlyn is one of the lead researchers on biomimicry in architecture that focuses on the sustainability studies. He is directly inspired by the studies of Janine Benyus and how architecture can use biomimicry as a guiding principle. His research concentrates on “unique, efficient structures of natural organisms and how they may translate through design” (Rosenfield, 2011). His research and projects attempt to resolve human problems by focusing on building efficient structures, manufacturing materials, creating zero waste system, managing water, controlling thermal environment, and producing energy for buildings. To explain his approach to biomimicry and his focus on sustainability, Eden project is a significant example of his work to analyze. It is also critical, because it provides the possibility to evaluate his project outcomes in relation to his sustainability stand that he takes in the field of biomimicry.


Eden Project is mostly referred as a “living theatre of people and plants” which is designed as a center for sustainable education (Murry, 2010). It is one of the largest greenhouses in the world. Michael Pawlyn explains that his design idea and inspiration was based on the study of dragonfly wings and on the design imitation of this small creature that he “gained inspiration from the vision of the entire project as a showcase for global biodiversity”. The site is an old (Kaolinite) mining quarry which was actively used/quarried during the design process. Therefore, his design proposal needed to have a structure that could be built, despite the change in ground levels. By analyzing nature, they discovered that the best solution would be to have a “bubble-like domes” in different sizes that can expand through the landscape. Their efforts on effective ways to create this structure were discovered by the search from nature and that “the most effective way to create a spherical surface is by using geodesics (hexagons and pentagons)”.  A result of these bubble like domes was series of hexagons that were welded and then inflated (Eco Brooklyn Inc., 2012). The design of Geodesic form was first proposed and patented by Richard Buckminister Fuller in 1954.

For designing and building the biomes he wanted to adapt nature’s one of most important function which is a closed loop system through creating a cyclical consumption of food and waste. He achieved his purpose by creating carbon neutral green design that is more efficient and less costly. The key element in his design was the use of Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) which is an insulating polymer that replaces the use of glass and plastic. Even though it is lighter than glass and costs 1/3 of glass, it is a very strong material. (Eco Brooklyn Inc, 2012). The transparent EFTE material can transmit UV lights in order to provide the required heating for plants in each biome. The material provides the possibility to set each biome in optimum heating that can be warm, temperate or humid (Murry, 2010).

Another mode of biomimicry is the biodigital architecture, and one of the lead researchers in this field is Dennis Dollens.  His focus is on digitally-growing structure, space, surface, & components, and he researches on biodesign and bioarchitecture’s role as a part of nature. His approach to bomimicry is very similar to Michael Pawlyn but his process of design is very different. His projects are based on a software that enables embedding nature’s intelligence (nature’s function) to buildings/building components by translating the organic and “regenerative processes” of natural world. His studies on “biodigital” take biological principles (naturally occurring) to create a computer algorithms which are used to generate architectural forms. One of the main ongoing projects that he worked with this technique is based on the structural integrity of branching trees (Brennen, 2010). This study serves to be the base for his other biodigital projects/researches. Also, it is critical to analyze this project in order to understand his approach to biomimicry and observe the project outcomes in relation to other modes of biomimicry.

Branching trees study started by developing variety of digital models of branching system. This study is followed by series of scripts/algorithms that could generate models of branching; later these scripts and digital models were used to design a branching building that eliminates the structural deficiencies of cantilevered systems. His study of form and designs are developed by using software called Xfrog (Arkinet, 2009). This software allows “digitally growing” new types of structures based on the developed algorithms.

The BioTower is a recent project developed as an idea from the ongoing studies on structural efficiencies of branching trees that are explained above. Further studies of the branching system in this project resulted with the “branch matrix that can functions as sensor nodes with leaf-cluster systems for air filtration & ventilation, sound baffling and heat-light control” (Arkinet, 2009).

Even though these two explained modes of biomimicry in their very own cores try to adapt or embed nature’s function into their design, their processes of adapting nature are very different. These different processes lead to different project outcomes. First of all, sustainability studies give more effective results due to their concept of building and construction methodology. The studies are based on researching and finding ways of building/construction, but doing this from the lessons learned from nature. Therefore, the main concepts of this mode of biomimicry focus on building efficient structures, manufacturing materials, creating zero waste system, managing water, controlling thermal environment, and producing energy for buildings. On the other hand, biodigital studies are more project and theory driven than the construction and building methodology. Their ideology is based on using computer technology to create form that is also based on the digital analysis/algorithms of biological systems. Their digital approach to biomimicry and their projects have resulted in an active form - a more flexible system that can be used in regions where earthquake is a major structural problem. Also, it has the potential of being a self-shaded system that can environmentally move and be a truss system. However, the projects don’t suggest ways of applying the methods learned from biomimicry to a specific methodology of construction. For this reason most of the biodigital studies have troubles of carrying their inspiring theoretical work into the reality of building strategies and construction.

In spite of their differences in their process of adapting nature and the end result, the two modes of biomimicry can be considered as complementary to each other. Sustainability studies concentrate on how to adapt nature to find efficient ways of building and construction while biodigital studies concentrate on how to design a project or create form by using digital analysis that generate algorithms of biological systems as a main input. They individually have their own deficiencies but together they create a complete project cycle. Biodigital studies come into play in the early process of the project where nature is adapted for designing the most efficient form, and sustainability studies complete the project by researching and inventing techniques that are most efficient to build and construct a project that can follow the same design principles adapted from nature. Therefore, these two modes of biomimicry have two distinct approaches to architecture that aim for the same goal and have their own limitations to fulfill a complete project. However, if they are considered together as two specific design processes, they create a full cycle of a project that could be described as biomimicry in architecture.


Arkinet. “BioTower by Dennis Dollens.” Last Modified November 17, 2009.

Biomimicry Institute. “What Do You Mean by the Term Biomimicry?” Last Modified 2013.

Brennen, Andrea. “Dennis Dollens: “ Growing Ideas” for Green Building.” Last Modified May 22, 2010.

Dennis Dollens. "Architecture as Nature: A Biodigital Hypothesis." Leonardo 42, no. 5 (2009): 412-420. (accessed September 6, 2013).

Dollens, Denis. Digital-Botanic Architecture: D-B-A. Sante Fe: SITES Books. 2005

Dollens, Dennis (06/30/2010). "Architecture, eTrees, & Nature Architettura, eTrees, & Natura". Disegnare con
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Eco Brooklyn Inc. “Biomimicry and Eden Project.” Last Modified July 31,2012.

Murry, James. “Green Architect, Designer of the Eden Project: A Case Study.” Last Modified September 4, 2010.

Pawlyn, Michael. Biomimicry in Architecture. London:RIBA publishing. 2011.

Rosenfield, Karissa. "Interview: Michael Pawlyn on Biomimicry". Last Modified 17 Nov, 2011.

Weston, Richard. 2012. "Nature in architecture." The Architectural Review 232, (1380) (02): 95-96,4, (accessed September 5, 2013).

Yeang, K. and Pawlyn, M. (2009), Seawater Greenhouses and the Sahara Forest Project. Archit Design, 79: 122–123. doi: 10.1002/ad.930.

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