How Buildings That Imitate Earth’s Creatures Could Save Us From Ourselves

Sustainable design needs a gut check. When it comes to designing for efficiency, balance, and resiliency, nothing beats emulating Earth’s creatures.

The frenetic consumption that has defined American culture over the past hundred years transcends food, fuel, and “stuff.” We’ve also gobbled up building materials.


From 1900 to 1995, America experienced a five-fold spike in per capita consumption of non-food and non-fuel resources. Of the durable goods we amassed, construction materials for buildings far exceeded any others. In 1900, renewable resources accounted for 40% of this consumption. Today, renewables amount to less than 10%.

Architects are part of the problem. Though we’re getting better at designing in environmentally conscious ways, incorporating green space, and avoiding wasteful use of resources, buildings still separate people from nature, skewing our relationship with the planet.

By 2011, the U.S. Green Building Council had documented 1 billion square feet of LEED-certified construction. In 2011 alone, China constructed 20 billion square feet of conventional space. All this sustainable construction may sound like progress, but we still have a problem. Most sustainably designed buildings still lack the living, breathing ability to adjust to their environment, from dramatic one-time weather events to permanent climate changes. Sustainable solutions divorced from place represent missed opportunities for innovation and geo-cultural connectedness.

The good news is that architects can bridge the gap between the built and natural environments through biomimicry, an emerging field of study urging emulation of naturally occurring principles and processes. Designers and architects at my firm, HOK, have been collaborating with Biomimicry 3.8 biologists for several years. Together, we set out to determine what ecologies of place can tell us about the way we design, build and interact so we can offset the impact of our buildings.

One area of focus has been the temperate broadleaf forest biome, where much of the world’s population lives. Our Genius of Biome research report reveals patterns, principles, and phenomena of the forest system and its unique individual organisms. For each natural principle, we offer a supporting design principle along with application ideas created by HOK designers. By mimicking natural strategies that have evolved over millions of years, we can push our buildings closer to optimum efficiency and resiliency.

“Evolution has been successful because every organism has developed in context and honed its survival strategies based on its setting,” says Dr. Dayna Baumeister, co-founder of Biomimicry 3.8. “Shouldn’t we ask the same of our buildings? From material efficiency, to energy efficiency, to occupant productivity and well-being, the more attuned designers are to local context, the better that system will run.”


Ultimately, the goal is to shift our designers’ perspectives from self to place. HOK’s team used this approach while working with biologists at Biomimicry 3.8 on an urban commercial center in Brazil. This project had a glass building façade outfitted with slanted blades offering shade from the sun. We wanted to develop a system that, like the Brazilian rainforest, would reject heat while returning water to the atmosphere. When we realized that changing the horizontal blades to spirals would atomize cascading water, sending it back into the surrounding environment, it dawned on me: the building could reject heat and conserve water. This multifunctional capability is ever-present in nature but often ignored or even rejected in our compartmentalized world.

This new design approach could do more than change the way our cities look and feel. It can change the way we view ourselves in relation to the Earth. Rather than remaining part of the problem, architects have the power to lead this dramatic shift in perspective and move us closer to a new sustainable future.

About the author

Thomas Knittel, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a senior principal – design in global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK’s Los Angeles studio. He is the firm’s leading expert in biomimicry – drawing inspiration from natural systems to solve human problems – and holds a Biomimicry Specialty Certificate from Biomimicry 3.8.