Biomimicry: Revolutionising the Built Industry for a Sustainable Future
Dr. Jamie Miller
Director, Biomimicry, B+H
Dr. Jamie Miller is Director of Biomimicry at B+H Architects. A designer in biomimicry, biophilia and ecological engineering, Jamie has almost two decades of experience in applying nature-inspired design principles to international projects.
Biomimicry is a practical philosophy that is fundamentally transforming the built environment. It’s about recognising that we have models and mentors in the natural world that could help us reimagine most of the challenges we face today and that could teach what true sustainability really is. Think of trees that pump water without electricity, leaves that collect energy from the sun using benign chemistry, or forests that have no wastes and no unemployment. And with emerging new technologies, these bold metaphors are coming to life.
In my time practicing biomimicry, I have found that it is most effective when it is integrated at the project’s inception. When teams adopt this lens and at the onset, the direction, framework and principles that guide design are subtly shifted, opening up the design opportunities and depth of sustainability. It invites designers to step outside their preconceptions, to learn from a new model of design, and in doing so, access ideas that are based on billion-years of evolution for how to live, design, and thrive on this planet. Nature solves many of the same design challenges we do, within the same context, and bound by the same resources. Yet, as we are learning, nature does so with a dramatically unique way of doing so.
Consider Bamboo, narrow hollow tubes which can reach 40 m in height without buckling or bending. Looking closely you can see that the regular nodes in bamboo act like bulkheads to increase structural stability while minimising materials. Focusing on shape rather than material to achieve function is a common pursuit in nature. Professor Julian Vincent says that in nature, materials are expensive, and shape is cheap, and that this subtle change in the lens we view our design challenges can encourage a broader solution set.
On another hand, Coral, which is as strong as cement, is made simply from seawater and carbon dioxide – a juxtaposition from the heavy carbon emissions created in our concrete manufacturing. Coral builds with a beguilingly simple set of chemicals and raw materials, relying on only the energy of the sun. In doing so, it solves construction problems without degrading their environments. In fact, they enhance them, naturally creating conditions conducive to more life.
Biomimicry is growing so quickly because we need new approaches for how to solve today’s problems. In resilience literature, they call climate change a “wicked problem” because we have no precedent for how to solve it. Wicked problems are too complex, too uncertain, with high stakes, and urgent decisions needing to be made, that the traditional mental models we use to solve the problems are often insufficient. That is, our thinking that caused the problem won’t be able to solve the problem. Along with this we are seeing a dramatic rise in eco-anxiety, mental health concerns because of the existential crisis that comes with climate change, biodiversity loss, and the many other “wicked problems” we are tasked with addressing. The good news is that biomimicry gives us hope. It helps us step outside the traditional paradigms we use (and have been using) to construct our built environments to explore new potential opportunities for not only how to survive on this planet, but how we could thrive.
Bridging the Gap Between Nature and Construction
There is a glaring contrast between nature and human construction. For hundreds of years, much of our built environments has been based on a design epistemology that is incompatible with nature’s own. Despite solving similar challenges (e.g. transportation, communication, manufacturing, structural engineering, piping and fluid transport), nature builds with a beguilingly simple set of raw materials. Nature uses only a subset of the periodic table of elements, benign manufacturing, and only the energy of the sun. Nature is much more easily decomposed and repurposed, creating a natural circular economy (there is no waste in nature). Nature also uses information rather than materials to create shapes with multiple functions. Like bones, it adds materials where stress is highest but removes materials where they are less needed.
What’s exciting is that bridging this gap between the natural world and our constructed world is becoming much more viable due to the emerging technologies. With developments in green chemistry, material ecology and design, computational architecture and 3D/4D printing, additive manufacturing, big data and AI, we are starting see incredible natural metaphors come to life. For example, University of Stuttgart’s biomimicry pavillions, Delft University’s self-healing concrete, or Neri Oxman’s biopolymer Aguahoja III tower.
The potential applications of biomimicry within the built industry is vast. Two exciting trends that are gaining momentum are material ecology and mycelium.
Material ecology, championed by visionary architect Neri Oxman, blurs the lines between materials and biology. By harnessing the adaptive capabilities of natural systems, Oxman envisions buildings that respond to their environment and mimic natural processes. Silkworms have been utilised to construct architectural pavilions, while 3D printed towers using biodegradable composite resins (e.g. chitin and pectin) are used to digitally fabricate responsive, organic architecture.
Mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, has proven to be a versatile and sustainable material. Companies like Biome are manufacturing mycelium-based insulation, which are fire-resistant and as effective as traditional options. Bolt Threads has partnered with major clothing brands to create mycelium-based clothing and materials. Additionally, mycelium can even be used to decompose derelict buildings, creating bricks for future construction, which creates and closes the loop of a more circular economy.
With these, and many other technological advancements, we are seeing the built industry experience a shift in our thinking; seeing nature not necessarily as something to take from but something that could teach us. When we embrace biomimicry in this change in how we do things, we can challenge the traditional boundaries of designs and find inspiration in the genius of nature. We can find a model to follow that moves beyond our traditional thinking. At B+H, we are seeing this being realised in exciting projects such as the off-grid community design collaboration with CABN, multiple projects with indigenous communities, and projects that are uniquely bridging nature into our designs.
The Future of Biomimicry
Biomimicry is on the rise. The more we learn nature’s secrets and creatively apply our understanding of biomimicry, the more the building industry can redefine its relationship with the natural world. By integrating nature’s principles into design, we can create buildings and infrastructure that function harmoniously with their surroundings, reduce resource consumption, and minimise environmental impact. Most importantly, we can once again learn that we are a part of a greater network; that we depend on nature and are an important contributing factor. Instead of aspiring to “do less harm”, biomimicry teaches us that our breath feeds trees, our bodies feed soils, and that through the conscious emulation of nature, our buildings will once again feed and contribute to their ecosystems.
This inclusion of biomimicry into the construction industry is not just about inspiring innovation; it’s about creating a new relationship with nature and recognising its immense value beyond just a commodity to exploit. It’s about recognising that on a geological time scale, humans have only just arrived on this planet and that the natural world has been refining its design solutions for nearly four billion years. Yet, despite that time, humans have done incredible destruction. But as Janine Benyus, the woman who popularised the term biomimicry said, “we have to remind ourselves that we are not necessarily a bad species, but just a very young one.”
Hear more from Jamie Miller
Tune in and listen to Jamie Miller’s journey to biomimicry and how Surbana Jurong is exploring and enabling these exciting projects in the Building Cities, Shaping Lives podcast interview here.
How do we learn from the world’s best designer – nature? The short answer: Biomimicry. Jamie Miller, Director of Biomimicry, B+H Architects, shares his growing passion to apply nature’s basic principles to create a more sustainable built environment.
 Julian Vincent is a professor at multiple universities, focusing on bionics, nature-inspired manufacturing, and mechanical engineering. He is also the President of the International Society of Bionic Engineering.
 Neri Oxman is an American–Israeli designer and a professor known for art and architecture that combines design, biology, computing, and materials engineering. She coined the phrase “material ecology” to define her work.
 CABN.co is a prefabricated, affordable timber home that is fully energy independent and can be constructed within a few days. B+H Biomimicry has partnered with CABN to develop affordable communities with off-grid capabilities.