“Nothing is new under the sun”, as the famous saying goes.
This is especially the case when it comes to human ingenuity.
Despite our technological prowess and imagination, sometimes it cannot surpass nature’s creative “genius”. Take tall buildings for example.
From the ancient pyramids of Egypt or South America to modern architectural wonders like the Burj Khalifa, people have been trying to build vertically for millennia. These structures have pushed the intellectual and technical capabilities of their respective civilizations to the limit and are undoubtedly incredible feats of engineering.
But the animal kingdom has been around longer and on a much larger scale. One of nature’s master architects and builders, the humble termite is no taller than a fingernail, yet can erect structures comparable to our tallest structures with relative ease.
These little insects can build towers that would be among the tallest synthetic structures on earth if scaled up. Moreover, they accomplish all of this with little more than dirt and saliva.
But these towers aren’t just shelters, they also serve as vertical farms for the myriad creatures that inhabit them.
Imagine the reaction an engineering firm or architect would get if they proposed something like this today! But one architect, Mick Pearce of Zimbabwe, has taken the plunge and proposed building towers inspired by termite mounds.
Pearce isn’t proposing building the next Burj Khalifa with just earth and spit, but he has recognized the potential of using termite hill architecture to build more energy-efficient skyscrapers.
He found that the funnel-like structures associated with termite mounds are extremely efficient and uncomplicated, providing “free” cooling to the colony. If this could be replicated in human buildings, it would drastically reduce the need to artificially cool the building during the summer highs.
To date, Pearce and his team have designed a number of towers around the world that integrate fans at the base to provide an energy-efficient method of drawing cool air at the base to ventilate the upper levels.
Fascinating, but there are other ways that nature has inspired human architects to improve the energy use of buildings. An example comes from the University of Cincinnati. By studying the African reed frog and the Hercules beetle, they think they’ve uncovered some interesting ways to reduce energy use in buildings.
The former can change the color of his skin to reflect sunlight to stay cool. The latter can absorb moisture in humid air to regulate body temperature. By combining these ideas with modern materials such as heat reflective cladding and hydrogel insulation, the team showed that a typical Chicago office building could reduce its air conditioning costs by up to 66%!
This not only affects the running costs of the building occupants, but also helps to reduce the waste of electricity.
And all because nature shapes creatures so that they can survive on earth!