National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Nature Does It Better: Biomimicry in Architecture and Engineering

“The way biological systems solve problems is pretty different from the way engineered systems solve problems,” says Peter Niewiarowski, biologist at the University of Akron and its Biomimicry Research and Innovation Center.

Human-designed solutions, he says, are crude and additive. They rely on using more materials or energy to accelerate reactions—both costly expenditures. Natural processes rely on unique geometry and material properties.

The adhesive abilities of the gecko feet Niewiarowski studies are an example. To simulate the wall-scaling abilities of a gecko, you might strap a battery to your back and run electricity through electromagnets that only adhere to metal. But in fact, geckos’ feet are dense with tiny hairs that each exert a minuscule molecular attraction, allowing the gecko to stick.

Nature is “lazy and intelligent,” says Sigrid Adriaenssens, an engineering professor at Princeton who researches biomimicry. Nature is exceptional at turning waste into food—a fundamental tool for balancing ecosystems that architecture has ignored for the vast majority of its history.

But for designers, biology offers lessons in hyperefficient resource stewardship and circular economies. Nature also practices a kind of “critical regionalism,” the belief that architecture should reflect the geography and culture of its setting. For example, there are parasites so specifically evolved they can live with only one type of host.

Read more…