Daffodils and Polar Bears: Towards a Biomimetic Architecture

Greg Keeffe
Chair, Bioclimatic Architecture Labs
Manchester School of Architecture
Manchester UK.



What is sustainable? That is the question of the age. One thing is certain, sustainable architecture will be a radical departure from today’s reactionist insulated boxes, dreamt up by physicists with only thermodynamics in mind or the wooden ‘hanzel and gretel’ earthships of the hippies retreating from the urban world.

There is only one thing that is sustainable on this planet and that is life itself, it has already been here for 4,000,000,000 years: sustainable architecture will be living. The real question we must answer is, ‘what is life, and how do we define ‘living’?’ from this we will be able to define a new radical ‘living’ architecture, which will be truly sustainable.

Life and living.

Life, however is difficult to define. In his seminal text ‘The Origin of Life’ John Keosian states “a precise definition… one which will include all living things, past or present, is not possible”. He states there are however five categories that all living things have: order, energy, separation, self-perpetuation and evolution.

In addition to these, another trait which all living entities possess by default, is that living entities are interdependent; they cannot survive individually or in a vacuum; they rely upon being part of the cycle of materials and flow of energy within an ecosystem. Thus, there is not only life as an individual, but also as a collective group. This is us to consider urbanism, which is beyond the scope of this paper.

Life 1 Life 1

Life_2 Life 2

Life is not an aesthetic, and thus living architecture, will not look like anything in particular – it will be derived from an understanding of the processes and forces that the brief and site will construe, buildings may need to be as different as a daffodil from a polar bear for example. But what they will have in common is a form derived by the place (site and climate) they are located in.

Solar_Bear? Solar Bear?

Inter-seasonal storage? Inter-seasonal storage?

In fact this gives us our first reference point and the beginning of a bio-mimetic methodology, in his book Theories of Ecological Perception, JJ Gibson states that the environment and the animal are inseparable - the existence of one implies the existence of the other, and thus a perfect description of one, will imply an exact solution of the other. For example, an analysis of say, a Savannah, would suggest the animals antelope and lion. Thus by defining the site of the building accurately, (climatically and otherwise) this should suggest possible anatomic solutions that could be appropriate. From these analyses and forms, we can then attempt to hypothesise the building that may live in these surroundings.

Lion/Savannah? Lion/Savannah?

Climate derives form Climate derives form

How will these living buildings be defined? They will be described by a matrix that could be used to define all living things, both individually, and collectively, namely Keosian’s categories.


Structure and synergy.
All elements of living things, have order, there is no chaotic arrangement in life, and it is this unfeasible order that defines a search for life. In addition, in this arrangement, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it is a synergy.

Biomimetic architecture will be ordered in a way that responds to the climatic demands of the site and the spatial and environmental needs of the brief.

Order: Leaf section Order: Leaf section

Order: Glen Murcutt Order: Glen Murcutt


Metabolism, Storage Rhythm.
All living things rely ultimately on the Sun for energy, and without it they are unsustainable. Living things have a metabolism, a sophisticated method of collecting, utilising and storing energy. Those that rely directly on the Sun for energy move in a rhythm with it.

Responsiveness, Homoeostasis.
Living things speculate – they use energy gained to search for more energy, and use the energy to maintain a thermal equilibrium or homeostasis.

Responsiveness/Rhythm: Edelweiss Responsiveness/Rhythm: Edelweiss

Returning to our original pairing, the polar bear and the daffodil, both display interesting solar capture methods; the daffodil has an inter-seasonal store; the polar bear, a direct gain system. The daffodil famously stores energy in its bulb in summer – to utilise in the winter to get a head start on growth. The polar bear is actually a solar bear – its fur is made up of highly insulating, translucent hollow fibres that act like fibre optics – transmitting infra-red light from the surface to the skin of the bear, which is actually black, and thus good at absorbing energy. This extra energy absorbed directly from the sun allows the bear to function without a highly insulative fat layer – which would restrict movement.

Human Skin Human Skin

Bio-mimetic architecture will be dynamic, with a complex way of collecting, storing and utilising energy, responding to climatic rhythms – minute-by minute, diurnal, and seasonal.


In living things the skin is the most complex of all elements. It separates inside from outside, and thus is again dynamic. Most skins are multilayered and none are exclusive. Exchange is the key here; skins allow different climatic elements and energy forms to enter or be excluded at any time. So a body might choose to lose heat when hot, or conserve it when cold, by changing the configuration of the skin. The human skin for example has seven layers, none of which is impermeable to water, yet we do not leak. It is the juxtaposition of these simple layers, each with multi-functions, that completes the enclosure.

Bio-mimetic architecture will have a sophisticated multi-layered surface. This surface will promote or reduce energy transfer by dynamic means. It will control heat, light, sound, air and water (vapour) transfer, in an optimal way, without having a completely exclusive membrane (such as a vapour barrier).

Multi-layered dynamic skin Multi-layered dynamic skin


It is unlikely that architecture could ever reproduce, however its elements could be re-usable or recyclable. Life consists of common elements, all of which are biodegradable. Once dead, living things directly provide key elements for the production of new creatures.

Biomimetic architecture will be made of components that are re-usable in a new configuration or at least recyclable. Components will be made of naturally occurring compounds.

Use/reuse Caddis larva Use/reuse caddis larva

Use/reuse: British Pavilion Expo 92, Nicholas Grimshaw Use/reuse: British Pavilion Expo 92, Nicholas Grimshaw


Life evolves; over time creatures adapt to changing environments by random (Darwinist) change or by incremental reactive (Lamarckian) change.

Bio-mimetic Architecture will be loose fit, and be adaptable to change, either external or internal. Flexibility will be designed into the solution.


Bio-mimetic architecture will not be a new aesthetic; it will change fundamentally the shape, occupation and dynamic of architecture. We are at the beginning of a new age, where the future is no longer mechanical or informational, but biological/informational/mechanical. New design methodologies will be developed and we will move from seeing architecture as an edifice to seeing it as a concretisation of the dynamic forces of external climate and internal desires.

Keosian, J. The Origins of Life. Chapman & Hall, London 1965.
Gibson JJ., The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc. New York 1986.

1 comment:

arch.gaurav said...

Dear Mr.Greg Keefe

It was wondurful to read the article. I am myself interested in biomimetic architecture, this interest was developed after i saw a presentation by Ar. Javier Pioaz on Bionic Tower. Its logical that answer to most of the questions can be found in nature which has evolved over several millions of years and this wealth of knowledge is still not utilised wisely. It would be fun to understand more on the subject to do master in the field and take part in the most revolutionary field to create better tomorrow.