Biomimicry in real estate design and development
- February 1, 2024: Vol. 11, Number 2

Biomimicry in real estate design and development

by Benjamin Cole

Mother Nature has evolved solutions to demanding environments for eons, relentlessly driving flora, fauna and whole ecosystems to ever more resilient, sustainable and efficient results. By emulating natural designs, real estate developers and architects are creating increasingly functional and efficient structures and infrastructure.

Evolved designs in nature are as varied as life itself, but in general a recurring theme is the harnessing of the environment to gain a benefit, as opposed to sustaining a conflict with surroundings. The sunflower turns skyward for the solar energy to convert in the making of seeds, while the fish develops a streamlined body to streak through water.

The trees, and even the saguaro cacti, are self-shading, while bamboo and coconut palms bend with hurricane-force winds, rather than break.

In property development, biomimetic architecture goes beyond mere aesthetics, and applies construction and operation principles found in natural environments and species.

As the green movement in real estate and architecture matures, the idea of turning to nature for efficient and resilient results has been gathering force in recent years.

Looking back, in 1993 the U.S. Green Building Council introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) program, which has become widely adopted, resulting in more than 100,000 LEED-certified buildings in more than 150 nations. It is fair to say that LEED has become the global standard for reported sustainable design.

While LEED certification has been a transformative initiative, after three decades, some within the architecture and property development communities are pressing LEED to go further, and to more formally recognize elements of biomimicry, and biomimetic principles in construction and urban development.

“Architects can utilize biomimicry theory to address the shortcomings present in the LEED certification process and transform the built environment,” observes a recent Occidental College report.

The present “checklist-based approach” to achieve LEED certification has some virtues but does not recognize or reward innovative biomimetic approaches to solving sustainability in property development, notes the Occidental study.

How to measure or make “checklists” acknowledging biomimetic accomplishments in architecture remains more of an elusive art than anything else, but with ever-greater demands for beauty, economy and efficiency in property development, the age of mainstreamed biomimicry may nevertheless unfold in the near future.


One of the earliest and most cited efforts of biomimetic architecture is the Eastgate Center shopping mall and office building in Harare, Zimbabwe, designed by architect Mick Pearce in collaboration with Arup engineers, and which opened in 1996.

A typical large building in Harare before the Eastgate Center might have been the standard glass-skinned tower, a building-type known as a thermal trap in daytime that puts a heavy load on air-conditioning, yet while not retaining enough heat through the cool nights of the nearly mile-high city.

The Eastgate Center was built with old-fashioned bricks and cement, or thermal mass, with ducts to allow air to enter at the bottom of the structure, mimicking regional termite mounds. The 333,000-square-foot, seven-floor structure has chimneys that release rising air at the building’s apex and is imitative of the cooling technique found in termite-mound construction.

The natural aspiration allows the Eastman Center to operate without air-conditioning or heating, with an assist from other supportive design elements, such as deep-set windows that are naturally shaded except in early morning or late afternoon hours.

After years in operation, Eastgate Center is not a theory. The structure uses 35 percent less total energy than the average consumption of six other conventional buildings with full HVAC. And Eastgate Center was cheaper to build too: Eliminating HVAC reduced the construction cost by 10 percent of total building outlays, states architect Pearce.


Engaging natural surroundings and light is one of the hallmarks of the modern biomimicry movement, as seen in the 140,000-square-foot Cal Poly Pomona Student Services Building, designed by CO Architects and built in 2018, in Pomona, Calif. The structure was oriented and sized to bring light and nature inside.

“The Cal Poly floorplate widths were kept to a maximum of 60 feet, and the building oriented to deliver optimized daylight penetration,” says Alex Korter of CO Architects.

Situated at the base of the San Gabriel foothills in a desert climate, the structure features an indoor atrium, and an undulating roof from which rainwater is collected to irrigate interior and outdoor xeriscapes (landscaping and gardening approaches that aim to reduce or eliminate the need for supplemental water from irrigation). The hilly roof notably overhangs the whole building complex, a bit like a tortoise shell extends out past the reptile-esque body, to provide extra shading and cooling.

Acoustic baffles, fabricated from recycled plastic, were deployed to reduce ambient noise.

Another CO Architects’ project, the University of Arizona’s Health Sciences Innovation Building, draws inspiration from the iconic saguaro cactus of the American Southwest. The regional saguaro features longitudinal corrugations that provide self-shading in the harsh climate. On the health sciences building, CO Architects placed a permeated terra cotta facade that blocks sunlight and mimics the shadowing strategy of the desert plant, but still allows occupants to gaze outwardly.

While much of biomimicry is about function, creating enjoyable spaces, usually by providing access to nature or views, is central to biomimetic structures as well.

“Our approach to biomimicry focuses on creating spaces and buildings that may generate emotional responses and diverse experiences, beyond the basic functions and uses, including calmness, surprise, joy and discovery to name a few, which are part of everyday life,” says Korter.


The city-state of Singapore may be the modern-day capitalist entrepot, but situated at the tip of Malay Peninsula it is also nearly on the equator, known for heat and humidity.

In the 1990s, Singapore officials sought a cultural center and performing arts venue to rival the iconic Sydney Opera House. Initial designs for the new facility, to be named The Esplanade, were conceived in the mid-1990s and portrayed sleek unadorned glass-rounded forms to hold dual performing-arts centers. The design provoked criticism that the pair of lumps resembled amorous armadillos — turning the two buildings into solar ovens unless heavily air-conditioned.

The Southeast Asian fruit durian came to the rescue, at least in the form of inspiration. The durian is a large football-plus-sized fruit adorned with large spikes that not only protect against grazing, but also shield and shade the flesh from the sun.

The Esplanade’s architects soon added triangular shaped aluminum cladding to the outside wall of the center, which screens the structure from direct sunlight while allowing theater-goers to gaze at splendid views.

The cladding, however, was not as simple as copying nature. The sun’s path through the Singapore sky was plotted, and the triangular shields are not uniform. Rather, each has a size and orientation to maximize views from inside The Esplanade, but block  sunlight from reaching the structure.

Of course, as soon as the pointed cladding was applied, the two buildings strongly resembled a durian fruit cut in half and laid on the ground spikes up. Naturally, in Singapore, The Esplanade was immediately dubbed “the big durians” upon completion.


The Beijing National Stadium, or “Bird’s Nest,” was built for the 2008 Summer Olympics, and was inspired by the nests of Chinese red-crowned cranes. The stadium’s lattice-like structure of steel beams interlock and cross over one another in an irregular pattern, much in the manner of twigs in a bird’s home.

In addition to its aesthetic, the lattice allows for natural ventilation and light for 91,000 stadium spectators, but due to the inherent strength of the lattice work, a reduced amount of steel was required for construction, according to its builders.

After completion, the Bird’s Nest’s architects said the stadium was actually inspired by the strength and shape of Chinese ceramics, which in turn has borrowed from natural forms such as scallop shells and coconuts. The facility features a red concrete bowl — the actual stadium, where fans sit — and the metallic nest that surrounds, shades and protects the facility.

Despite paying homage to Sino chinaware, the phrase “Bird’s Nest” was first used by facility architects Herzog & de Meuron, and whether fact or myth, the Bird’s Nest today is considered exemplary  of biomimicry in architecture.


"The architect of the future will be based on the imitation of nature because it is the most rational, durable and economical of all methods,” wrote Antoni Gaudi, the acclaimed Catalan architect (1852-1926) best known for the Church of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, still under construction.

Interestingly, Gaudi largely eschewed the traditional arches and flying buttresses of many European cathedrals in his design of the Sagrada Família, instead utilizing columns that branched out like the limbs of a tree, a technique said to result in greater amounts of useable space. Some Gaudi columns even spread out at their bases, in the manner of the enormous redwood sequoia in Northern California.

From Gaudi’s time to the present, the green movement has made headway in architecture and property development circles, in large part because reducing electrical and water consumption, as well as improving interior air quality, makes economic sense and it enhances the building’s value.

As additional successful buildings emerge using biomimicry to reduce costs and boost resilience, the more the property development industry will begin to task architects to adopt biomimetic principles in their designs.

“The biomimicry approach significantly reduces operational expenses, boosts ROI, and appeals to the increasing demand for eco-friendly spaces,” says Ben Rohr, principal with the Brooklyn-based property developer Dira. The improved bottom line will drive commercial real estate development into biomimetic solutions, especially as techniques are proven, predicts Rohr.

Given the benefits that accrue to building occupants and the larger society, it is possible the biomimicry movement, like the green movement, will go mainstream in property development in coming years.

And that could result in a more rewarding bottom line — naturally.


Benjamin Cole ( is a freelance writer based in Thailand.

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