What is Biomimicry, and How Does it Differ from Biophilia?

Adeleh Nejati, PhD, Assoc. AIA, EDAC

“Biomimicry 2016: The Road to Resiliency” was a half-day conference that took place in California on March 11th of this year.  Arranged by Verdical Group, a firm of LEED consultants based in Los Angeles, the conference was a series of TED-style presentations and panel discussions that brought together thought leaders in the field of biomimicry, those who grew up in nature, and those who look into the nature for solutions to challenging issues they are facing in design. Presenters showcased biomimetic and biophilic research and design in many forms, ranging in scale from the design of products to the design of buildings, cities, and urban infrastructures. The full conference recording is currently available on Verdical Group's YouTube channel.

In its literal definition, “bio+mimicry” refers to the imitation of life or the living world around us. The Biomimicry Institute, an America non-profit organization located in Montana, further defines biomimicry as “an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies.” In contrast, “bio+philia” is defined as the love of life and the living world around us. Theorists who specialize in biophilia argue that human beings have an innate inclination to associate with other non-human living systems, often referred to in shorthand as “nature.”

Biomimetic designs directly use patterns and systems found in nature, while biophilic designs aim to connect human beings to the natural world. In the face of design challenges, biomimicry argues that nature has already found suitable solutions and that the process of investigation, understanding, and application of the right solution will benefit a design.

Examples of biomimicry can be found in Qualcomm’s display technologies that mimic the structure of a butterfly’s wings; the Shinkansen network of high-speed trains in Japan, whose rail cars borrow their geometry from kingfisher divers; and a multitude of green buildings geometrically and functionally inspired by termite mounds. Click here for more examples of biomimetic design.

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While many biomimetic systems translate flows and geometries found in nature into human-built and human-serving environments, biophilic designs that aim to physically and emotionally connect human occupants with other living and natural systems often utilize contemporary construction methods, materials and technologies. Examples of biophilic design include Paley Park in New York City, which utilizes flowing water and vertical greenery to serve as a retreat from bustling city life; the Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford University, which employs sleek lines and materials with painted and sculptural art to provide refuge from the stress of competitive university life; and E. Fay Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which provides a conditioned contemplative space that feels open and airy due to material choices of glass and wood and project siting in a heavily wooded area.

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For more information on the history, implementation, and benefits of biophilic design, a great resource is Terrapin Bright Green’s report 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design. The report defines different patterns of biophilic design in detail and supports each pattern by providing empirical studies on stress reduction; cognitive performance; and human emotion, mood, and preference. The full report is available for download without fee or other access control.