Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Shape of Things to Come

Elefolio author J. Scott Turner was interviewed by host Steve Curwood on the public radio program Living on Earth last weekend. A physiologist by training, Turner is interested in how the structures animals build can function like living organs (in fact, that was the subject of his first book, The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures). This interest has taken him to Namibia, where he studies the energy flows of termite mounds, research that has some surprising applications for human-built structures. It turns out the self-cooling properties of termite mounds are being tapped to create  green buildings that use turbulent wind energy to control temperature and humidity.

From the transcript:
...The secret of being able to do this for all buildings is to be to reproduce the complex structure that enables termites to do this. So, our thinking is that if you can somehow replace impermeable walls with these kinds of structures that can actually tune the inconvenient energy that's in turbulent wind, then you're opening the door to, I think, a revolution to the way we think about wind technology. You can have not only ventilation for free in any building, but we're working on designs that can enable the control of humidity, perhaps even wind-powered air conditioning in ordinary buildings. So, mainly by exploiting this untapped band of wind energy that's out there.
There are more than a few people interested in the connections between animal nests and human architecture. They met up earlier this fall at "From Insect Nest to Human Architecture," a conference in Venice sponsored by the European Center for Living Technology. Biomimicry used to mean fasteners modeled on gecko's feet--now it goes large scale.

I'm looking forward to seeing the shape of things to come. In the meantime, I'm enjoying peeks at what that future might look like, courtesy the Eastgate Center in Harare, by architect Mick Pearce, which already is putting termite engineering principles to work, and this fascinating design by visionary and pioneer of "evolutionary architecture" Eugene Tsui for a two-mile high building that looks an awful lot like a termite mound. If filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki designed buildings, I think they might look something like this.


  1. Ann, this is just amazingly cool. I look forward to more on this blog. (though I can't fathom how you do it all!)

    Good luck!

  2. Thanks, Jeannine. Can I in fact spin ONE more plate? We'll see.

  3. Awesome. I went on an Earthwatch expedition with Scott in Namibia in 1996-97, and helped collect some of the data about gas exchange in termite mounds. It was a cool experience, and I'm pleased to know that what might seem esoteric to some is actually of fundamental importance in modern architecture. Very cool. Thanks for sharing!