Dr. Sriyanie Miththapala looks at some of the amazing structures created by animal builders
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the world’s tallest building, with 160 storeys and towering at 829.8 metres. The Manta Resort on Pemba Island has underwater rooms where guests can watch sharks and rays floating past their beds. The Haohan Qiao Bridge in China is a glass-bottom bridge that is 179.8 metres tall and nearly 300 metres long. The pyramids of Egypt, the Colosseum of Rome, Borobudur in Indonesia and the iconic Taj Mahal of Agra stand as testaments to spectacular architects of the past.
Architecture is not new. Humans have been building since the Neolithic or New Stone Age from some 9000 BC to 5000 BC years ago.
However, animal builders have been in existence a long, long time before this — they are our planet’s first builders and they craft homes of mind-boggling designs.
Animals construct structures to a) build homes to raise their young and protect themselves against the elements or predators; b) catch or trap prey; and c) attract the opposite sex.
Colonial insects — termites, bees, wasps and ants — are champion architects. Individually tiny and vulnerable to being squashed, collectively, in a colony of millions, insects such as termites can build termite mounds that can be higher than five metres. It is estimated that the collective weight of these million termites is 15 kilogrammes, and that they can move a quarter of a metric ton of soil every year when they build these mounds using a combination of soil, saliva and excreta.
In a world where we have over-used natural resources, destroyed natural habitats and poisoned the air and water to alter the environment to suit us, it may benefit us well to turn to nature and learn from it.
We may now be striving for sustainability, but a sustainable world already exists in nature which has fine-tuned its products during a 3.8 billion year period. Termite mounds have a sophisticated air-conditioning system that uses no fossil fuels to keep the structure at a temperature that fluctuates only within one degree Celsius, while we humans use 20% of the world’s energy to keep buildings in cities at similar temperatures. Corals are tiny colonial marine animals that extract calcium carbonate from the sea and secrete it as a cup of calcium carbonate from the bottom half of their bodies, building great ramparts of coral reefs. In doing so they lock in this carbon. In contrast, when we use cement to build infrastructure, approximately 900 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere when each tonne of cement is made, contributing to global warming, We extract natural resources, turn them into short-lived products and after using them, we chuck them out as waste. Nature, on the other hand, never throws anything away — what is waste for one organism becomes food for another and is eventually recycled as nutrients into the ecosystem.
As Janine Benyus writes, ‘Nature runs on sunlight. Nature uses only the energy it needs. Nature fits forms to function. Nature recycles everything. Nature rewards cooperation. Nature banks on diversity. Nature demands local expertise. Nature curbs excesses within. Nature taps the power of limits.’
Benyus coined the word biomimicry to popularise this concept of looking to nature to provide sustainable solutions. In the last three decades, this branch of science has grown and developed producing some inventive solutions to our planet’s problems.
Inspired by the self-sustaining air-conditioning systems of termite mounds, Zimbabwean architect Mike Pence designed the Eastgate Building, an office complex in Harare. Made mainly of concrete, this building has a ventilation system which draws outside air using fans into the building and this air is warmed or cooled by the building depending on which is hotter, the building concrete or the air. This air is then circulated through the building before it is sent out, again by fans through chimneys at the top. This building uses 90% less than the energy of a conventional building its size and its owners have saved 3.5 million USD by not installing an air-conditioning system, excluding the cost of running it daily.