Michael Pawlyn’s Biomimicry in Architecture - Book Summary and Insights

architecture biomimicry Dec 07, 2023

Dear designer, 

Some lucky individuals just have it

They can dance to the music of nature. Without a fuss, and to the beat. 

That's Michael Pawlyn, a pioneer of biomimicry, nature-inspired design extraordinaire… and someone who was born to design to the music of nature.

He’s also building the future. 

By now, we’ve all seen the futuristic projections and solar-punkish imagery of green cities, forested skyscrapers, and flying cars.

But is that what the future truly holds? Is that what we’re building? 

In his book, Biomimicry in Architecture, Michael Pawlyn invites us into a future that is designed to function like nature. True to its title, the book explores the best biomimicry examples in architecture, and how designers can continue to provide solutions for a positive future within the field of architecture.

Let’s take a peek inside. 

Side note: This is just a summary, and we highly recommend purchasing the book for yourself

A Brief Summary of the Book: Biomimicry in Architecture

Michael Pawlyn's Biomimicry in Architecture is a concise and inspiring collection of existing nature-inspired solutions for architecture. 

It details how architects are currently applying those solutions and how you, and I, could continue applying them at scale. My personal favourite is the integration of the final chapter, which puts it all into practice with a simple actionable guide. 

Chapters: Each chapter is an invitation to imagine a positive future, and opens with a question that Pawlyn answers through biomimicry.  Here’s a summary of each chapter:

1. How can we build more efficient structures?

Well, we can look at trees and bones; nests and shells; sponges and sea urchins! 

With examples and abstracted principles from the Mapungubwe Interpretation Centre in South Africa to the Milwaukee Art Museum in the United States, this chapter details how mimicking the forms of natural structures aids in significant resource efficiency and cost savings.

Here, the overarching principle in nature is to focus on less material, more design and better responsiveness. Because, as Prof. Julian Vincent puts it, “in nature material is expensive and shape is cheap”.

Thinking in form, process and systems is the biomimicry way. Often, just focusing on form isn't enough, and this is where many designers stumble - thinking biomimicry is only about copying nature's shape. Biomimicry goes beyond just shape, and the best biomimics ask - 'how can my building function like nature'. We dive deeper into this in the Biomimicry Short Course Set.

2. How will we manufacture materials?

Simple! Use the right elements, and put them together in the right way. 

Okay, maybe not so simple. 

Luckily, Pawlyn takes us by the hand in this chapter, into the realm of additive manufacturing and 3D printing - mimicking nano-scale self assembly in nature. He showcases biological cycle solutions of timber, rammed earth, plastics and adhesives. 

Pawlyn explains how buildings can be grown from materials such as fungal mycelia, or calcium carbonate, as detailed by his studio’s own project - The Biorock Pavilion. 

Furthermore, this chapter reveals how materials can heal, or self-repair; how they can capture carbon dioxide; how they can be re-circulated and not dumped - emulating the multifunctional, integrated materials in nature.

3. How will we create zero-waste systems?

If we can rethink the way we make things, we can certainly redesign the ways in which we use them too. 

Within this chapter, Pawlyn highlights the differences between conventional human-made systems and ecological systems. The contrast is clear, and boils down to the fact that human-made systems are largely extractive and ecosystems are abundantly regenerative (able to bring about more life!).

Through examples of ecosystem biomimicry, Pawlyn shares how ecological principles can be applied at different scales to cities, infrastructure, industrial projects, and buildings. Here, the case is made not only for a new paradigm in architecture, but for urbanism too. If we come to see waste as a resource, and buildings as ‘material banks’ we can reshape the built environment and our relationships to it. 

The Mobius Project (by Exploration Architecture) draws its inspiration from the way in which ecosystems in nature work, where the waste of one organism becomes the input of the next, maintaining nutrients in a perpetual closed cycle with zero waste. There are three main cycles: food production, energy generation and water treatment. The innovative aspect of the Mobius Project is in the way that it co-locates and integrates these processes in synergistic cycles. The building can handle much of the biodegradable waste from a local urban area using composting and anaerobic digestion.

4. How will we manage water?

In different parts of the world, and at different times, water can be a threatening scarcity, or dangerous surplus. 

How can we better manage this life-giving resource? 

Well, through biomimetic design, of course!

This chapter highlights some fascinating strategies in nature - revealing how different organisms capture, store, and transport water. Unleash your inner geek, as you learn about camels, cacti, lilies, and leaves. Then, sit back and marvel at how architects have applied their biological principles in practice.


5. How will we control our thermal environment?

Were you wondering when we’d mention the termites? 

Well - hey presto! Here they are. 

In this chapter, termites are not our only inspiration when it comes to regulating the temperature of a building. Oh no, there are tons more! 

Pawlyn describes how penguins huddle together to minimize their effective surface area and stay warm; and how Himalayan rhubarb is practically a vertical greenhouse that keeps itself 10°C warmer than the outside temperature. 

He details a number of buildings that have ‘climate adaptive building skins’ or CABS - a newly emerging mass market (for which biomimicry holds huge potential). Ultimately, by adapting to changing temperatures, buildings are becoming more complex systems that are starting to function more and more like living organisms. 

Thematic Pavilion in Yeosu, South Korea, by soma. The integration of the moving lamellas within the building’s skin was inspired by a research project at the ITKE University Stuttgart that investigates how biological moving mechanism can be applied in an architectural scale.

6. What can biology teach us about light?

Peacocks, squid, clusterwink snails, brittle stars and spookfish - these are the organisms mentioned within the first few paragraphs of this chapter on light. Intrigued yet?

Needless to say, there is a whole lot that biology can teach us about light. 

Take the Queen Anthurium for example. This plant lives deep in the rainforest and receives no natural light. In order to photosynthesize and survive, it has evolved a covering of cells on each leaf surface that function as tiny lenses - focusing any available light onto the photosynthetic parts of the plant. Genius! 

Or perhaps the clusterwink snail piqued your interest.

This fascinating creature produces bright flashes of bioluminescent light across its shell in hues of green and blue. It does this to defend itself against the other creatures that want to eat it. 


Everyday, nature puts on these incredible lighting displays using low-energy processes to ensure light gets to where it needs to be. Jump to this chapter if you’re keen to learn about more wild adaptations and applications of biologically-inspired lighting design.

Nature's energy efficiency is on a whole other level. The closer we mimics nature, the more energy and materials we save. 

7. How will we power our buildings?

Nature runs on sunlight - an abundant and freely available resource. Nature also uses low-energy processes - optimizing needs and working within limits. 

Could we do the same, and move from a fossil-fuel economy to a solar economy - reducing our demands, and improving our efficiency along the way? 

Well, surely! With nature’s help, why not.

The biomimetic technologies discussed in this chapter are a glimpse into the innovations possible within this sector. Think wind turbine blades inspired by whale fins, concentrated solar power arranged like sunflowers, and windows that can photosynthesize like leaves. The last case study on the Green Power Island will leave you hopeful for a new solar-powered future.

A natural battery - Green Power Island is a visionary concept for constructing artificial islands that store energy by means of seawater. This enables the Island to store excess green energy in seawater when demand is low and supplies energy instantly when demand rises.

8. Synthesis

Like an artist finally seeing their finished artwork after hours of rigorous attention to detail, this chapter invites the reader to take a step back and admire the beauty and genius of it all. 

What would happen if an architectural project applied all of the answers to the questions of the previous chapters? What could that look like? 

The synthesis chapter is about showcasing the breadth of which biomimicry can be applied to architecture. Pawlyn details case studies at various scales, seeing biomimicry applied to a large-scale land reclamation project, eco-cities, a transport terminal, a detail, a company and, ultimately, to business more generally.

If you’re a reader who likes to jump to the end before the beginning, then be assured that there are no spoilers here. 

This chapter is a spring of inspiration, of hope, and of innovative genius. It will make you want to sink deeper into every facet of each design. It will make you want to practice what Pawlyn, and others, preach.  

9. What does biomimicry mean for people?

At the beginning of this book, Pawlyn references Buckminster Fuller's ambition to ‘make the world work for a hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone’.

In this chapter he brings that message home. 

Bringing biomimicry into architectural design is an opportunity to question the way things work, and to design for the future we want. 

We can create functional, healthy spaces that incite a respectful reconciliation with nature.

We can out-design waste, and create material flows that are not harmful to human life.

We can incentivise resource efficiency, and avoid resource-based conflicts. 

We can manage water, food and energy challenges. 

We can, if we try. 

The more our designs and systems start to function as nature, the better we will be able to create that positive future that is now confined to our imaginations. But it is no longer a dream…

As Pawlyn, himself, puts it: ‘This is not a romantic allusion to some intangible Arcadia… [it is] a route map based on scientific rigour that can be translated by the human imagination into a tangible reality’.

Biomimicry in Architecture is that route map, and in the right hands, can you imagine what you could do? 

We strongly suggest you purchase the book: Biomimicry in Architecture.

You can add the book Biomimicry in Architecture to cart here

Thanks for reading

Wild regards
Rebecca MacKinnon, Biomimicry Practitioner and Biomimicry Educator Facilitator
(MSc Bio-Inspired Innovation, Utrecht University)

About the author: Rebecca found her love for biomimicry in 2015, when she found the intersection of two things she loved most: science and design. She has a background in Marine Biology from the University of Cape Town and a Masters in Bio-inspired Innovation from Utrecht University. Nowadays, you'll find her working alongside the incredible Learn Biomimicry team; teaching biomimicry to architects; and developing her skills in Regenerative Design.

Still curious? 

Check out our free ebook: A Guide to Biomimicry here


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