Amazing Nature

Natural Masters of Architecture

Originally published in Green Country, Issue 130 (Feb 2018)
Author: Green Power
The paper nest built by paper wasps
Paper wasps build nests of beautiful structures which have led to innovations in paper-making in human history.
Photo from Pixabay

Nature has always been a source of inspiration for humans. Long before the term "biomimetics" was coined, we had invented aircraft, submarines, and radar systems by observing birds in flight, fluid dynamics of swimming fish and echoes of bats. There are also ample architectural masters in nature that offer us a diverse range of innovative ideas even today.

The paper nest built by Vespa affinis
Vespa affinis is a paper wasp found in Hong Kong. The photograph shows its paper nest.
© Ho Ching Yuen

Home of paper-making wasps

We are familiar with the hexagonal honeycombs made out of beeswax. There are several wasp species from the Vespidae family, collectively known as paper wasps, that construct "paper nests". The wasp queen, who is responsible for making the nest, masticates wood and plant fibres, and mixes them with saliva and water to form pliable pulp as the building material. The queen strengthens the paper nest by secreting a kind of protein to make it water-proof. The "paper-making" technology of wasps led to advances in paper-making in 18th century Europe.

A damaged spider's web
A spider's web functions properly even if it is damaged at a certain spot (indicated by the arrow). This principle can be applied in many areas of technology.
Photo from Pixabay

The Exceptional Spider Net

Spider webs may seem spooky, but they are not so in the eyes of engineers and researchers. A three-dimensional web is woven with elastic, strong silk produced from the spinnerets at the tail of the spider. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, noticed that the overall structure of the web, in combination with the strength of the material, allows damage to the web to be limited to a small area, and be repaired without affecting the function of the whole web. The resilient design can be applied in different fields such as material science, architecture and civil engineering, and perhaps more importantly in information technology, where virus spread can be localised and controlled in a networked system.

A beaver dam made by Castor canadensis
Engineers are designing more eco-friendly dams based on the example of dams made by beavers. (Arrow indicates a beaver dam made by Castorcanadensisin a channel within Grand Teton National Park.)
Photo from Pixabay

Barrier-free Beaver Dam

Beavers are renowned as nature's engineers. Castor canadensis and Castor fiber, the two beaver species, make use of wood, mud and rocks to build dams across rivers, creating deep water ponds for them to build nests and forage. Unlike man-made dams that block migratory fish, beaver dams are passible for trout and salmon. This has inspired some American engineers to design a series of smaller dams in place of a single large dam for building reservoir or hydropower to protect migratory fish.

The giant termite mound
The giant termite mound is a source of inspiration for our green architecture.
Photo from Pixabay

Termite's Giant Eco-Building

If there were a Grand Architecture Award in the animal kingdom, the prize would go to termite mounds! Many tropical termite species, themselves tiny, can build a mound over 10 metres in height. A termite mound is not only giant but also a complicated structure, with an extensive system of inner tunnels and conduits. Perhaps more surprisingly, the termite colony does not live in the mound. The mound is only the ventilation and temperature regulating system of the real subterranean home, which sits underneath the mound. We have indeed learned a lot from the delicate, ecologically sound and energy saving design of the little creatures.