BIOMIMICRY, Housing Naturally: Habitat as Model

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Science

Lesson Time

1-2 days


Animals create homes for themselves in a variety of ways.  They burrow into the ground, nest in hollowed out trees, and sleep in damp, dark caves. Animals even cohabitate with humans, building nests in our chimneys and on top of telephone poles. The ingenious architecture animals use has been perfected over centuries, providing a unique model of design, form and function.
This bird's nest is situated atop a telephone pole and illustrates the concept of cohabitation.
In this lesson, students will consider the habitats of animals in their community and around the world. They will create eco-friendly designs and architectures based on the shape, material and overall design of an animal habitat for use in the built environment. Concepts of ecology and biomimicry will be used broadly as a starting point for students to imagine and design a new home using animal habitats as a model. Alongside these designs, students will write stories and essays about their designs from the perspective of the animal that inspired the design. This lesson is intended to compliment core standards in language arts.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects
Grades 6-8
Common Core English Language Arts
Grades 6-8

Common Core State Standards

Production and Distribution of Writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.5 With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas clearly and efficiently.
Research to Build and Present Knowledge:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7 Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9 Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

English Language Arts Standards: Speaking and Listening

Grade 6-8

Comprehension and Collaboration:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.1.A Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.2 Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.4 Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with relevant evidence, sound valid reasoning, and well-chosen details; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.5 Integrate multimedia and visual displays into presentations to clarify information, strengthen claims and evidence, and add interest.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6-8.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 8 Language standards 1 and 3 here for specific expectations.)

English Language Arts Standards: Reading Informational Text

Grade 6-8    

Key Ideas and Details:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.1 Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.2 Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.3 Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events).

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.7 Compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text, analyzing each medium's portrayal of the subject (e.g., how the delivery of a speech affects the impact of the words).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient to support the claims.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-7.9 Analyze how two or more authors writing about the same topic shape their presentations of key information by emphasizing different evidence or advancing different interpretations of facts.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
  • English Language Arts Standards: Science & Technical Subjects 

    Grade 6-8    

    Key Ideas and Details:

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.3 Follow precisely a multistep procedure when carrying out experiments, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks.

    Craft and Structure:

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6-8 texts and topics.

  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.7 Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table).

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.8 Distinguish among facts, reasoned judgment based on research findings, and speculation in a text.

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.9 Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

    Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.10 By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend science/technical texts in the grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.


• Students will explore ideas for housing inspired by the habitats of animals in different ecosystems. How can the structure, form and design of animal habitats be adapted to meet the needs of an expanding human population?
• Students will better understand some characteristics of the local bioregion.
• Students will use design-thinking strategies to create new designs and ideas that consider the local environment and biomimicry principles.


Look at Ted Mueling’s vegetable ivory and black pearls design. What kinds of habitats are associated with each material? How does the shape and form of the resulting design reflect the place where the material is found?


Cardboard, tape, glue, string, soil, rocks, twigs, paper, crochet hooks, yarn, old t-shirts


• A habitat (which is Latin for "it inhabits") is an ecological or environmental area that is inhabited by a particular animal or plant species.
• The term ecosystem refers to the combined physical and biological components of an environment
Biomimicry Design Process:
• Define the problem and its context.
• Find organisms with a similar problem & context and observe how they respond to this environment. Find many divergent organisms to see which has the best or most relevant strategy.
• Translate the best strategy to a buildable object; if necessary, find an expert to help.


1. Introduction to Habitats (10 minutes – Review)
Talk to students about the habitats of various animals that live around your school.  Then think about animals living in different places around the world. A habitat is an ecological or environmental area that is inhabited by a particular animal or plant species. How do animals create a “home” for themselves?  Where do animals live in your region of the world?
Talk to students about common and exotic animals they have seen at the zoo and in their neighborhoods. Bears hibernate in caves, birds create nests in trees and moles burrow under the ground.
How do animals use local materials to respond to the local environment? The availability of grasses often defines the kinds of nests birds create. Some birds use their own saliva to create nests in the absence of more "conventional" materials.
Explain the concept of biomimicry – the use of natural structures as inspiration for our everyday life. Use the database at to explore some examples of biomimicry in action.
2. Local Field Study (45 minutes – Investigate)
Take students on a field study of their local area. Arrange a field trip to a local nature center, or take students on a neighborhood walk. Create a field guide of common animals and habitats you would likely see on your walk. Divide students into field study teams – one team can observe things in the sky, one those on the ground and yet another can dedicate themselves to studying structures found in trees.
Create sketches of animal habitats using observations from your field study.  Illustrated books from the library or online can also be inspiring. Encourage students to inspect the structure, shape and overall forms of the habitats they observe.
1. Local Habitats, Local Architecture (10 minutes  Frame/Reframe)
Now begin to talk to students about the kinds of buildings and design we see most frequently. Do these structures in any way resemble the architecture of animal habitats? Why or why not?
Lead a discussion using some of these questions: What could be some benefits of using animal habitats as inspiration for new designs and architecture? How can our local environment help us with clues for good architecture and design for the earth and our bodies?
Discuss the findings of your field study to encourage responses and examples. Next, begin to define and characterize the local region as a class. On the board, create a series of prompts for students to fill in, including:
• Common Animals of the Region
• Climate
• Region of the Earth
• Common Plants of the Region
• Rocks, Mineral and other Non-living Things
Encourage students to research information that will help create content for each of these prompts.  Lastly, announce that in the next session, students will be challenged to design a structure for humans using animal habitats as a model.
Use this table to help identify your bioregion:

Geographic/Eco Regions

Sub Regions

Principle Plant Communities

The Great North



Tundra (no trees)/Sea Ice

Taiga/ Boreal Forest

Great Lakes

Birch/ Beech Forest


Deciduous/ Hardwood Forest


S. Pine/ Cypress Swamp

The Great Prairie

Grasslands (Native Gamma and Buffalo Grass)

The Rockies

Mountain Forest and Meadow

Deserts of the West

Juniper/Sagebrush Scrub; Creosote Scrub

The Pacific Coast

Northwest Coast


Cedar/Redwood Temperate Rainforest

Riparian Oak/Chaparral

Islands of the Pacific/Hawaii

Volcanic Floor/Tropics

2. Habitat Design Lab: Part One (20 Minutes – Generate)
Brainstorm to come up with ideas and sketches of animal habitats students saw on their field study or neighborhood walk. Focus these concepts by asking each student to create a design for a new zoo exhibit. Using the animals found in your region, each student should come up with one design that would provide a suitable, healthy habitat for holding the animal in captivity.
Next, further these designs by asking students to begin sketching a similar design, this time intended for human use. Encourage students to use designs that mimic the shape, form or function of their particular habitat. Make sure students include labels and descriptions.
To provide examples, discuss some major habitat types with students:
• Cave Dwellers – Many animals, from bears to wildcats, use caves as a home. In a cave there is very little light, but a lot of protection. Materials are usually rock or compacted soil.
• Nest – Thousands of species of birds create nests each year for their young. High up in trees, on the side of cliffs or even on the ground, nests are made from a lot of different materials: grass, twigs, mud, saliva, dead leaves and other available materials.
• Burrow – Many small mammals, reptiles and amphibians burrow under the ground. Creating long caves or open chambers, the burrow protects the animals from predators, the hot sun or a cold night. Burrows are usually made in soft, soil earth areas, but can also be found in underwater habitats or in the desert.
• Grass Land – Many different kinds of animals live in a grassland ecosystem. Tall grasses protect antelope and small mammals from being seen by predators. Each night the grass is pushed back to create a small area for sleeping.
• Bee Hives – Bees use an ingenious honeycomb architecture that exploits the world’s strongest shape – the hexagon. The ubiquitous bee hive and honeycomb shape has been used for centuries in everything from hair styles to fuel cells.
3. Activity Extension: Hyperbolic Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are a vital habitat for thousands of different species of aquatic life and plants. Using the 2010 National Design Triennial's case study about the Institute for Figuring’s Coral Reef project, talk about oceanic habitats and some of the looming environmental threats facing many coral reef habitats around the world. The Coral Reef Project has raised awareness about these concerns by inviting communities around the world to add to a large-scale installation composed of crocheted pieces of coral that have formed a collaborative reef. The Institute has instructions on how to add to the reef on their website here:
•The Bleached Reef: The Bleached Reef is a small part of a much larger installation known as the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which is being orchestrated by twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Los Angeles–based Institute for Figuring. The Crochet Reef project was conceived in 2005 by the Wertheims as a response to the devastation of coral reefs worldwide due to the effects of global warming, increasing water temperatures and the acidification of our oceans.
An image of a real bleached reef off of the Australian coast (
If time allows, teach your students how to crochet and create a reef for your classroom. The crocheted reef’s pattern is based on the mathematical concept of the hyperbolic space: Simple instructions on how to crochet can be found here:
To explain the concepts of hyperbolic space to your class, you can use a simple handout and activity that helps students make a soccerball using the principles of hyperbola:
4. Habitat Design Lab: Part Two (30 minutes - Edit and Develop)
Once a sketch and final idea have been approved, allow each team to create a 3D model or diorama of the habitat they have designed for both zoo and human use. Bring in a broad assortment of materials for the students to work with, including natural materials, clay and cardboard.  Have students reproduce their habitat-architecture sketches in 3D. Students should keep track of the materials that they use and be prepared to discuss their designs using labels and notes.
Bring the habitat to life by having each student write a story about the design they have produced. Encourage students to write a story from the perspective of the animal that inspired the structure. (Share and Evaluate)
Read your stories to each other alongside the habitat creations.  If space is available, display the models, sketches and stories around the school or classroom.


Reflection Questions
  • Why did you design a habitat inspired by the animal that you chose?
  • Could your design ideas be used in a range of situations?  Could they be used in big and small buildings?  Family homes or office buildings?
  • What kinds of technology would you like to install in an animal-inspired habitat designed for humans?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Provide lots of photos and models of animal habitats for students to observe and study as they create their own designs.
  • Read age-appropriate picture books that include animal habitats with your class.
  • To help bridge the gap between animal habitats and architecture, provide examples and images of biomimicry in architecture such as the Beijing National Stadium or the Eden Project.
  • Students can write short stories, songs, poems or skits about the animal who lives in their habitat. They can share their writing with the class.
Differentiation for High School:
  • High school students can do a case study of an example of biomimicry in architecture as well as the habitat or natural phenomenon that inspired it. The case studies should be shared with the class through in-class presentations or on a class blog.
  • During the design process, begin with sketches of the chosen animal habitat as inspiration, but focus more on the architectural design. Students should keep in mind the function of the building they are designing and allow that to inform their design. Is their building a housing unit, an office building, a school, a mall, etc.? Make sure there is a direct connection between the animal habitat chosen and the function of the building. A coral reef-inspired design might make sense for a resort hotel, but not for a skyscraper.

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