BIOMIMICRY, Nature: Architecture of the Future

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

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

2 hours


Nature has inspired architecture for centuries. From the delicate designs of the aqueducts to the stucco facades of the Mediterranean, local and regional ecosystems play a major role in the design and function of the buildings we use every day. But what does the future hold for architecture in relationship to ecology and sustainability? Can the natural world provide us with a template for smarter buildings and more efficient designs?

Roman aqueducts created an extensive water transportation system that connected water sources with densely populated regions. 

243627013_5187dc0e1c_z   385776_WMKlUKZ2   Ojibwe_wiigiwaam_and_Dakota-style_tipis,_White_Earth_1928     The adobe structure and the wigwam are both forms of architecture employed before Europeans invaded what would come to be known as the Americas.  Both utilize very different building techniques due to the surrounding climate and available resources In this exercise students will consider the relationship between nature and design by comparing and contrasting historical examples of architecture influenced by the natural world. Students will also design architectural models for the future of their community or school considering local variables like climate and native materials. These designs will integrate concepts of green design and biomimicry into sketches and brainstorming sessions that reflect on key issues in US History and Geography.

National Standards

Common Core Literacy for Other Subjects Strand Reading for History/Social Studies Grades 6-8 RH.6-8.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources. RH.6-8.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies. RH.6-8.7. Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts. Common Core English Language Arts Strand Speaking and Listening SL.6.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. SL.6.2. Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study. SL.6.4. Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation. SL.6.5. Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information. United States History Era 1 - Three Worlds Meet (Beginnings to 1620) Standard 2. Understands cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected people resulting from early European exploration and colonization Era 4 - Expansion and Reform (1801-1861) Standard 9. Understands the United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans Era 6 - The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900) Standard 16. Understands how the rise of corporations, heavy industry, and mechanized farming transformed American society Geography Environment and Society Standard 15. Understands how physical systems affect human systems Benchmark 1. Knows the ways in which human systems develop in response to conditions in the physical environment (e.g., patterns of land use, economic livelihoods, architectural styles of buildings, building materials, flows of traffic, recreation activities)  
Benchmark 2. Knows factors that affect the number and types of organisms an ecosystem can support (e.g., available resources; abiotic factors such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition; disease; competition from other organisms within the ecosystem; predation)

Common Core State Standards

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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.6 Analyze the author's purpose in providing an explanation, describing a procedure, or discussing an experiment in a text.

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.

English Language Arts Standards Writing 

Grade 6-8

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.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.8.3 Delineate a speaker's argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.
  • 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).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.5 Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6-8.6 Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author distinguishes his or her position from that of others.

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.


• Students will learn how concepts of biomimicry and ecological design drive trends in architecture, past and present.
• Students will be challenged to re-design their school buildings or homes using characteristics found in the local bioregion.
• Students will consider how architecture and design are influenced by biological phenomena



Image List handouts and tracing paper For Biomimicry Design Lab:
  • Building Materials – cardboard base, sticks, soil, rocks, shells, feathers, pinecones, seeds, leaves, animal fur, bones
  • Construction materials – tape, glue, rulers, pencils


• Biomimicry - Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) emulates or takes inspiration from nature to solve human problems sustainably.
• Sustainable architecture is a general term that describes environmentally-conscious design techniques in the field of architecture.
• The term ecosystem refers to the combined physical and biological components of an environment.
• Bioregion is an ecologically and geographically defined area.  Bioregions cover relatively large areas of land or water, and contain characteristic, geographically distinct assemblages of natural communities and species.


1. Introduction to Biomimicry (10 minutes – Review)
Introduce the concept of biomimicry to students; make sure to supply them with many examples. You can use the online resource, which has a database of examples to draw from. Biomimicry (from bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate) emulates or takes inspiration from nature to solve human problems sustainably. Talk about examples in your local community using local environmental cues tied to the landscape, climate and terrain.
Now ask students to consider how this concept relates to architecture.
2. Activity: Forms and Shapes in Nature
To warm-up students to this concept of biomimicry and architecture, ask students to think about basic shapes and patterns found in nature. Provide students with pictures of common natural environments like a tree, a bird\'s nest, mountains, rivers or mammals etc. Ask each student to take a piece of tracing paper and find common shapes like squares, circles, triangles and polygons embedded in each image. (See PDF)
While students are sketching explain that architecture is all about designing spaces and structures in relationship to the world around us. An architect will consider many things that are dependent on the site in which the structure is going to be built and the needs of the people who will use it.
Explain that nature does the same thing. The architecture of trees responds to where water and sunlight are prevalent. A mole creates tunnels in the ground because this is the best “architecture” for his/her need to be hidden from predators. If we think about buildings and architecture in this way, as organisms that respond to natural systems, we can begin to understand how nature, design and architecture intersect.
We are going to consider how early settlers and Native Americans used concepts of ecology and biomimicry in the architecture of their buildings and homes.  Although it may not seem obvious, the specific location in which a settler or Native American resided governed the availability of certain materials for building. Natural surroundings also determined the kind of structures that could be supported by the soil and landscape type and other factors including climate and weather. So the structures found in the Southwest (adobe huts) are vastly different from those found in the Northeast (wigwams) . Each is a responce to the local environment. In the south, clay is available and works well with the intense heat and constant sunlight. In the north, timber and trees are highly prevalent and work well with the amount of rain and cold that characterize the region.
Architecture can be a large concept, so take time to focus on the form and function of natural systems, animals and other elements. Architecture is a language and in this lesson our goal is to connect the concepts of ecology and the design of buildings and structures for people. In many ways these two concepts can come together, but only through relevant and concrete examples. Take this opportunity to connect students to the hidden history of nature-inspired design -- a history that tells the story of architecture’s intimate relationship to nature and the many variables that have affected the kinds of buildings we live in today and will inhabit in the future.
End this discussion with an essential question.  For example: \"What can we learn from these early architectural forms as inspiration for a more environmentally friendly architecture of the future?\"
3. Historical and Environmental Connections (10 minutes – Investigate)
To focus this connection between nature and architecture, consider three points of US History as reference for discussion:
  • Three Worlds Meet (Beginnings to 1620) - Discuss some initial US History concerning Native American culture and architecture. How did Native Americans use natural materials in their local ecosystem for tents, housing and other structures? Discuss different tribes throughout the continent. How did their bioregion (or ecological location) affect the kinds of structures they built? In the South versus the West? In the North versus the East? What kinds of materials were available to use?
  • Expansion and Reform (1801-1861) – As manifest destiny pushed the United States westward, what kinds of impromptu architecture, housing and structures were inspired by the prairies and new landscapes of California?
  • The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900) – With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, factories made it possible for steel and other materials to be used in housing and buildings. How did this begin to affect the landscape of American architecture and our relationship to the environment?
  1. To get students thinking critically about these historical examples of architecture as a response to the natural environment, have students sketch out some architectural influences used by Native Americans, western settlers and early industrialists in America.
  2. Construct an architectural timeline that responds to the way that Americans have related to the environment.
  3. As in the previous activity, identify common shapes like triangles, rectangles and circles in the designs and relate these to the concepts of biomimicry.
  4. Share findings with the class and talk about major patterns and relationships identified.
4. Investigating the Local (10 Minutes - Frame/ReFrame)
After looking into some historical and contemporary issues, begin to investigate your own neighborhood and location. Take students on a field study around the school or divide students into field research teams and have them use the Internet or library to understand more about their region in terms of its ecology.
Require students to research the local bioregional characteristics and the climate of the region. What bioregion are you located in? Does it rain a lot? Is it sunny? Using the categories below, create a rubric and ask students to conduct research about these local situations or use historical examples (listed below) to gather information about how biomimicry is being used in the following situations:
  1. Materials 
  2. Form and Shape
  3. Bioregion (location) & Climate
  4. Relationship to Local Surroundings
Local and Historic Examples:
  1. Your Community
  2. Native American Wigwams
  3. Earthships in the Southwest
  4. Adobe Huts in South America
  5. Tuscan Villas and Mediterranean Plazas
  6. African Grass Huts
Once data has been collected, ask students to reflect on the architecture you find in your town, for example on the highways vs. downtown. What’s the difference? Introduce design principles organized by architect David Pearson who proposed a list of rules towards the design of organic architecture. Let the design:
  • be inspired by nature and be sustainable, healthy, conserving and diverse.
  • unfold, like an organism, from the seed within.
  • exist in the \"continuous present\" and \"begin again and again.\"
  • follow the flows and be flexible and adaptable.
  • satisfy social and physical needs.
  • \"grow out of the site\" and be unique.
How do these historical examples meet all or some of these criteria? What about architecture found in your own community?
Design Examples:
  • A great example to reference from the 2010 National Design Triennial is the Mapungubwe National Park Interpretive Center in South Africa. A part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Center uses locally manufactured tiles to replace the more energy-intensive fired-clay bricks used around the region, and local workers are trained as masons in order to construct the complex. Each building is designed to operate with very low energy requirements, and most of the construction materials come directly from the site. The largest vault spans sixty feet, and the form of the vaults is determined to minimize the compressive stresses in the weak soil bricks. The project is part of a poverty-relief program that trains local workers and develops new means of livelihood. According to Ochsendorf, had they fabricated concrete panels and transported them to the site, the building would not have changed the area. In the end, masonry surpasses its historic associations and becomes a means of economic empowerment and a catalyst for new sustainable forms.
  • Another great example is HydroNet: San Francisco 2108. San Francisco–based designers IwamotoScott created HydroNet as an experimental project in response to the design challenge of conceiving the city one hundred years in the future. Predicated on the belief that future circulation networks in cities will be more connected but also more self-sufficient, the project proposes a citywide, multi-scale transportation network that collects, distributes, and stores fresh water, geothermal energy, and hydrogen fuel.
5. Biomimicry Design Lab: Part One (15-20 minutes - Generate Possible Solutions)
Now, present students with a design problem that challenges students to incorporate 1 or 2 principles of biomimicry into a new design for a building inspired by nature. Look at the 2010 National Design Triennial’s New Carver Apartments project by Michael Maltzan to get ideas on how the shape and form of a building can integrate in terms of the ecological and social needs of the community.
Step One: Present each design team with a challenge:
Present a series of design challenges to groups of 3-4 student design teams. The challenge should focus on the built environment or the architecture of buildings.
Example Design Challenges:
  • Design a structure that can float on water or sit on land
  • Design a house that uses no or little electricity but could be bright all day long
  • Design a building that can be used to grow food
  • Design a public space that mimics the local landscape of your area
  • Architects are using the design of termite mounds to naturally cool buildings.
  • Designers are creating rooftop farms to grow food and absorb carbon emissions from their
  • buildings.
  • Architects are developing windows that have PV cells embedded in the glass to gather energy.
Step Two: Identify the problem and brainstorm solutions
Depending on the selected  design challenge, students should identify their problem area. Next, they should brainstorm solutions using historical and contemporary examples of biomimicry-inspired design.
Step Three: Sketch and formalize a response through design
Finally students should use design-thinking to formalize a solution. This should encompass a detailed sketch and description.
Encourage students to design a structure that responds to its local environment. Each student should create sketches that use natural shapes and forms to design ideas for architecture. Help students finalize ideas and formalize the connections they have drawn to local ecology.
Visuals are key for this lesson. Search the biomimicry database and the Open Architecture Network database for examples and images (see hyperlinks above).
6. Biomimicry Design Lab: Part Two (20 minutes - Edit and Develop)
After developing sketches and brainstorming ideas, each student (or team of students) should construct a 3D model. Students should note the biomimicry design principles that their model reflects.
7. Biomimicry Design Lab: Part Three (20 minutes - Share and Evaluate)
After designing models, students share their designs with the class. Reflect on each organic architecture principle used in the design and how the form and/or materials of the design relate to local ecology. Give opportunities for other students and the teacher to ask questions and provide feedback.


Reflection Questions
  • What elements of nature are mimicked in your design?
  • Is your design in any way similar to those of designers in the Cooper-Hewitt’s Triennial?
  • How could your design help save energy, reduce waste or otherwise benefit the environment through the use of natural influences?
  • How difficult or easy would it be to implement your design?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School: To connect to your science lesson, provide lots of photos and videos of animals in their habitats for your class. Each student group can choose one animal/habitat (birds & nests, beaver & dam, coyotes & dens, etc.) and use images of these habitats as inspiration for their designs. Differentiation for High School: Each design team can research one real-world example of biomimicry in architecture. They can reach out to the architecture firm that designed it by phone or email for an interview. If possible, bring in an architect to provide feedback during the class presentations.

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