We can build like termites and save money doing it

I first read about Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce’s innovative approach to designing buildings that suit their environment and don’t waste natural resources quite some time ago – probably about the time I read Janine Benyrus’ ground-breaking book on how we could learn to design from nature, which kicked off biomimicry.

Termite mound in Tanzania. Via Wikimedia Commons.
By Vierka Maráková, Slovakia – Own work, Public Domain,

Simply put, “biomimicry is the practice of looking to nature for inspiration to solve design problems in a regenerative way.” And that is how Pearce designs buildings in Zimbabwe, Australia, China and Somalia. Considering that operating buildings represents 40% of all the energy used by humanity,” Biomimicry notes, “learning how to design them to be more sustainable is vitally important.” This approach is catching on.

Pearce always starts his designs “by first considering the geography of the place, the climate, as well as the social environment. [I incorporate] the natural environment, social environment, and, of course, the economic environment.” He doesn’t design cookie-cutter buildings; he works with nature, seeing his buildings as part of the ecosystem.

When I first learned about Eastgate, I went on a Mick Pearce kick, reading and watching everything I could find about him. And what has always stuck with me is his belief that buildings need to be designed for at least 100 years – by which time, he argues, we will be well past our current oil and gas bubble and once again reliant on the sun. And so must our buildings. Our use of non-renewable resources, he says, will one day be seen like grinding up diamonds to fill a car’s gas tank.

And that’s why it is so practical, as well as cost-effective, to use nature’s strategies in building and thus create sustainable buildings that are part of the ecosystem around them. To use nature’s gifts of sunlight, wind, and water in ways that power our society rather than drain it. Like the termites.

The Eastgate centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, has been saving money since it opened in 1996, through its passive climate control system. Like self-cooling termite mounds which keep their internal temperature within one degree day and night, Eastgate uses the difference between the cold night air and warmer daytime air to cool the building. “Eastgate uses 90% percent less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size, and has already saved the building owners over $3.5 million dollars in air conditioning costs,” says a Biomimicry Institute case study

“The approximately 32,000 square meter building was built with 10 percent of the typical ventilation costs for the area, 35 percent less energy costs, and 10 percent fewer typical capital costs, translating to a savings of $3.5 million for a $36 million building,” bio-inspired design teacher Tom McKeag explains in Green Business.

Pearce is using a different kind of differential in designing a building in Mogadishu, Somalia. “I went to the fish market and saw such enormous tuna being pulled out and realized that the sea was very deep near the city…..So, I developed a system in which we pump water up from about 1,000 meters down. The water comes up at about four degrees celsius.”

“We put the cold seawater through a coil, and we can then distill water out of the air, and it comes out as distilled water. You can use that as a cooling system. This is how nature works. You see a differential—a difference between the temperature at the top (25°C) and the temperature about 1,000 meters down (4°C), and you can use that to generate free energy and free water—that’s what we’re going to do.”

Built a decade after Eastgate, Council House 2 in Melbourne, Australia, is not just a much healthier building for those who work there – it was expected to have paid for all its $11-million worth of environmentally friendly features in five or six years because its sustainable design increases productive staff time by about $2 million (Australian) a year. The 10-storey, 12,500 square metre building is estimated to achieve a reduction of 80% in typical energy use and 70% in water use. See it here.

“Melbourne Council House 2 (CH2) is a multi-award winning and inspirational building that has reduced CO2 emissions by 87%, electricity consumption by 82%, gas by 87% and water by 72%. The building purges stale air at night and pulls in 100% fresh air during the day. The building exterior moves with the sun to reflect and collect heat, and turns sewage into usable water.” It was the first in the country to achieve the highest possible rating of six stars in Australia’s Green Star environmental accreditation. 

The ‘developing’ world has lessons to teach the developed world about frugal design and learning from nature, Pearce says in a fascinating interview with Green Dreamer. “Africans are very connected with nature; they have to be.” For example, regular power cuts in Zimbabwe mean he uses solar power, which he knows how to maintain himself. Life in the developing world teaches people to be frugal and self-reliant, and that changes the approach to design.

Having a holistic approach to design is vital, he says. You have to know about all the aspects of designing, building and using buildings. In the case of one proposed shopping centre in Harare, he learned there was a market for it by speaking with street vendors who were paying enormous ‘rents’ to ‘space barons’ for using the pavement.

These buildings are a ‘breath of fresh air‘, as the people who work in Council House 2 say. But they are also a cost-saving, sustainable way of working with nature – and that is vital in a time when we are seeing the impact of climate change all around us.


Using biomimicry for more bioregionally appropriate architectural design (An interview with architect Mick Pearce)

Case example: Sustainable building secrets of termites. Biomimicry Institute.

Biomimicry Institute

These self-cooled buildings were inspired by termites and frogs. Grist.

Council House 2 – A Video Tour. You Tube.

Council House 2. City of Melbourne.

Lincolne Scott – Green Building Award. You Tube.