Architects inspired by engineers of insect world

Mark Rowe
Sunday 14 March 1999 00:02 GMT

THE NEXT time you complain that your office is full of back-stabbing cockroaches, think again: it may have been designed by them. Architects are turning to the insect world for ideas on creating the homes and working environments of the 21st century.

The move is driven by necessity. Scientists believe that, as fossil fuels dry up, termites, ants and spiders can offer valuable insights into how to design more environmentally-friendly offices, bridges and homes.

Termite mounds can teach us how to ventilate high-rise buildings, according to the organisers of the Animal Construction Company, an exhibition forming part of Glasgow's year as the city of architecture and design, while spider's webs offer ideas on the structure of suspension bridges and anthills are far more intricate than the most futuristic offices.

"Animals use materials not just because they work well but because they are efficient," said Dr Mike Hansell, senior lecturer at Glasgow University's Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences. "Natural selection says the rewards go to those creatures who get most benefit out of their investments, so an animal's structure will use as little energy as possible."

Architects have much to learn from the insect world, according to Dr Hansell, who has been researching animal building behaviour for 30 years. "We need to investigate them much more thoroughly. We can see things insects are doing that we do, but they're also doing things which we haven't cottoned on to yet," he said.

One of the key lessons humans can draw from termite mounds is how to ventilate high-rise buildings by natural rather than mechanical means. In relative terms, termite mounds are the tallest buildings in the world. When proportionate sizes of man and termite are taken into account, the 450m Petronas Towers in Malaysia are only one third the height of the average termite mound.

"Termite mounds are whopping great structures. How is it a termite, which is nothing more than a fancy cockroach, can build something like that? It must be straightforward but it's very elegant, so it has to be worthwhile to learn from them," said Dr Hansell.

Air-conditioning and cooling systems often account for up to 25 per cent of a building's running costs. "The mud constructions of termites have an efficient air-con system," said Dr Hansell. "Termites build their mounds to allow hot air to be pushed into channels and down to the basement where it is cooled before rising again as it gets hotter. This allows the heat difference to move air around and save energy."

Architects are already acting upon these guidelines. The nine-storey Eastgate Centre in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, used a termite mound as a prototype for its ventilation. "The problem with air-con systems for Harare is that they are imported, so if they break down you must wait for a replacement and foreign exchange isn't always to hand," said Mark Facer of Ove Arup, the engineers who were employed as advisers on the scheme.

"Termite mounds are an inspiration. They adjust ventilation rates to control temperature and some shape their mounds in relation to solar positions. We did both with the Eastgate building," he said.

Spider webs also have much to offer. "You can see parallels between their attachment devices and suspension and cable-stay bridges. You look at a spider's web and realise the ingenuity that is going on," said Dr Hansell. And aircraft carrier designers can learn from the way in which webs are designed to catch flies travelling at high speed without breaking or risking a "trampoline" effect.

And the humble termite may have one more lesson for mankind, according to Dr Hansell. "We're curious to know who is in charge when the termites build their mounds. We have architects, site engineers and the hard-hat boys. But in the insect world everybody knows what they have to do - that might tell us something about how workforces function."

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