Sustainable architecture aims to design buildings that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout their entire life cycle. Termite mounds present an intriguing model for sustainable architecture, as these complex structures regulate temperature, humidity, gases and ventilation remarkably well. Understanding and replicating aspects of termite mound architecture could revolutionize how we design sustainable human habitats.
The incredible engineering of termite mounds
Termite mounds, sometimes reaching over 30 feet tall, are incredible feats of natural engineering. Their intricate internal structure serves various functions:
- Termites maintain their cores at a constant 30°C, despite extreme external temperatures.
- The mound’s porous outer walls absorb heat during the day. This heat gets transferred inward and drawn out at night through chimney-like tunnels, cooling the core.
- Termites open or close vents to control airflow and moderate the internal temperature.
- Humidity levels inside the mound are kept at 90-95%.
- Outer walls absorb and release moisture. The porous material soaks up water and evaporates it into the air.
- Fungus combs inside the mound store water vapor and regulate humidity.
- Carbon dioxide levels are regulated through a network of vents and flues to ensure adequate air quality.
- Oxygen enters through porous outer walls. Rising warmth inside the mound creates an updraft, expelling carbon dioxide.
- This passive ventilation circulates air efficiently without any moving parts.
- The mound shape withstands heavy rains, spreading water efficiently around the base.
- Multiple chambers are separated by thin walls, preventing collapse if part of the mound is damaged.
- Temperature regulation prevents overheating, even in direct sunlight.
These passive systems maintain a stable, comfortable, internal environment without electricity.
Engineering principles to learn from termite mounds
Several architectural design principles can be adapted from studying termite mounds:
Temperature control through thermal mass
- Using thick earthen walls to absorb heat during the day and release it at night for passive cooling.
Moisture buffering through porous materials
- Incorporating natural porous materials like clay, concrete and wood to absorb and release moisture.
- Optimizing building orientation and openings to take advantage of natural wind patterns.
Resilience through bio-mimicry
- Designing buildings with multiple, separated chambers akin to termite mounds increases resilience.
- Having multiple, connected micro-structures rather than a single large building improves ventilation, cooling and resilience.
By emulating these principles found in termite mounds, sustainable architecture can benefit greatly.
Bio-mimicry: How designers are imitating termite mounds
Many architects worldwide are directly imitating aspects of termite mounds in their designs:
Eastgate Centre, Harare, Zimbabwe
- Designed by Mick Pearce in 1996, Eastgate Centre is a large office and shopping complex.
- It has no conventional air conditioning or heating, yet stays regulated year-round.
- The building uses passive ventilation and thermal mass cooling inspired by termite mounds.
CH2 Building, Melbourne, Australia
- This commercial building mimics termite mound ventilation via a lattice-like concrete façade.
- Openings allow breezes through while providing shade.
- Exhaust vents at the top let out heat and stale air.
Zimbabwe University Health Sciences Building
- Designed by Pearce Partnership Architects and completed in 2015.
- Mimics termite mounding structurally using passive ventilation and moisture control.
- Continues to perform well despite power and water shortages.
These examples demonstrate the viability of bio-mimicry to achieve truly sustainable architecture.
Challenges in commercial application
While nature’s designs provide inspiration, certain challenges exist in adopting these innovations commercially:
- Initial costs can be higher for bespoke designs like Eastgate Centre.
- Building standards and practices don’t account for radical sustainable designs.
- Knowledge gaps remain in fully understanding and optimizing nature-based engineering.
- His and Her’s podcast episode 215 covers additional challenges.
Further interdisciplinary research between biologists, engineers and architects can pave the way for buildings that match the comfort and efficiency of termite mounds.
The future of sustainable architecture
Termite mounds demonstrate that remarkably sustainable architecture is possible using simple passive design principles and readily available materials. By studying and imitating nature’s engineering, we can progressively reduce the environmental footprint of human habitats. Buildings using bio-mimicry and natural engineering will play a leading role in sustainable architecture in the decades to come.