What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings

What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings

Sections SEARCH Skip to content Skip to site index Science Subscribe Log In Log In Today’s Paper Science | What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings Advertisement Supported by Trilobites “We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” a researcher said. ByJoAnna Klein March 26, 2019 In the capital of Zimbabwe, a building called Eastgate Centre holds nearly 350,000 square-feet of office space and shops. It uses 90 percent less energy than a similar sized building next door. What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites. In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the building’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds built by fungus-farming termites he saw on a nature show. The insects created their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside. As architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world, a study of another type of termite mound suggests that Mr. Pearce won’t be the last human to take design tips from these cockroach cousins. “We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” said Kamaljit Singh, an engineer at Imperial College London and an author on the study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances. “We can learn from small animals.” [ Like the Science Times page on Facebook. | Sign up for the Science Times newsletter. ] Dr. Singh and his colleagues used high-resolution scanning technology and computer and physical simulations… [Read full story]


What termites can teach us about cooling our buildings

How do you cool a building without air conditioning?

In nature, termites build skyscraper-like mounds that are ventilated by a complex system of tunnels. By emulating the ingenuity of termites, Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce used an approach called biomimicry to design a natural cooling system that harnessed nature. The result is an architectural marvel that achieves 90 percent passive climate control by taking cool air into the building at night and expelling heat throughout the day.

In this first installation of the Decoder series, see how the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe utilizes a termite-inspired climate control system. To learn more, read “Termite Climate Control” from the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

See how termites inspired a building that can cool itself

How do you cool a building without air conditioning?

In nature, termites build skyscraper-like mounds that are ventilated by a complex system of tunnels. By emulating the ingenuity of termites, Zimbabwean architect Mick Pearce used an approach called biomimicry to design a natural cooling system that harnessed nature. The result is an architectural marvel that achieves 90 percent passive climate control by taking cool air into the building at night and expelling heat throughout the day.

In this first installation of the Decoder series, see how the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe utilizes a termite-inspired climate control system. To learn more, read “Termite Climate Control” from the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.


Termites Are Teaching Architects to Design Super-Efficient Skyscrapers

Termites Are Teaching Architects to Design Super-Efficient Skyscrapers

When a green architect does a particularly good job, you’ll know it by the bling: the silver, gold, and platinum LEED certifications that emblazon buildings’ exteriors. But the best eco-conscious constructions don’t need a seal of approval—and their builders probably wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. Mound termites, native to Africa, South Asia, and Australia, are pros at building self-regulating structures that maintain oxygen levels, temperature, and humidity. And now human architects and engineers want to adapt that ingenuity for their own designs.

From the outside, a termite structure just looks like a pile of dirt. But if you slice one in half—difficult considering some can be more than 30 feet tall—things get a bit more complicated. The above-ground mound has an outer wall riddled with holes, which lead to a labyrinth of tunnels that themselves lead to a series of chimneys. And below the mound is a large, oval nest, where the queen resides.

That queen needs to breathe somehow. “If we buried ourselves a meter underground we wouldn’t last very long if we didn’t have some way of getting oxygen from the atmosphere down to us,” says Scott Turner, a biologist at the State University of New York, Syracuse. “It’s the same logic in the termite mounds.”

How does the mound dissipate air through its network of holes? As the sun moves through the sky during the day, the air in the thinner chimneys on the outer edges of the mound heat up quickly, while the air in the mound’s big, central chimney stays relatively cool. Hot air rises up through the outer chimneys and cool air in the central chimney sinks, circulating air continuously—injecting oxygen and flushing out carbon dioxide. At night, the flow reverses as the outer chimney air cools down quicker than the inner chimney air.

Mimicking termites’ strategies, architects and engineers can drastically improve energy efficiency in buildings. Take Mick Pearce, a Zimbabwean architect who designed the award-winning Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe. Similar to termite mounds, the concrete outer walls of Eastgate are porous. As wind blows through the tunnels on a hot day, the concrete sucks up the heat, cooling the wind before it whooshes into the shopping center. Fans flush the heat out of the concrete at night so it will be ready to store more heat the next day. Following termites’ lead, Pearce cut energy use down to about 10 percent of a normal building that size.

“Ultimately, we want to bring termite ventilation to buildings because it would allow the buildings to breathe freely,” says Rupert Soar, a biomimetic expert at Nottingham Trent University. The next step: mimicking the *process *of termite construction. Scientists have already programmed computer termites to design complex structures based on real behavior—things like complicated porous walls with intersecting tunnels and ducts.

Actually building those structures will be more difficult than designing them. But Soar says the bottleneck is 3-D printing. Once large-scale 3-D printing technology catches on in construction, you may be living in your own termite mound.


What termites can teach architects

By Carolyn Fry

Termite mounds are proving to be an innovative source of inspiration to architects – could we benefit from using biomimicry to solve complex human challenges?

If there’s one thing Mother Nature’s good at, it’s being efficient. Take a termite mound, for example.

These conical mud towers that punctuate the parched red landscapes of the tropics are built by termites harvesting mud from below the ground, mixing it with saliva and extruding it. Each mound is the result of hundreds of insects making individual decisions on when and where to place these gobbets of ‘cement’, guided by climatic, environmental and social conditions. The constant war fought between competing termites for precious mud resources and desirable locations, and the repeated recycling of materials by weathering, results in an efficient and sustainable building. This finished termite ‘tower block’ is far larger a construction than an individual insect could build, and can house a vast colony of termites.

If we are to truly take a leaf out of Mother Nature’s book, we must mimic nature’s processes.

Inspired by insects

When it comes to the process of building homes for people, we have had it easy by comparison. With a bountiful supply of natural resources at our fingertips and the intelligence to use them innovatively, we have not been driven by such a need for efficiency in construction, where all a building’s uses (from heating to circulating air and harvesting energy from nature) are integrated seamlessly into the construction process from the outset. However, with the Earth’s population soon to exceed 10 billion, and the competition for dwindling natural resources becoming fiercer, we need to adopt an approach that is closer to that of termites. So how do we do that, without physically fighting our neighbours to build houses, and living in vast communities?

The term ‘biomimicry’ is given to human efforts to design and produce structures and systems modelled on nature. Architects and engineers have long sought to emulate nature when designing buildings but they have tended to focus on what a construction will look like and what it will be used for. Traditionally, this is how we have viewed nature, too. However, if we are to be motivated by efficiency when designing things, this is the wrong approach, says Rupert Soar, reader in sustainable technologies at Nottingham Trent University. He believes that if we are to truly take a leaf out of Mother Nature’s book, we must do so by mimicking nature’s processes; after all, it is the process by which termites build their mounds that results in the integrated nature of their form and function. We may be able to achieve this, thanks to a union of science, computing and engineering.

’In order to write computer programmes, you have to describe or code a process by which something happens so, as computing technology has advanced, we have begun producing people who understand processes,’ explains Soar. ’And, armed with new laboratory technologies, biologists have begun looking beyond an organism’s shapes and what it does, and have got down to the nitty-gritty of examining how it does it. They are examining how organisms build structures to regulate and control the world around them. So, thanks to technological advances, humanity is now examining and understanding the processes by which nature works in a way we’ve never been able to do before.’

Intelligent creations

A termite mound creates the conditions that a colony of millions of termites needs to thrive. It must protect the termites from the harsh environment, safeguard them against attacks by ants, and supply fresh air deep underground. Some mounds capture the heat of the sun during the day and the cooling effects of the night, to drive a complex circulation of air that flips direction twice a day, to provide fresh air to the colony. One human building inspired by these principles is the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. It has a porous surface that helps to store and release heat during the day-to-night cycle, much like a termite mound. This has helped to slash the energy costs of running the building. However, the widespread adoption of natural processes within construction has not generally been possible because of financial constraints.

One further technological advance may be about to change that: the ability to undertake 3D printing on a large scale at a relatively low cost. The construction company Laing O’Rourke has just launched what it claims is the world’s biggest 3D printer assembly, which will make wax moulds for concrete construction components. Whereas engineers have historically mostly been limited to building in straight lines, this advance will facilitate the use of curves and will enable designers to incorporate aesthetic, structural, acoustic and thermal elements into one design, an approach more in tune with natural processes.

This advance has the potential to take biomimicry in a new direction. Architects will be able to physically replicate the processes by which organisms build habitats or biological membranes, to control the flow of heat, moisture or any other component of ‘comfort’. ’Understanding the processes of construction in nature demands knowing how organisms add and subtract material simultaneously, as they fight over limited resources, which produces efficiency,’ says Soar. ‘We’re now working on the next generation of 3D printers, which will sense the environment they’re printing into; some heads will add material while others subtract it simultaneously. It will take years to reach that point but that’s where we’re headed. It’s about recreating, within the digital sphere, the process of the bloody and fierce negotiation by which nature operates.’


What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings – News

Within the capital of Zimbabwe, a constructing known as Eastgate Centre holds almost 350,000 square-feet of workplace area and retailers. It makes use of 90 p.c much less vitality than the same sized constructing subsequent door.

What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites.

Within the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the constructing’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds constructed by fungus-farming termites he noticed on a nature present. The bugs created their very own air-con methods that circulated scorching and funky air between the mound and the surface.

As architects and builders search new and improved methods to chill buildings with out utilizing extra vitality in a warming world, a examine of one other sort of termite mound means that Mr. Pearce received’t be the final human to take design ideas from these cockroach cousins.

“We predict people are the very best designers, however this isn’t actually true,” stated Kamaljit Singh, an engineer at Imperial Faculty London and an creator on the examine, printed Friday within the journal Science Advances. “We are able to be taught from small animals.”

Dr. Singh and his colleagues used high-resolution scanning expertise and laptop and bodily simulations to look at the microscopic construction of the exterior partitions of African termite nests. In slabs that look strong to the bare eye, the workforce discovered a community of tiny, interconnected pores. Via rules of primary physics, these pores regulate air flow, humidity and presumably temperature, inside the mound and nest. These pure buildings might supply inspiration for engineers and builders, emphasizing how consolation might be achieved by construction alone.

There are round 2,600 species of termites, and solely about two dozen infest and destroy buildings. Many extra are extremely social builders aiming to guard their queens and make sure the survival of their colonies.

Carbon dioxide should exit in order that they don’t suffocate of their underground nests, and oxygen should enter. The mounds termites construct above nests are the lungs that make this respiration attainable.

However there are several types of mounds. Termites that farm fungus construct buildings with chimneys and openings that work like home windows. The buildings of non-farming termites, like those the researchers collected in Senegal and Guinea, don’t have any obvious openings. To the bare eye, “every part appears to be like blocked,” stated Dr. Singh.

However the pores are there, as a result of the mounds are made out of stacking pellets of sand blended with spit and soil. Small areas type inside these pellets and bigger areas, between them. Earlier work with CT scans confirmed the small pores within the outer partitions of those nests.

However with micro-CT scanners, the workforce noticed deeper inside, with larger decision and revealed the connections between smaller pores and biggers ones. That this microstructure was virtually the identical no matter whether or not it was constructed of sand in dry Senegal or clay in moist Guinea instructed construction, not materials, is likely to be the important thing to air flow.

When the workforce mimicked sturdy winds in simulations, buildings with out the bigger pores couldn’t breathe as effectively and accrued extra carbon dioxide. The researchers additionally drenched mound partitions in water to imitate heavy rain. The massive-pore-small-pore construction dried out sooner.

“For those who have a look at the physics of fuel trade within the lung, it’s very a lot the identical approach because the termite mound is organized,” stated Dr. Turner.

Stirring from wind, very like a muscle contraction, permits gases to combine and attain vital locations like a termite nest or human blood. “If you consider what the mound is,” he stated, “it’s actually an organ in physiology that’s constructed out of filth by a bunch of little termites.”

The workforce additionally thinks the pores might assist regulate temperature. However Dr. Turner says in different nests soil does this; extra analysis is required.

It’s additionally unclear how the termites work collectively to construct these buildings. They may coordinate actions by synergy, a sort of oblique communication system the place the termites reply to chemical traces left behind by others, stated Man Theraulaz, a French biologist who additionally labored on the examine. It’s believed pheromone, or chemical sign within the spit on the pellets tells the blind termites when to construct.

“They don’t have to essentially assume,” he stated. They observe guidelines that end result from evolutionary forces and performance sort of like a synthetic intelligence program.

Pondering or not, “I personally want that extra folks could possibly be like termites and be snug with pure air flow,” stated Maki San Miguel Paulson, an architect who consults on constructing envelopes — the outer layers that preserve air sealed inside buildings. Termites, she stated, “don’t need an hermetic setting. They need the air to circulation by their constructing.”

Builders sometimes deal with mechanical air flow — followers, heating and cooling — that makes use of gas and is simpler to manage. Eco-friendly buildings are sometimes smaller scale, as a result of human consolation is troublesome to attain in methods depending on various climates. “Wouldn’t it’s good if folks might do a constructing that does each?” she stated.

Dr. Singh and his colleagues hope future research of nests from different termite species will reveal normal design rules that may be scaled up for people. And as Eastgate Centre reveals, buildings impressed by termites don’t should appear to be termites constructed them.

“There’s a hazard to see lovely kinds and shapes in nature and easily copy them,” stated Mr. Pearce. “We’re not copying kinds. We’re copying the method that made the shape.”


X-rays reveal secrets of termites’ self-cooling, self-draining skyscrapers

by Caroline Brogan 22 March 2019

New insight into termites’ architectural strategies could help us design more energy efficient self-sustaining buildings for humans.

Many species of termite, whose societies are built on hierarchies of kings, queens, workers, and soldiers, live in towering nests that are ventilated by a complex system of tunnels.

Our findings could help us understand how to design energy efficient, self-sustaining buildings. Professor Pierre Degond Department of Mathematics

The nests, also known as mounds, protrude from the ground like skyscrapers and can grow as tall as seven metres. They are also self-cooling, self-ventilating, and self-draining – but until now the mechanisms behind these climate control features has remained unknown.

A group of engineers, biologists, chemists and mathematicians lead by Imperial College London, the University of Nottingham, and CNRS-Toulouse in France, have now looked closer than ever before at how these nests work using 3D X-ray imaging.

They found clues about how the small holes, or pores, in the mound walls

Scan showing channels through the inner and outer walls

help termite homes stay cool, ventilated, and dry.

Lead author Dr Kamaljit Singh, from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science & Engineering, said: “Termite nests are a unique example of architectural perfection by insects. The way they’re designed offers fascinating self-sustaining temperature and ventilation controlling properties throughout the year without using any mechanical or electronic appliances.”

In their new study, published in Science Advances, the researchers sourced termite nests from the African countries Senegal and Guinea and studied them using two types of 3D X-ray imaging.

First, they scanned the nests at lower resolutions to measure the nests’ larger features, like walls and corridors known as channels.

From the images they calculated the thickness of the nests’ inner and outer walls, as well as the structural details of inner channels which termites use to get around the nest.

‘Architectural perfection’

Not only do these remarkable structures self-ventilate and regulate their own temperatures – they also have inbuilt drainage systems. Our research provides deeper insight into how they manage this so well. Dr Kamaljit Singh Department of Earth Science and Engineering

The researchers found that networks of larger and smaller pores in the nest walls help exchange carbon dioxide (CO2) with the outside atmosphere to help ventilation.

Larger micro-scale pores are found to be fully connected throughout the outer wall providing a path across the walls, and by using 3D flow simulations, the authors showed how CO2 moves through the nests to the outside.

The simulations showed that the large micro-scale pores in nest walls are useful for ventilation when the wind outside is faster, as CO2 can leave freely. However in slower wind speeds, the larger pores can also help to release CO2 through diffusion.

Dr Singh said: “This is a remarkable feature that lets the nest ventilate regardless of the weather outside.”

Nests are usually found in hotter regions, which means they must stay cool.

Scan showing movement of CO2 through nest

Indeed, the authors found that the larger pores also help regulate temperatures inside nests. The pores, which lie in the outer walls of the nest, fill with air which reduces heat entering through the walls – similarly to how the air in double glazed windows helps keep the heat inside.

Considering the crucial role the pores play, the team also wondered what happens when it rains and the pores become blocked by water.

They found that the nests use ‘capillary action’ – where liquid flows through small spaces without external help from gravity – that forces rain water from the larger pores to the smaller pores. This ensures the larger pores keep stay open to keep ventilating the nest.

Dr Singh said: “Not only do these remarkable structures self-ventilate and regulate their own temperatures – they also have inbuilt drainage systems. Our research provides deeper insight into how they manage this so well.”

The scientists say the newly found architecture within termite nests could help us improve ventilation, temperature control, and drainage systems in buildings – and hopefully make them more energy efficient.

Scan showing large pores (blue) in nest walls

Co-author Professor Pierre Degond from Imperial’s Department of Mathematics said “The findings greatly improve our understanding of how architectural design can help control ventilation, heat regulation, and drainage of structures – maybe even in human dwellings. Our findings could help us understand how to design energy efficient, self-sustaining buildings.”

Co-author Dr Bagus Muljadi from the University of Nottingham said: “We know that nature holds the secrets to survival. To unlock them, we need to encourage global, interdisciplinary research.

“This study shows we have a lot more to learn from mother nature when it comes to solving even the most important 21 st century problems.”

‘The architectural design of smart ventilation and drainage systems in termite nests’ by Kamaljit Singh, Bagus P. Muljadi, Ali Q. Raeini, Christian Jost, Veerle Vandeginste, Martin J. Blunt, Guy Theraulaz, Pierre Degond’, published 22 March 2019 in Science Advances.


Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.

Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or © Imperial College London.

Caroline Brogan
Communications and Public Affairs


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