Termites inspire architects


Challenge: maintain a comfortable indoor environment

Natural inspiration: termite Macrotermes michaelseniMan working in office, © Owais Khan

In large buildings where a lot of people work, it is often necessary to control the temperature and humidity of the air to keep the working environment comfortable.  Many modern buildings, especially  those in the hotter parts of the world, have electrical air conditioning systems.  However, this method of cooling a building can be expensive and harmful to the environment.  In a typical US office building, controlling the temperature accounts for about half of total energy use. 1
Termite mound © Mercedes Lis..
Macrotermes michaelseni  termites live in the harsh climate of sub-Saharan Africa.   These insects live in well-organised colonies in underground nests.  Each colony constructs  a large mound of soil above the nest which acts as a natural air conditioning system.  The internal structure of the mound creates flows of air, powered by the wind and by the metabolism of the termites themselves.  These air flows maintain the temperature, humidity and CO2 concentration inside the nest at comfortable levels for the termites despite large fluctuations in conditions outside. 3,4

Eastgate Centre © Mandy Patter
Architects are taking design tips from termites to create buildings that are not only pleasant to work in, but use significantly less energy.  Notable examples include the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe and the CH2 building in Melbourne,  Australia.  CH2 maintains an internal temperature of 21 – 23° C, 5 while using an estimated 80% less energy than buildings of the same size. 6 Both buildings were designed to use natural gradients in temperature and humidity to regulate their internal climate.  
Termite © Websubstance/Dreamstime
M. michaelseni is just one of approximately 2,500 species of termite.  Termites are found all over the world, with each species building a different sort of nest to survive in its own particular environment. Termites play a vital role in nutrient recycling, especially in the tropics.  7  It has been estimated that there are 500 kilograms of termites for every human being alive.  8




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1. www.esource.com (2002) Managing energy costs in office buildings.  Accessed February 2010.
2. Turner, J.S. (2001) On the mound of Macrotermes michaelseni as an organ of respiratory gas exchange.  Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 74:798–822
3. Korb, J. et al (2000) Ventilation of termite mounds: new results require a new modelBehavioral Ecology 11: 486-494. Accessed February 2010.
4. Bonabeau, E. et al (1998) A model for the emergence of pillars, walls and royal chambers in termite nests. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. B 353:1561-1576.  Accessed February 2010.
5. City of Melbourne webpage: CH2 building. Accessed February 2010.
6. How termites inspired Mick Pearce’s green buildings – article in Greener Design.  Accessed February 2010.
7. Eggleton, P. (2000) Global patterns of termite biodiversity.  In T. Abe et al (eds.) Termites: Evolution, Sociality, Symbioses, Ecology: 25 – 51.
8. Soar, R. (2004) TERMES project. Accessed February 2010.