“ You could look at nature as being like a catalog of products, and all of those have benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. And given that level on investment, it makes sense to use it” – Michael Pawlyn

A while ago I wrote about the wonder of owls and how their evolution of silent flight has lead to some incredible innovations in the field of design. I also promised follow up blogs exploring this fascinating field of bio-mimicry.

There is a keystone species that lives here at Londolozi and although it is a tiny creature, it has a huge impact. Macrotermes termites, with their colossal mounds and architectural expertise completely transform the landscape. Sometimes, on early morning winter game drives, we see where a bird has broken open the top of a termite mound chimney and not only enjoying the heat that rises out, but also a good morning snack of the termite soldiers coming to investigate the disturbance.  It is always fascinating to be able to hold your hand over an exposed chimney and feel the actual heat surging out. Crucial in nutrient recycling and debris matter breakdown, termite’s ecological importance is paramount to the lowveld ecosystem. However, taking a closer look at this intriguing species we see that their value expands even further than this. The reason these termites are so successful is because they have developed one of the most intricate relationships we see in the natural world. The key to this species of termite survival is the ‘farming’ of a very particular type of fungus. This fungus, via hydrolytic enzymes, digests the cellulose material, which the termites cannot digest for themselves. So while the fungus is busy with this process, the termites are busy ensuring the best possible environment for the fungi’s success; thus the termite mound is born. An astonishing structure in size and complexity, through a network of tunnels and shafts the termites are able to maintain the core temperature inside the mound at a constant 32º C. An organic temperature control system.

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A Yellow-billed Hornbill warms itself on the heat emanating from the termite mound on a cold winter morning.

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A wonderful example of the intricate network of tunnels created by the termites. Photograph by: Sean Cresswell

Once again, nature has already done the design for us! Architect Mick Pierce integrated the Marcotermes termite mound structure and cooling system into the building of the Eastgate Centre in Harare. Abigail Doan, journalist for web blog inhabitat explains Pierce’s incredible design:

The Eastgate Centre, largely made of concrete, has a ventilation system which operates in a similar way. Outside air that is drawn in is either warmed or cooled by the building mass depending on which is hotter, the building concrete or the air. It is then vented into the building’s floors and offices before exiting via chimneys at the top. The complex also consists of two buildings side by side that are separated by an open space that is covered by glass and open to the local breezes.

 Air is continuously drawn from this open space by fans on the first floor. It is then pushed up vertical supply sections of ducts that are located in the central spine of each of the two buildings. The fresh air replaces stale air that rises and exits through exhaust ports in the ceilings of each floor. Ultimately it enters the exhaust section of the vertical ducts before it is flushed out of the building through chimneys.”

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The Eastgate building in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photograph courtesy of skyscrapercity.com

At Londolozi we believe in a blend of modern technology, ancient wisdom and inspiration from nature, check out Ryan’s blog on three ‘Ecolutionary’ Innovations that are taking place at our home in the bush.

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A beautiful example of a Macrotermes Termite mound taken on the banks of the Zambezi river in Zimbabwe. Photograph by: Andrea Campbell

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One of Mashaba’s previous cubs uses the sturdy structure of the termite mound for a better vantage point. Photograph by: Mike Sutherland

 By using this passive cooling system, the Eastgate Building uses less than 10% of what an equivalent building using normal air-conditioning would use and thus saving huge amounts of money. It is so exciting to see an innovation like this happening in Southern Africa. As developing countries, we are in a position where the building of infrastructure is essential to our community development. What better way to do this than by taking inspiration from nature to create sustainable solutions?

Written by: Andrea Campbell, LandCare Assistant 

About the Author

Andrea Campbell

Field Guide

Andrea has an energy that is hard to match. It's difficult to find anything in the bush that she doesn't get excited about, whether it's the molluscs in the Sand River, setting up camera traps all over the show to try and capture ...

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3 Comments

on Discover how Termites are Influencing Modern Design

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Marinda Drake
Guest

Interesting blog Andrea.

Brian C
Guest

This is a thought provoking new idea. Or maybe an old idea… it would be interesting to see other examples of this concept.

John Ridgewell
Guest

WITHOUT PREDJUDICE -We had offices in Eastgate for several years and, in my opinion, the passive air cooling system so successful in the termitory did not work successfully in the Eastgate comlex. The main reason being, I think, was the ambient night temperature being stored by the structure was too high and when drawn through the building during the day for cooling(when there was ZESA power!!) didn’t really provide the plesant working environment temperature it was designed for. During the winter months the offices were like ice boxes due to the dense nature of the structure
Just an opinion when implementing nature’s successes into our world

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