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Nature · Economy

Termite technology inspires green architecture

October 17th, 2015
in:Nature, Economy
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:energy efficient, green architecture, Kenya, Melbourne, termite

Architects and environmental design experts are borrowing an age-old building practice inspired by termites, to model modern energy efficient buildings that naturally regulate temperature and air, with such buildings saving up to 40 per cent in energy costs.

Buffeted by extreme weather that fluctuates between 40°C during the day to lows of less than 1°C, the African termites have always managed to keep temperatures inside their mounds at a constant 30°C. At first sight, one may dismiss the mounds as heaps of mud. But behind the heaps of dirt that tower several meters high, is a well-orchestrated architecture that involves millions of the tiny insects insulating themselves from the blistering tropical heat.

The termites create a long tube at the top of the mound that resembles a chimney which releases hot air from inside the mound. At the bottom of the mound, the termites also create small openings in the wet mud, with the openings trapping the breeze and lowering air temperature once it starts moving through the tunnel. The air pockets and ducts assist in driving natural ventilation through convention. As a way of regulating the amount of heat and humidity entering the mounds, the insects regulate the two through frequently changing the position of the tunnel by either opening up new ones or blocking others.

Now designers wowed by this craftiness are adapting it in modern day architecture with buildings that embrace natural control of temperature and air becoming commonplace. The selling point of this innovation is the unrivaled benefits it has in taming the cost of energy that has hit unprecedented highs.

Africa has been on the frontline of this technology with the Eastgate Center in Harare Zimbabwe being among the pioneer structures. Designed in 1996 by Mick Pearce, an African architect, the building which combines an office complex with a shopping mall, relies on natural means to cool, heat and ventilate.

The strong mass of the building and rock stage located at the basement traps heat from the atmosphere during the day. At night when there is minimum human activity, the air slips into the bottom of the building. This triggers the escape of the hot air that had accumulated during the day through the roof vents. The cool air aerates the office during the next day and the cycle continues. Fans in the building draw fresh air from the outside through grills placed below the windows. Vertical ducts assist in discharging foul air from the building into thermal chimneys located at the rooftop.

According to the management of the 32,000 square meter building, the use of this technology compared to the conventional air conditioning system has seen the business save $3.5million.

In Kenya, developers and architects have been on a green building blitz as the conventional glass clad buildings bear the blame for high energy consumption and emitting greenhouse gases. From institutions of learning to corporates, the spirit of environmental friendly buildings has become alive now more than ever.

One such building is the Learning Resource Center at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Embracing the termite technology, the building has vents situated at the basement which allow air to get in, passing through a rock bed cooling system, the only one of its kind in Kenya, where it is cooled more. It is then released into the auditorium by a different array of vents. Foul smell from the building is released through chimneys located at various strategic positions in the building. When it gets cold, exterior air passes through the building’s warmer rocks before being let into the building’s interior.

Beyond Africa, researchers and architects continue to experiment with the termite technology, with buildings like the Melbourne Council Hall in Australia, also designed by Mr. Pearce, recording 80 per cent less energy use and 70 per cent dip in water use. The owner of the building, the Melbourne City Council, attributes a 10 per cent jump in staff motivation as a result of the ventilation system, while putting the growing productivity at more than Australian $2million.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
The termites create a long tube at the top of the mound that resembles a chimney which releases hot air from inside the mound.
Africa has been on the frontline of this technology with the Eastgate Center in Harare Zimbabwe being among the pioneer structures. Designed in 1996 by Mick Pearce, an African architect, the building which combines an office complex with a shopping mall, relies on natural means to cool, heat and ventilate.

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