The book of the mimicry of the living

Biomythology: Eastgate-gate 2 (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound)


As I began on Tuesday, the Eastgate Centre is good design. It is NOT good biomimicry.


To be fair, the project was partially designed on the science as it was understood at the time. But, as far as I can see only partially. The design falls down in terms of biomimicry on two points

1)    Termite nests (probably) do not ventilate the way that Mick Pearce thinks

2)    Termite nests do not stay within “1 oC all year around”

The first of these is an understandable mistake considering the published literature of the time. Recent research (last 5 years) has been, as far as I’ve been able to find, the first to start poking holes in long established termite mound ventilation models. Let me explain…

What follows is a reworking of part my dissertation. Plagiarism is not encouraged. This work is protected through creative commons licences. The suggested academic reference is:

Parr,D., 2012, Biomimicry Lessons for Building Ventilation, Submitted for qualification of Environmental Design of Buildings MSc, at Cardiff University – Welsh School of Architecture. Treatment available at

UPDATE 23/04/2013: Since this set of articles was published, I have had the good fortune to get to talk to both Rupert Soar and Mick Pearce extensively about their work, and recieved information from Dan Phillips. In being able to get EVEN MORE information from all these people, I now feel that this series of articles is still only part of the discussion. There is nothing in these articles which is outright untrue, however they miss a significant proportion of Mick, Dan and Arups good work. Look out for Eastgate Now: Redux coming soon…

Induced ventilation

Various researchers proposed an induced or stack effect ventilation process in the famous ‘open chimney’ termite mound design. A system where faster wind speeds elevated from the ground at the top of the stack (≈2m), compared to the slower wind speeds at ground level, leads to a pressure difference vertically through the central chimney. The resultant air flow constitutes the ventilation.

Metabolism driven thermosiphon ventilation

What about those mounds without a large opening at the top? Well, the idea proposed (and current during Mick Pearce’s time I expect) was effectively based on ‘occupant heat gains’. All those busy little insects, bustling around growing fungus (I wasn’t kidding about that, they actually do have subterranean ‘gardens’) means they are respiring, burning sugars to move around and function, i.e. metabolising. Imagine yourself getting hot when exercising, that’s all it is. 1 termite isn’t going to generate much heat, but with millions of the suckers in each nest, the heat gain is cumulative.

Hot air rises due to buoyancy, I learnt that in primary school (we had a plumber come in to teach us one afternoon, still unsure as to why…), and as a result it can rise through the main chimney structure (which is partially present even in ‘capped’ mounds) and then out through the cap, which has numerous branching tunnels between the chimney and the surface. As the air rises, it creates a negative pressure at the base of the nest, which is filled by air entering the nest from the exterior.


From Turner and Soar, 2008


This is evidentially what inspired the Eastgate Centre, and is in itself not Bad Science (yes, that phrase is getting capitals. It’s a ‘thing’ now). In fact it’s quite good science. It was thought to be correct at the time, and it was based on observation and data collection.

It’s easy to be intelligent with the benefit of hindsight, but what annoys me about this particular case is the amount of people who aren’t. This was current science in the 90’s. That is almost a quarter of a century ago. However, it’s not even ‘the whole story’.

The Bad Science

There are two massive issues with the way reporters praise the science here. One I drew attention to on Tuesday was the inclusion of fans which draw power externally. Termites don’t have fans. D’uh.

One I DIDN’T point out was the totally ridiculous claim that is more common on the internet than arrogant know-it-all’s with nothing better to do than correct everyone else on their tiny slip ups (Yes, I’m being meta, which utterly legitimizes me picking up on others peccadillo’s).

The statement: “Termite mounds never deviate more than 1 oC throughout the year to grow their fungus gardens”

The stats:


Graph of temperature 1m underground, and in termite nest, 1m underground. Also Turner and Soar, 2008.



15 oC

Seriously? This is like Ol’ Al’s infamous ‘climate change hockey stick’. Look at the data, then look at the claim. Then look back at the data. Here is the Eastgates ‘Inconvenient Truth’. Here is the secret that Big Green Construction and The Biomimicrists Templar DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW! WAKE UP SHEEPLE! 1 DEGREE CENTIGRADE IS AN INSIDE JOB! If I could find home addresses for every person I’ve heard report the ‘±1 oC’ line, I would paint this graph across their bed sheets for them to find in the morning, and weep contrite tears into.

Meanwhile I perch on a roof as the accumulated filth of all their Bad Science and Poor Research will foam up about their waists and all the ‘reporters’ and ‘designers’ will look up and shout “Save us!”…

And I’ll look down at the word count and cut this segment down to size. Next up: What might actually be going on. Stay hopeful for Part 3!

References: Turner, J. & Soar, R., 2008. Beyond biomimicry: What termites can tell us about realising the living building. Loughborough, Loughborough University, pp. 1-8.

Creative Commons Licence
Biomythology: Eastgate-gate (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound) by Biomimicron: D. Parr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

P.S. Termite’s have SO FEW fans, that a google image search for “termite fan”, turned out this:

Who IS Danilo Termite?

Who IS Danilo Termite?

He seems to be an Italian actor who’s work to date consists of an action/thriller called ‘Under Reflex’, and a promo for an Italian ska/hiphop/rap group called ‘Sud Foundation Krù‘. Work that has entirely passed me by, but seems to be enough to elicit montages of your face on the internet.

Wierdly Sud Foundation Kru have a song titled ‘Illumanti‘ with a banging sample from power metal mainstay Gamma Ray.

After that though the trail ran cold, but I think I’m onto something… If I should die under mysterious circumstances, and it wasn’t my Uni house mate, then you know where to look next…

Author: DaveParr

Data Science, Environmental Science, Making and Music

17 thoughts on “Biomythology: Eastgate-gate 2 (or How the Eastgate Centre, Harare, is not like a termite mound)

  1. Pingback: Gold “Mining” Termites Found, May Lead Humans to Riches « just telling it as it is

  2. I absolutely adore your writing style and glad you brought up a point of not even “misinformation” but the laziness of acquiring simple statistics to base a claim on. I guess this is where local analogy vs. distant analogy” debate comes in.

  3. Thanks, this was actually a fun read. 😀

    How many fans did you expect termites to have?

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  8. Hi there

    I was the environmental engineer who designed Eastgate’s passive and active environmental systems back in the 90s. We used the idea of the termite mound as a metaphor for the design rather than a strictly controlled physical model. It seems that the metaphor was valuable as people are still talking about the project, learning about its benefits and hopefully improving on its achievements on their own projects.

    The building uses lots of different techniques for controlling energy use and comfort including control of unwanted solar gains, shallow plan offices allowing good daylight, low energy lighting with occupancy sensing, solar panels for water heating (these were pre-PV days and we didn’t have the money for fancy imported equipment).

    The actual ventilation system used very slow, low energy fans which we used to ensure that we could direct the air through the building in a controlled way and to reduce the size of the ventilation shafts which were pretty costly to construct. The ventilation air is pushed through a carefully designed labyrinth within each floor void that forced the air to move in a turbulent flow across large surface area ‘toothed’ concrete panels. This increased the heat transfer between the cool night time air and stored the ‘coolth’ in the structure so that it could be used during the warmer day time conditions.

    Anyway, thought i’d chip in!


    • And very welcome it is too! Thanks a lot for providing that helpful technical information.
      I’d like to restate here again, just in case you missed this in the end of the 3rd article: “Mick is an architect, and definitely a good one, but he worked (as far as I can tell) on his own. In case I haven’t made it clear enough Eastgate is a good, GREEN building. It’s just not a good biomimetic one.” Obviously I was wrong about the ‘working on his own’ part, and I really do think that the building is well designed environmentally, with credit to the both of you (and anyone else I’ve missed).
      The point of this article though, in my mind, was to start breaking down a prevalent idea when the building is covered in various media in relation to the emerging biomimetic school of design. This is specifically: That the building *functions* like a termite mound, and termite mounds vary only +/-1 degC throughout a year.
      I actually think I understand what you mean about the termites as ‘metaphor’, and yes, it has definitely latched into the public imagination, which is good (green building deserves all the good press/public attention it can get IMHO!). Do you feel that you in fact didn’t set out to make a biomimetic building, and that you have been misrepresented?
      I’d really love to be able to ask you a few more questions about this, how you feel about your building being portrayed as a ‘biomimetic building’ when (perhaps) it wasn’t meant to be, and also about the rest of your work as an environmental building engineer, which is a field I’ve aspired to recently. My contact details are available here: Really hope to hear from you.


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