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When it comes to building design, architects get their inspiration in lots of different ways, each with a different approach. Most of them develop a couple of successful designs and then tend to repeat them with slight changes. Some are influenced by art such as paintings, sculptures, and even music. Others are more technology oriented and begin their ideas with 3D models. Then there are those who take their cues from nature – specifically, termites!

In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, an architect in Zimbabwe, was given a challenge by Old Mutual, an insurance and real estate conglomerate: build an office block called Eastgate Centre that would be livable with no air-conditioning and almost no heating. Pearce 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. Eastgate has nearly 350,000-square-feet of office space and shops – and uses 90 percent less energy than a similar-sized building next door. These efficiencies translate directly to the bottom line: Eastgate’s owners have saved $3.5 million alone because of an air-conditioning system that did not have to be implemented. Outside of being eco-efficient and better for the environment, these savings also trickle down to the tenants whose rents are 20 percent lower than those of occupants in the surrounding buildings.

Termite mounds in Zimbabwe are marvels of engineering. Deep inside, the insects farm a fungus, their only food. It must be kept at exactly 87 degrees, while the temperatures on the African veld outside range from 35 degrees at night to 104 degrees during the day. They do it by venting breezes in at the base of the mound, down into chambers cooled by wet mud carried up from water tables far below, and up through a flue to the peak. Toiling with the tireless, compulsive work ethic of all ants, they constantly dig new vents and plug old ones to regulate the temperature.

Anders Nyquist’s 1995 re-design of the Laggarberg School in Timrå, Sweden, was also inspired by termites because they dug networks of underground canals into their nest, which cooled incoming air.

How do they do this? In a word, it all comes down to teamwork. As a colony, they are able to create worlds that far exceed their individual capabilities. It’s thought that each individual termite type is pre-programmed to carry out a certain behavior, so mound-building could look like this: a termite will grab one soil particle, mix it with water and saliva and cement it in place. The next termite will come along and put their soil blob down next to the one previous, and this continues until eventually a wall is built. However, soon there are too many termites walking around with soil blobs, and this results in a termite traffic jam. At that point, termites give up and just drop their blobs where they are. Then another termite drops a blob next to them, beginning another structure. Eventually walls and tunnels connect, and at some point, a mound almost magically appears. Sounds crazy, right? But it works.

There are around 2,600 species of termites, and only about two dozen infest and destroy buildings. Many more are highly social builders aiming to protect their queens and ensure the survival of their colonies.

Think you might have termites? Call a termite control specialist and get a free, no-obligation estimate.