In the year 1989, Japan had a problem – the Shinka Bullet Train.

It was fast — extremely fast. But there was one major issue. Every time the train exited a tunnel — it was loud — extremely loud.

The noise was coming from many different sources, but whenever a train sped into a tunnel, it pushed certain waves of atmospheric pressure through the other end.

The air that exited tunnels with a sonic boom, could be heard about 400 meters far away. In residential areas, that was a big problem.

An engineering team was brought in to design a quieter, faster, and more efficient train. And they had one secret weapon: Eiji Nakatsu. He was not just the general manager of the technical development department, but also a birdwatcher.

Various components of the redesigned bullet train were based on different birds. The pantograph was inspired by owls — that’s the rig that connects the train to the electric wires above.

Nakatsu modelled the redesign after their feathers, reducing noise by using the same serrations and curvature that allow them to silently swoop down to catch prey.

The Adelie Penguin — whose smooth body allows it to swim and slide effortlessly — inspired the pantograph’s supporting shaft, redesigned for lower wind resistance. And perhaps most notable of all was the Kingfisher.

The Kingfisher is a bird that dives into water to catch its prey. The unique shape of its beak allows it to do that while barely making a splash.

Nakatsu took that shape to the design table.

Bullet Trains of Japan (Shinkansen)

The team shot bullets shaped like different train nose models down a pipe to measure pressure waves and dropped them in water to measure the splash size.

The quietest nose design was the one modelled most closely after the Kingfisher’s beak.

When the redesign debuted in 1997, it was 10% faster, used 15% less electricity, and stayed under the 70 dB noise limit in residential areas. And it did all that with the wings of an owl, the belly of a penguin, and the nose of a Kingfisher.

There’s a name for design like this. It’s called biomimicry and can be found in many different projects in todays world; mostly perhaps in Architecture.

What we can learn from Termites

In 1991 architect Mick Peirce had a problem. An investment group in Harare Zimbabwe hired him to design the largest office and retail building in the country, but they didn't want to pay for the expensive air conditioning needed to cool such a large building.

That left Peirce with a seemingly impossible challenge.
How do you design a building that cools itself?

The answer is nature. Termite mounds accommodate millions of termites inside these structures.

Termite mound

Some of which stretch an astonishing 30 feet high although these termite skyscrapers may look solid from the outside, they are actually covered in tiny holes that allow air to pass through freely like a giant lung. The structure inhales and exhales as temperatures rise and fall throughout the day.

Meet the Eastgate Center. The building is made from concrete slabsand brick, just like the soil inside a termite mound, these materials have a high thermal mass which means they can absorb a lot of heat without really changing temperature.

Inside the Eastgate Center in Harare Zimbabwe

The exterior of the building is prickly like a cactus by increasing the amount of surface area, heat loss is improved at night, while heat gain is reduced during the day.

Inside the building, low-power fans pull in cool night air from outside and disperse it throughout the seven floors. The concrete blocks absorb the cold insulating the building and chilling the circulating air.

When the morning comes and temperatures rise, warm air is vented up through the ceiling and released by the chimneys thanks to this innovative design. Temperatures inside stay at a comfortable 82 degrees during the day and 57 degrees at night, not to mention it uses up to 35 percent less energy than similar buildings in Zimbabwe since opening its doors in 1996.

Mik Pierce's 90% natural climate control system has made the East Gate Center a global landmark for sustainability. So we must ask ourselves if an architect could design a self cooling building with termite inspired climate control, what other innovations can 'Mother Nature' inspire if we just paid closer attention.