Nature's Unifying Patterns

Detailed descriptions and examples

Nature builds using abundant resources, incorporating rare resources only sparingly.

Nature’s materials are abundant and locally sourced. This is true whether an organism is building something external to itself, like a termite mound or a nest, or assembling materials that are part of the body, e.g., a wing, shell, leaf, or horn. The most common and abundant basic building blocks—chemical compounds—are those that are formed from the most common and readily found elements on earth: carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and oxygen. A few rarer minerals are also used, but these are found locally and are readily available, not mined, processed, or shipped thousands of miles. Waste is eliminated waste through additive manufacturing and by building processes around readily available and low cost sources of materials and energy.

Biology Examples


Caddisflies are aquatic insects. Their larvae gather local materials such as small fragments of rock, sand, shells, or small pieces of twig or aquatic plants to create protective cases held together by silk. Because they use local materials, the cases blend in, providing protection from predators. Caddisflies don’t have to expend a lot of energy searching for materials, and they don’t seek out rare materials, just abundant ones. Their food is also local, and often brought to them for free by the flowing water around their homes.

Barn swallow

Barn swallows construct their nests with local mud, building them on vertical surfaces and under the overhangs of structures such as barns and bridges to protect their nests from the rain. The mud pellets are built up to create a cozy and safe nest. The inner cup is lined with grass, hair, and feathers all found in the local environment.

Design Applications

Adobe buildings

Adobe materials make up the oldest extant buildings on the planet. Adobe buildings are made by mixing straw and local sand, clay, or native soil with water to form bricks that are usually dried in the sun. In addition to being an inexpensive and readily available material, adobe is durable and energy efficient. In climates with hot days and cool nights, the thermal mass of an adobe structure stores and releases heat slowly, averaging out the high and low temperatures of the day.

Habitat for Humanity

Volunteers working on a Habitat for Humanity project.

Habitat for Humanity exists in many countries around the world, and one of the most interesting aspects to their work is that they incorporate the use of readily available materials and resources into their projects. In East Africa, where the soil has a lot of clay, homes are usually built of home-made bricks. In Mongolia, they use huge rocks. In the South Pacific, they go into the rainforest to harvest a hardwood tree. Likewise, available human resources are thoughtfully employed—the whole community comes together to help with the labor, and specialists like masons and framers are brought in as needed.
Image Credits

Caddis fly cases: B Smith CC-BY-NC-SA
Barn swallow nest: Mike Allen CC-BY-NC-SA
Adobe building: greenheron46 CC-BY-NC
Habitat for Humanity: U.S. Navy CC-BY