Nature is one of humanity’s favourite design muses.

We’ve always looked to the natural world for inspiration – whether that’s the curve of a shell reflected in the Sydney Opera House or a leaf pattern etched into a Corinthian column.

However, as we seek sustainable solutions to complex design problems, architects and engineers are increasingly looking beyond the beauty of nature to designs that have benefited from a 3.8 billion year testing period.

Biophilia literally means “love of living things,” and biophilic design principles incorporate elements essential for life – fresh air, sunlight and water – into the built form. The benefits of biophilic design – from more productive and healthy employees to better learning outcomes for students and faster healing rates for patients in hospitals – have accelerated its adoption in recent years.

While biophilia integrates nature into design, biomimicry is about imitating nature and looking at how nature works to find sustainable answers to human challenges. It recognises that plants, animals and ecosystems have been engaged in a constant cycle of symbiosis and systemic refinement for billions of years, and that the environment has already solved many of the design conundrums we face.

Biomimetic opportunities abound in our vast, diverse and unique landscape, but making them work for the built environment can be a complex mix of art and science. Speaking at Green Cities 2015 in Melbourne in March, architect and biomimicry proponent Michael Pawlyn argued that “biomimicry is not about slavishly imitating nature, but about looking at how things work in nature, and developing new solutions.”

He points out that the natural world is built on foundations of balance and renewal, and the fact that a design idea comes from nature is no guarantee of its sustainability or workability in practice. We need only think of termite mounds, which have extraordinary cooling properties even in the most blistering heat. Scientists have found the design of these mounds is great for termites unconcerned about air quality, but may not be so great for humans who need fresh air and comfortable ambient temperatures to remain healthy and productive.

Or take the ‘thorny devil,’ a lizard which has adapted to dry conditions and can drink with its feet. This lizard may provide great inspiration for groundwater harvesting in buildings that are purpose-built for Australian desert conditions. However, structures that simply drain the water table – even those who emulate highly-evolved, desert-dwelling reptiles – are ultimately unsustainable, and non-viable in the long-term. To be truly sustainable, buildings in the desert must use less water and find ways to restore it to the environment.

These examples remind us that biomimetic solutions must not be delivered in isolation, but accompanied by a holistic and multi-faceted approach to sustainable operations and occupant behaviour. Biomimicry is not about single solutions – it’s about systemic ones.

There are, however, many great examples of biomimicry done right. One of my favourites is Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi, which have an outer structure that opens and closes like the petals of a flower, closing in the heat of the day to reduce solar gain and glare, and opening up as the desert air cools.

I also like Pawlyn’s work on the iconic Eden Project in Cornwall. He took his inspiration from studying dragonfly wings and built giant self-heating greenhouses made from frames shaped as hexagons and pentagons with an insulating polymer membrane.

Despite the challenges, the momentum behind biomimicry is building in Australia. Green Star supports a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to building design, construction and management through credits that reward full life cycle assessments, recycling of waste, and buildings that are carbon and water neutral. The growing number of projects using biomimicry demonstrate the true value of drawing inspiration from nature, and are helping us write an exciting new chapter in the story of our built environment.

When it comes to our natural resources, Australia is a land of great excess and of epic privation. We have sun and wind to spare, but water is often scarce and Australia regularly faces the extremes of drought, cyclone, flood and fire.

The built environment has countless problems to solve, but if we embrace the opportunities that exist to investigate and emulate our unique environment – from the Daintree, to the Barrier Reef, and from Kakadu to the koala (and yes, even the thorny devil) – we might just find the answers.