A honey bee gathering pollen.

Honeybees are some of nature’s most efficient and effective architects. Due to their ability to process pollen or nectar into honey and wax, not only do they provide a majority of their own resources but their methodology allows for hundreds or thousands of bees to construct their hive simultaneously. In what we perceive as chaos, the honeybees are able to conduct the hive’s construction while also raising their larva and providing storage for honey.

A honey bee storing honey within the hive’s hexagonal cells.

Known for its iconic hexagonal shape the honey comb surprisingly begins as a circular hole surrounded by loose wax fibers, similar in shape to a cocoon. As an addition to the hive’s framework, the newly created cell is populated with a larva but the responsibility of not only nurturing the pupae but also forming the hive falls on the nursing bee. These bees will heat the loosely formed wax fibers and plates around the circular cell. In doing so the cell’s circular form is heated repeatedly allowing the loose wax and fibers to join together and is molded by the nursing bee into the hexagonal shape most are familiar with.

The tepee was used by the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains in Canada and the United States.

The evolution of human shelter follows a similar theme over the course of coming from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies. After our cave dwelling ancestors, nomadic tribes have their humble beginnings in rounded living quarters like huts and tepees. As we progressed to hunter-gatherers a mobile living set-up was a much more viable option for shelter. As humanity grew into an agricultural species these rounded huts became stationary and adjacent to fields of various grains and vegetables.

Mud bricks dry with straw to reduce cracking.

Although we began in rounded tents or huts, circular shelters are less efficient as permanent living quarters. There are only three optimal shapes when seeking to effectively use as much space as possible; the equilateral triangle, squares, and hexagons. Also, cultivating wheat and a variety of other foods required new industrial technology, such as the ox drawn scythes, that works best in a square or rectangular formation. Thus, dividing property and land followed the square form.

Similarly, materials used to builds our shelters evolved to fit this form. Rather than using a plethora of misshapen or incongruous animals bones and hides — newly designed materials such as brick and wooden logs or planks provided shelters with better warmth and living space, fit contiguously with the fields, and were more available to individuals.

A slight aerial view of Thomas Jefferson’s holiday home at Poplar Forest.

Although squares and rectangles dominated the western architectural scene, octagons (containing two more sides than the hexagon) are our adaptation of the honeybee’s efficiency. In a variety of cultures and religions, octagons symbolize “completeness” or “wholeness”, a spiritual communion with the material universe. In the United States octagonal floor plans became fairly common in the 1800s due to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest estate.

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Virginia

Jefferson inherited a 4,819 acre property from his father-in-law in 1773 but neither he nor his wife Martha were interested in developing the property at the time. It wasn’t until the death of his wife and his terms as President of the United States ended that Jefferson began visiting the property regularly. His octagonal home on site was completed in 1816 and served as his escape from his inner city Monticello property.

The lower arcade, below the pillars, is used to cool the first floor of the home where the cellar and food storage is located.

Jefferson, a self-made architect from his studies in France and his time in Washington D.C., greatly admired Palladio’s classical style. His eclectic design not only featured Palladian influence but also drew from 18th century French, English, and Virginian architecture. Possibly the first octagonal house built in the United States, the two story structure consists of eight equally long brick walls and features “pediment porticoes on low arcades on both the north and south facades as well as the eastern and western stairwells.” Unlike other octagonal homes the interior consisted of a center square surrounded by four elongated octagonal rooms, the center space has no walls, thus providing a soaring two story floor plan.

North Elevation of Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

South Elevation of Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

First Floor Plan of Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

North – South Section of Poplar Forest. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

When compared to the square an octagon encompasses 20% additional space with the same perimeter and is more cost effective in building materials. Other benefits of octagonal houses typically included; a rainwater collection and filtration system connected to the roof, central heating which was more evenly distributed from a basement furnace, efficient and manageable air flow, as well as increased light exposure.

Here are a few honorable mentions,

Waverley Mansion by Memphis architect J. Frazer Smith. Columbus, Mississippi. 1852.

John Richards Octagon House. Watertown, Wisconsin. 1854.

John Richards Octagon House — now a museum.

Longwood, known as Nutt’s Folly, by Philadelphian architect Samuel Sloan. Natchez, Mississippi. 1859.