Opening up to what nature can teach

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Nicole Isle

Senior Sustainability Advisor

Do you know where you live? No, really, do you know where you live?

Think of the location where you work and imagine what it looked like pre-development. Buildings and infrastructure: gone. Roadways, railroads, houses, high rises, bridges, sidewalks, and lawns: all gone. People may still be there, or not, depending on your image; but in both cases, your perception of your surroundings has completely transformed.

Now take a big deep breath and take it all in. What do you see, and more importantly, can you describe it? Maybe you see a forest of trees, a broad open field or a winding stream. Maybe you see all of these things and more. Now the question becomes: Could you give directions to someone located 10 miles away to find you? How would you begin to describe your location?

Inspiration from the nature of place

Portland, Ore. is home to me and its 580,000 residents. However, for the rest of the species living here, too, home is the Columbia Basin and Willamette River Watershed. In any quest toward living in balance on Earth, learning about the natural history of place provides the most promising example of how to achieve sustainability using local solutions.

Nature thrives under the same conditions humans do and is our most inarguable example of truly sustainable development. To understand what this means and to be inspired over and over in your work, all you have to do is open your eyes!

Seriously, learning from nature can be as easy as taking a walk outdoors and letting your curiosity take over. Connecting with your local watershed councils and organizations focused on protecting urban ecosystems is another great way to reconnect with nature.

Try researching your project site to contextualize the basis for design and to develop design parameters that align with the site’s environmental performance. For example, what is or were the primary natural features of the site that define its function in the broader watershed? Features may include a wetland, forest, floodplain or hillside. Research these features and work to mimic their functions in the development of your design.

Nature’s lessons at your fingertips

The Internet has become our dearest source of instant information, and learning about nature is no exception. The Biomimicry Institute has a wonderful website called It’s chock full of examples of how life has evolved to thrive on Earth. It’s also a great tool for designers, educators, researchers, businesses and others to seek new inspiration for their work. A couple hours on this website could solve challenges related to architecture, planning, organizational structure and product design by providing solutions that align with nature’s principles.

I perused AskNature for building and product solutions based on the local ecology of my neighborhood. In 30 minutes I discovered amazing ways to possibly solve common structural engineering, glazing and resource-efficiency issues. For example, the hexagonal cells of beehives create an incredibly strong structure. The 120-degree angle of a hexagon is stronger than a typical 90-degree angle, and its repetitive pattern comprising the hive minimizes energy and material use. How practical and economical!

Arnold Glas, a German company, has created an insulated glass-sheeting product that is designed to reduce bird collisions. Only birds can see its UV-reflective coating, which resembles a spider web cast across the window. Designers were inspired after learning some spider species utilize this sort of reflective element in their silk to distract animals that could potentially fly through and destroy their webs.

In my research on AskNature, I was also struck by the incredible ability of trees to perfectly position their roots and leaves to capitalize on water and solar resources.

Development teams can use AskNature to learn how to solve design challenges based on what they can learn from nature at their project site. The Biomimicry Guild calls this process Genius of Place, which uses environmental performance measures based on the local site ecology as a benchmark for measuring a development’s ability to function as the local ecology functions. This means aligning with how nature lives in balance with local operating conditions.

Use nature as your most trustworthy design resource and mentor. After 3.85 billion years of trial and error, nature knows what it takes to live in balance on the planet.

2 Responses to “Opening up to what nature can teach”

  1. This is an amazing post and it fits right in with my work on the bikingarchitect right now – I would like to ask Nicole a few questions and I am wondering about an email address? thank you


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