Posts tagged ‘Biomimicry’

May 31, 2012

Biomimicry evolves from concept to concrete

Pigmented domes on alligator, Author/Photographer/Artist: Roger Smith

Photo via Roger Smith on

Aron Bosworth, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorJennifer Barnes, Brightworks Sustainability AdvisorBy Aron Bosworth and Jennifer Barnes

Brightworks Sustainability Advisors

Why would we invite an alligator and a San Diego Zoo staff member to an educational workshop geared toward architects and designers? The answer lies in biomimicry, the field of studying and emulating nature’s patterns to create innovative and sustainable solutions to today’s business challenges.

Biomimicry has received acclaim for years as a potential game changer for sustainability. Only recently, however, has it started to take hold in design communities and prove itself to private businesses. As private industry, research and government unite around the concept and put it to work, we will see new success stories that demonstrate biomimicry’s evolution from exciting concept to proven design tool.

A New Way to See Nature

Most if not all of us have a desire to connect with nature – we try and schedule time in our busy days to spend time outside: getting a breath of fresh air during a work break or going for a weekend hike. Edward O. Wilson refers to our subconscious yearning to connect with the natural world as biophilia, and suggests it’s deeply rooted in our biological DNA.

read more »

October 14, 2011

Key Sustainability Conference Themes: Scale, Nature and People

Nicole Isle, Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

By Nicole Isle, Senior Sustainability Advisor

The end of October will prove to be a busy time for conference-goers in Portland. The joint Oregon and Washington APA planning conference, the Portland Sustainability Institute’s EcoDistricts Summit and the Net Impact Conference will equip sustainability thinkers with new energy, new ideas and a broader network of support. I’ll be attending and speaking at all three, and from the conference agendas, I see some interesting common themes: scale, nature, and all things human.

Working backwards, the people piece will be big. On-the-ground implementation and the issues hindering behavioral change, community action, and equality will prevail at the EcoDistricts Summit.  APA will wrestle with the notion of community livability in a changing world – resiliency, preparedness and forging new partnerships will be key discussion topics. Moving from public to private sectors, Net Impact will sharpen MBA students’ business case for sustainability in the corporate world. The foundation of the business case is heading back to the basics, as nature and valuing ecosystem services will be key discussion topics at all three conferences (I’ll be speaking about Biomimicry for both the APA and Net Impact). Lastly, scaling up sustainability in the built environment is all the rage and EcoDistricts is gaining serious traction. This concept is even catching the attention of APA for the first time, with sessions featuring Rob Bennett from the Portland Oregon Sustainability Institute and Brian Geller from the Seattle 2030 District.

What’s still missing from these events? Maybe that simple systems perspective to connect all of the dots. I’m waiting for a conference to drop the typical siloed “session tracks” and focus on systems thinking like idea integration and causal relationships. But until then there is still plenty to learn, and I hope I’ll see you out there!


March 14, 2011

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.

August 27, 2010

Green Transportation Design

By Nicole Isle

Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

Cities and towns of all shapes and sizes comprise a complex network of interconnected systems. Energy, water, transportation and material systems — they fuel, move and remove essential “nutrients” such as goods, services, and information, all of which flow through our cities and towns with remarkable efficiency and speed. As in a natural ecosystem, these nutrients flow to a hierarchy of users. At the top of the food chain are the heaviest consumers: buildings, freight, autos, and industrial manufacturing. In this interdependent ecosystem, it’s people who decide how those nutrients cycle through, but as we all know, we haven’t done the best job of figuring out how to make all of this transportation, flow, and cycling happen in a sustainable way.

Our cities and towns may be complex like an ecosystem, but they fail to truly function like one – for example, where waste from one system becomes food for another, and individual niches are interdependent and share nutrients to minimize energy use. In a biological system, these are just a few examples of how an ecosystem comprised of a diversity of biological and physical elements functions, and these ecosystems are our most inarguable showcase of true sustainability.

Traffic Jam in Italy

If an ecosystem worked this way, it would collapse. Photo via It's Knuttz.

The USGBC’s LEED rating system has guided the market to take steps toward the responsible design, construction and operation of buildings.  The latest version of LEED more heavily rewards projects that are constructed in urban areas where infrastructure, amenities, housing and jobs already exist. This gets essential nutrients like goods, services, and information operating in shorter, tighter life cycles – a good thing in nature, since a constant source of fuel is essential to growth.

Sustainable transportation systems enable people to move around and receive nutrients more efficiently in ways that minimize total carbon emissions and land use impacts. One transportation rating system that strives to measure benefits and reward performance is the Sustainable Transportation and Access Rating System, or STARS.

STARS  was conceptualized by the North American Sustainable Transportation Council (STC), led by Peter Hurley of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission (SCCRTC) has contracted with the STC to develop twelve STARS Project credits for potential application to their proposed 9-mile SR-1 HOV Improvement project in Santa Cruz County, California. The credit development process is being managed by Brightworks. The finished framework will best serve transportation authorities interested in comparing benefits and costs between design options, or to help inform on initial planning stages.

STARS especially suits planners who are interested in expanding transportation systems to include multiple modes such as bicycling, walking, bus, and rail. It will also help uncover the often hidden benefits and cost savings multi-modal projects can capture through improved access and reduced impacts to energy consumption and associated emissions.

Multimodal Transporation in Portland

Multimodal transportation in Portland, Oregon. Photo via Trailnet St. Louis.

STARS drives a team-oriented decision-making process using an integrated design methodology that begins at project inception. The effort brings together all affected stakeholders to collaboratively solve challenges in reaching common sustainability goals for the project. This builds commitment and community camaraderie, and is  necessary when embarking on a design process that aims to shift thinking toward more sustainable means of transportation.

STARS and LEED both speak to the need for embedding urban design and planning in whole systems thinking. Buildings cannot be truly sustainable without a supporting, sustainable transportation system. The STARS program is attempting to fill in another piece of the climate change puzzle by showing others how transportation systems can function more sustainably. The next step in the credit development process will focus on transportation land use impacts to ecosystems. If our cities and towns are to function like ecosystems and truly be sustainable, then the development of this credit might hold particular potential to uncovering how a STARS-rated transportation system should function. For example, it could explore how climate and energy conditions best inform on decisions related to access. By incorporating a region’s ecological energy potential (e.g. solar insolence, heat storage, and wind) as a design parameter, transportation planners would have a true sustainability perspective when balancing access and carbon emissions reduction goals.

The future wealth and resiliency of cities and towns can only benefit from more thoughtful planning of transportation systems. The planners and project teams that will be best positioned to reap environmental, social, and economic benefits will be those that design infrastructure that recognizes the inherent interdependency of transportation with other systems at play, and accept the notion that no one sector holds the full solution to sustainability. Rating systems like STARS and LEED help demystify what it takes to create more sustainable places for the greater public, and highlight the need for sustainable solutions that span the urban realm.

March 15, 2010

Biomimicry Blog : Erin’s Story

That's Erin!by Erin Leitch
Brightworks Sustainability Advisor

+ First generation Biomimicry Certificate candidate


I applied for the 2 Year Biomimicry Certificate program knowing I would be a guinea pig and without having expectations about what I would get at the end of that two years but mostly looking forward to the experience and the people.  With the program coming to a close of April 10th, I realize I could never have imagined the value that it has brought to both my professional and personal outlooks.  Actually, ‘outlook’ is a serious understatement.  The program has deeply impacted both the way I conduct myself and the work that I do.

Brightworks CEO Scott Lewis wanders across the rainforest floor.

Humidity changes exoskeleton color. The exoskeleton of the Hercules beetle changes from green to black with increasing humidity using thin film interference by reversible modification of layer thickness. (photo:

Biomimicry completely shifts the designer’s approach to sustainable design from being often times an obligatory chore on top of the true design intention to a broadened solution space where innovation and great design go hand in hand with resilience.  This mindset shift happened to me when I first learned about biomimicry and now I have the privilege of witnessing that shift happening in the people with whom I am now working and speaking.I have already begun integrating biomimicry into the work I do at Brightworks, along with Nicole Isle, another Brightworker that attended one of the Biomimicry Institute’s week long Biologist at the Design Table (BaDT) workshops.  Nicole and I have presented the biomimicry approach and its application to many architecture and planning firms in Portland and Seattle which has resulted in a tremendous amount of interest and inspiration about the possibility of emulating the genius found in natural systems and strategies.  We have also been invited to speak at conferences and events.  We are initiating a Pacific Northwest “Biomimicry Swarm” for emerging biomimics, and offer a full-day biomimicry workshop for designers, engineers, planners, and other built environment professionals that want to spend some time working with the biomimicry process and understanding the means by which we can distill challenges to functions and finding those functions in nature.

Through biomimicry, I have found an overwhelming ‘readiness’ in the people that we are talking with for rediscovering humanity’s intrinsic connection to the natural world – for knocking down the illusion of separateness from it – and a similar readiness for incorporating that value into the work we all do.

It is truly a thrill to be a resource to the design community for bridging the gap between biology and the built environment.

[Erin will complete the Biomimicry Institute’s inaugural 2–year certificate program this spring. She, along with 14 other professionals from design, biology, business and engineering backgrounds, will become one of the world’s first Certified Biomimicry Professionals.  This posting is the first in a series of commentaries Erin will be authoring at our Blog on the subject of Biomimicry. — SL]

%d bloggers like this: