Category: Built environment

Just how do we tap the Genius of our Place?

Cherry blossoms, University of Washington

I’m lucky enough to spending the week in Seattle this week on vacation, perfect timing this year for the blooming of the cherry trees on the University of Washington campus. Unfortunately I don’t think I will be here in just over a month in May when Seattle will hum with the buzz around the Living Future’s Institute unConference.

Every year the conference includes activities and presentations that involve biomimicry, and this year is no different. Central to the application of biomimicry to the built environment is the idea that each geography faces specific challenges due to differing operating conditions – the amount of sunlight, rain wind, fire, etc. – and thus buildings should be designed and built to optimally deal with their location-specific challenges. What’s built in Chicago should not be the same as what’s built in Seattle. One way to understand how to modify designs is to look at life that’s well-adapted to the specific location – all life that’s native to the place! We call this Genuis of Place.

This year, attendees to the unConference will get a chance to do some deep dives into how a Genius of Place can be applied to design. Participants will have a chance to learn about the newest Genius of Place for the California coast region from Biomimicry 3.8 and HOK, and get to participate in a workshop specific to applying the biomimicry Genius of Place tool to a Living Building Challenge design by my good friends Joe
Zazzera, Jane Toner, Diana Hammer and Peggy Chu. A third place-based workshop specific to Seattle’s very cool Urban Greenprint project will teach participants apply nature’s lesson’s learned about water flow into their own designs here in the northwest. Their impressive SeedKit compiles the lessons learned and is available to any designer.

A list of freely available Genius of Place reports are included on my resources page. If you get to attend, let me know how it goes!

Our Built Environment: My Current Reading List for Shifting Paradigms

The more I think about the challenges facing us (humanity) and the opportunities to use biomimicry for innovation in the built environment, the more I believe that we can come up with super cool solutions using biomimicry for any challenge, but unless the fundamental assumption of everyone at the design table is that our built environment is dependent upon, participates in and can support thriving local ecosystems, we will produce solutions that will ultimately fall short of embodying the shift we want and need to see in the way we live life on this planet.

I also believe that once designers come to the table with a basic scientific understanding of our entwinement with the life around us, a whole new world of creative opportunity opens up to not just design and build a structure that solves for human needs, but rather design and build a multifunctional, responsive structure that is a participant in a complex web of life. The next question then becomes, what else can the structure do?! Biologists at the design table can help work with designers to answer that question.

There is incredible thought leadership and work being done around the world to try to reconcile how we can put into words and practice these ideas of shifting a built environment designed to sit upon a landscaped into one that lives within it. The related articles at the end of this post were shared with me by biomimicry colleagues (thanks Josh Stack, Jane Toner and Norbert Hoeller!) and are on my reading list to help me wrap my head around how these ideas fundamentally change our approach and how we move forward.

My thought is, imagine if a region could get together to establish that fundamental assumption for itself – bringing together designers and decision-makers from all functions and scales of the built environment to agree that all design should strive to support fundamental ecosystem functions using local native ecosystem metrics. Each participant in this collective leadership could influence their own piece of the puzzle (playing out in various industries and scales) while at the same time considering and building in mechanisms for how their piece fits into, can respond to and support the whole.  Can it be done?

At Biomimicry Chicago we are boldly imagining such a future for the Chicago region through our Deep Roots Initiative which we are kicking off with our Deep Roots Workshop April 21. We want to explore these ideas and see if/how we can put these ideas to practice. There is incredible work being done in Chicago in trying to address multiple challenges having to do with various ecosystem functions at multiple scales. We have an opportunity to come together to understand how they are all interrelated from an ecological perspective, define what is ecologically “sustainable” for the region and set an overarching framework of goals to strive for. Our subsequent measures of progress as we intentionally restore ecosystem functions in our built environment will then have a scientific basis for assessing whether or not we as a region are truly on the path toward “sustainability.”

The more minds thinking about this, the better. I encourage you to feel free to share more resources in the comment thread below. Only together can we change our story!

Inspiration to Brainstorming: Biomimcry Global Design Challenge – Climate Change

Following up on something I have been thinking about since my post on inspiration for the Global Biomimicry Design Challenge on climate change, I thought I’d share an example of my thought process on using natural models for initial brainstorming. This is my first pass and I haven’t dug deep into the science, but am testing the waters on a high-level idea. So bear with me as I try to wrap my head around this one – energy and associated system cycles. I have more questions than answers as my thoughts are only (maybe not even) half-baked – maybe you can help me out. Or feel free to use my ideas to add to yours!

Last week I was talking with my colleague about various major categories of ecosystem functions. Her diagram had five categories, including “energy” and “carbon”. In looking at the diagram however, I realized that this perspective separates out two components that are fundamentally part of, but not even all of, one system. Does combining the conversations of carbon sequestration and energy efficiency into a comprehensive discussion about the entire system around energy beyond just the carbon cycle, with a comparison to the natural model, provide an avenue to identify missed opportunities to balance things out?

When we talk about energy it is almost always purely in the mindset of procurement/consumption. Energy flow is one way – we dig it up/suck it up/soak it up/stick a turbine in it and gobble it up. What’s the result? We put that energy to work for us in various ways that fuel our activities – cooking, transporting, building, farming, etc. The end result is that that energy once used is gone, but the benefits we reap from consuming it might live on in the form of something made (cooked food, a product, a house, a road…). Doing more with one unit of energy is how we improve efficiency. In the sustainability realm the conversation about “energy efficiency” is sometimes shifted to “carbon management” in recognition of energy consumption (specifically when it’s carbon-based) as a component in the larger carbon cycle.

When we talk about carbon sequestration it’s often a kind of nebulous, unseen phenomenon that most people don’t understand. We know it’s part of the carbon cycle and is a component we have increasingly realized we need to address because there’s this vast amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere and changing our climate. So we also relate carbon sequestration to energy in the realm of the need to pull back out the carbon dioxide emitted during the burning of fossil fuels and organic matter to help balance the carbon cycle. But this discussion is not often expanded to be related to a comprehensive picture of energy beyond a discussion of carbon dioxide. And while carbon dioxide is our main concern, maybe an analysis of the whole system could identify opportunities we might otherwise miss.

In nature, energy procurement and consumption is fed by the sun, but the story of energy is not just about carbon dioxide. It involves an intricate dance of several inputs and outputs in the system enable it to stay balanced in perpetuity – everything is used and recycled with the exception of heat. Not true of our current human system. Even when we look to understand photosynthesis for the conversion of radiant heat to energy to try to replicate that natural model (solar panels), we choose to basically ignore the whole sequestering of carbon dioxide, use of water and releasing of vast amounts of oxygen, water and carbon dioxide thing that occurs in photosynthesis too – we’re just interested in the conversion of energy from one form to another. Are we missing vast components of a balanced system and thus opportunities to greatly improve our design? What if we tried to mimic the functions of the entire natural system of inputs and outputs to restore balance?  

I’ve already talked about how our energy systems have knocked the carbon cycle out of balance. So, using biomimicry, if we want to use the plant energy cycles – complete with the inputs and outputs – as a model for our energy systems, we need to understand nature’s energy system first and then draw metaphors. Easiest thing to do is to draw a picture!

The following diagram shows an overall simplified cycle of inputs and outputs involved in photosynthesis, plant growth and energy flows supporting the food web (that’s us in the “animal” block). (Photosynthesis is the process in which radiant energy is turned into chemical energy in the form of sugars, which are the building blocks for plant structure (starches) as well as immediate energy for plant growth. That stored energy in plants is the energy that gets passed up the food chain from herbivores to carnivores and everything in between.)

Nature's model

The above diagram shows how the byproducts of each step contribute to critical resources for other steps in the process, creating a closed loop with the exception of the renewable energy input of the sun and outputs of heat. It’s brilliant.

Contrast that with examples of our energy systems. The following diagrams also show simplified energy flows in human-designed systems.

Human model

Okay, so now we have an overall idea of how these both work. Notably for me, neither of the human-designed energy systems result in closed loop cycles of inputs and outputs. The solar obviously resembles more closely the procurement and conversion of radiant energy at a site, similar to a plant. I don’t know enough about energy systems to know how to wrap my head around the conversion of radiant energy to electricity vs. chemical energy – that’s above my pay grade for this blog post! So let’s keep it simple for now (but if you know, let me know a good resource to find out more!).

In looking at the coal-fired power plant example, you’ll notice that the inputs include coal, oxygen (O2) (oxygen needed for combustion of coal) and water. In looking at the energy cycle of the food web, you’ll notice that the inputs and outputs are similar to that of an animal – animals consume glucose (stored energy) from plants or other animals that have eaten plants. Animals also consume oxygen which is needed for chemical reactions that result in growth (for the metabolic process). So we might draw the following metaphors included in the above diagram:

  • Oxygen = oxygen (needed for a chemical reaction
  • Coal = stored chemical energy (sugars) (this is the fuel)
  • Power plant = animal
  • Use of electricity to build structures = metabolism (growth)
  • Battery storage = maybe ATP? (adenosine triphosphate, or “the ‘molecular unit of currency’ of intracellular energy transfer”)

(Since I have not spent more than today on this, my metaphors might be off. What do you think?)

If you agree for now that we might draw a metaphor between animals and our human-made power plants, what does that mean for our overall cycle? To me it means our current design is missing a plan for the majority of the system needed to maintain the required balance for stable system functioning (as evidenced through climate change). The question is, how can we think about our energy systems more holistically and model them after the original power plants and energy webs?

If we go with the above, and our current energy system design only includes the “animal” component of the larger system, what if we expand our discussion of “energy” to include the entire cycle of inputs and outputs to understand how we can design an energy system that fits within the natural balance to maintain climate stability? Who uses energy in the system and how? What do they produce as a byproduct of using that energy? What questions does that raise about our systems?

  • Need for balance of inputs & outputs: the consumption and sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) with the release of oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide and water. If fossil fuels and other biomaterials aren’t burned for energy at all, obviously this changes the equation and reduces the burden on the system to sequester carbon dioxide (once restored to a balance from the current state, and this of course ignores whatever inputs and outputs for making the product (e.g., a solar panel)). But since we aren’t flipping the switch on fossil fuels any day soon, we need to find ways to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. And what about the release of oxygen in the process – what part of our system might generate oxygen as a byproduct?
  • Forms of energy: What would a system look like that relies on local real-time renewable conversion of radiant energy to, and storage of, chemical energy that is in a form readily accessible for use (as opposed to use of non-renewable storage of radiant energy captured in fossil fuels and turned to electricity)? Lots of solar cells (produced with solar energy sources!) and batteries? Any other options?
  • If plants (real plants, not human power plants!) are the consumers of carbon dioxide in our natural model, what would be the equivalent of a plant in human energy systems? Manufacturers creating raw materials? Does that reveal the missing link in our system – manufacturers who convert radiant energy on site to fuel their own manufacturing processes (core needs) as well as build raw materials (which form the basis of structures) from carbon dioxide? If so, we clearly need to rethink the potential of a hugely (over) abundant (free!) resource – carbon dioxide – as a building block for materials. Some materials manufacturers are already thinking this way, but if this is the key to balancing the cycle, we need some serious widespread innovation using carbon as a fundamental building block of many more our materials.
  • Can we use the energy flow of a food web to think more about how the supply chain beyond materials manufacturers plays a role – what’s the equivalent of a herbivore (e.g., a manufacturer turning materials into some form of product?), omnivore or carnivore in human systems? Do they exist in the same type of balance we see in land-based food systems (i.e., does it turn out we have an overabundance of “carnivores” requiring high energy inputs?)? If so, by increasing energy efficiency are we creating more “herbivores” ??
  • We’ve cut down a lot of plants – trees to be more exact. Whenever you see green, you are looking at the sequestration of carbon dioxide in materials. It would be foolish to think we shouldn’t also be restoring natural systems to leverage their ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But to what extent? This thinking is reflected in E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth initiative.

Oh, so many more questions than answers! 🙂

My brain is spinning so we’ll have to leave additional pondering for another day. Next steps for me if I were to pursue this further would be to do a deep dive into the science to find out more specifically how this works each step of the way. Next I would then recheck my metaphors and make sure that everything actually makes sense – for every single part of the system. This is where the fun happens – you never know what you’ll find out.

What flaws do you see in my thinking? If any, how would you rewrite those metaphors in line with your thinking? What can you add? How can we build on this? How might you go deeper? What are the right metaphors? What is the natural model equivalent to “electricity”? Or am I totally off base? I’m excited to see what comes out in the Project Drawdown initiative to see if/how their recommendations line up (or not) with this thinking.

An Open Letter to Matt Damon and

Dear Matt Damon,

I don’t know you, but I want to thank you for showing up. I admire your passion for tackling a problem few in the general public are thinking about – access to clean, affordable drinking water and sanitation. The organization is doing incredible and important work and I hope to see your efforts with and Stella Artois succeed. However, I was struck by the disconnect between a quote from you at the World Economic Forum in Davos which read, “Access to clean water and sanitation is just not something we think about, we solved this problem in the West 100 years ago…”, and the reality faced by many regions in this country – looming water shortages. You see, the problem is far from solved in the West. Indeed, while we have figured out the engineering behind drinking water and sanitation, we’ve done it at a high cost – for decades we’ve been borrowing from the future. And the “future” consequences? That future is now.

Our approach to water in this country has generally been one of unfettered use of water combined with infrastructure that sheds water extremely efficiently from our buildings and roads into nearby streams and rivers never to be seen again. But these human systems don’t take into account how and why the water got there in the first place, and don’t recognize why we are slowing running ourselves dry.

Water is life. Plants hold on to water. In drier places, if there is excess the plants store it away in aquifers below ground to access in times of drought (it’s called hydraulic redistribution). Come to a prairie in the summer during a rainstorm and you’ll find no runoff. In wetter places, the plants capture it, breathe it out as water vapor and release organic aerosols which induce the water to fall back down again. Step into a rainforest and you can’t help but feel the water surround you like a blanket and squish underneath you. These water cycles affect weather patterns that define ecosystems, and the ecosystems themselves influence those patterns.  

Everywhere we live in the western world, our developments disrupt and displace these water cycles by taking away the species and systems that perform the functions of recharging groundwater and replacing them with agriculture or infrastructure that does not. The result is increasing costs and decreasing supplies. In my home region of Chicago, water shortages loom for huge populations living off increasingly concentrated aquifers. In our specialized world, no one seems to make the connection between our disruption of natural water cycles and our water shortages. Were we to try to build back in the functions embodied in native ecosystems present before development, starting with the principle of treating water as the precious resource it is and thus holding onto as much of it as we can, we would go a long way towards addressing our current water crises, especially in light of increasing uncertainty in weather patterns caused by climate change.

So if ending the “global water crisis” is really your goal, I implore you to think holistically about water as you work with and Stella Artois to bring drinking water and sanitation to millions of people around the world. Adopt a fundamentally different approach to your work than that embodied in western infrastructure – use one that learns from and encourages other to emulate the incredibly resilient and sustainable strategies embodied in ecological systems. Take this opportunity to partner with communities to create truly long-term water management solutions that ensure the availability of drinking water for generations to come. Otherwise, you will replicate the mistake of borrowing from an increasingly uncertain future. It’s a mistake these populations can’t afford.


Rachel Hahs

Biomimicry & the Built Environment: Designing Ecosystem Functions Back into our Cities

Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois

“The evaporation to precipitation ratio in our bioregion is 1:1. That means, all rain that falls evaporates back into the air,” said Jim Patchett of Conservation Design Forum. Stunned, I asked the obvious next question, How in the world was our region in northern Illinois so rich in groundwater supplies? What, does it just pull it out of thin air? Well, actually, yes.

In prairies, life holds onto water as long as possible because without doing so summer heat and drought would result in death. As Jim explained, turns out prairie ecosystems solved for this problem in a few different ways. First, prairie plants hold on to stormwater – the runoff from a prairie ecosystem is extremely low, in some places virtually non-existent. And two other processes are occurring – condensation in which water close to the ground falls onto plant and soil surfaces where it can be absorbed, and the capture and reabsorption of water released during the respiration (breathing) of plant roots. Over time, the collection and subsequent channeling of water deep underground creates a net positive balance of water in the ecosystem, resulting in a reservoir plants can tap into during times of drought.

As I mentioned in my last post, people working on drinking water supplies in the Chicago region know that the numbers that play out into the future are dire – there is simply not enough groundwater (in addition to our federally-limited allotment of Lake Michigan water) to support a growing urban and suburban population, and pollution is increasingly concentrated in the existing groundwater supplies. On the flip side, stormwater experts are grappling with the increasing intensity of stormwater events, resulting often in a failure of stormwater infrastructure systems to accommodate the increased flow. These systems were designed and built to capture and shed an amount of water based on the historical intensity of rain events and assumptions (which were underestimated) about the growing percentage of impermeable surfaces – and of course not based on predicted future storm intensity trends influenced by climate change.

Putting these two challenges in one paragraph makes you wonder – if we have so much rain that we can’t shed it fast enough, yet our water supply is dwindling….why are we sending our water to the Gulf of Mexico? Add to that the ratio of 1:1 of evaporation and precipitation in native ecosystems (and I’m curious if that ratio changes with an increase in impermeable surfaces, turf grass and agriculture), and it’s clear it’s not just a matter of over-consumption and leaks. It’s a complete failure to understand and then take into account the limitations and functioning of our local water cycles in the design of human water management systems. Our regional water systems therefore fail to ensure sustainability and resiliency of both human and non-human systems in the long run.

Our Shared Story of Ecosystem Disruption

Some version of this story is happening everywhere. As we change the landscape with our modern built environment, we continue to disrupt systems and push the boundaries ecosystems manage to survive within. In some cases, those cycles are now simply broken and the repercussions are slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) unfolding. And while advocates riding the resiliency wave – and sometimes eschewing the sustainability wave – might point out that nature is constantly adapting to changing conditions (what we refer to as dynamic nonequilibrium), so as long as we have resilient strategies in place we’ll figure it out too. Nothing ever stays the same and complex adaptive systems are masters at absorbing impacts and coming back perhaps slightly different, but just as resilient over time. What is there to “sustain” if nothing lasts forever? So things will change but we’ll be ready. Mother Nature give us your best shot! We can learn to adapt, right?

The answer to that in my mind is a big fat Maybe. While certainly our human systems can learn significant lessons from ecosystem resilience, all of this resides within a larger context, which is defined by the limits and boundaries of the system. Our Earth has not always been this way – life has slowly over time and helped to create the planetary conditions we know and love (and need for our survival) today. Systems at all levels have evolved over time to be both sustainable and resilient within the limitations presented by their relevant operating conditions. What we do know is that if an ecosystem is thrown way out of balance (which may be a cumulative result of small events over decades (short in geologic time), or a sudden major disturbance), the system – at the local, regional or planetary scale – can suddenly shift into another state altogether (called an alternative stable state) and won’t go back.

And while it could be that we will learn to adapt to this new alternative state of the natural world, it could also be that we will not be able to adapt fast enough. We simply don’t know what that new alternate state might be. Either way it will have (and is currently having) enormous impacts on all of humanity. And we are doing it to ourselves! It’s not like we are helpless in the face of a fickle and retributive Mother Nature – we are doing this to the planet, and therefore to ourselves. Which means, of course, that it’s possible to change our actions to achieve a different outcome.

A Regenerative Mindset and Approach

I love this quote from the book Designing for Hope (2015) by Dominique Hes and Chrisna du Plessis in reference to a new interpretation of sustainability, the “ecological worldview”:

[Environmental sustainability] is the foundation on which the pillars of social, economic, technical or institutional sustainability are constructed, not just another pillar [of sustainability]. Ecological sustainability is therefore a survival imperative, whereas social and economic sustainability (and the definitions thereof) are ethical issues, the resolution of which can support or destroy ecological sustainability. (p.41)

So how do we change the way we design so that we improve ecological sustainability first and foremost in a way that also strengthens (while perhaps shifting) our social and economic systems at the same time? The regenerative design examples included in Designing for Hope offer incredible insight into how a mental shift – designing from a place of understanding that humans are a part of, not separate from, other life systems – can change everything. It allows us to see that our built environment has the potential to participate – support and give back – to the life systems that support us (also check out Janis Birkeland’s Positive Development: From Virtuous Cycles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design (2008)).

It also then enables us to go beyond our current boxed-in thinking about our built environment. With respect to Chicago’s water challenges, the water conversation on the supply side focuses on plugging leaks and reducing consumption (based on the mindset of “doing less bad”), while the stormwater questions focus on increasing green infrastructure and detaining water in place and releasing it slowly enough that wastewater plants aren’t overwhelmed.

But if we take into account our understanding of how a prairie was net positive for water (right here under the same conditions), something we are not even close to achieving with our city water systems, we realize the next obvious questions we urgently need to ask are – How can we first hold onto rainwater as long as possible and not let it escape the region to level that ratio of 1:1 so we aren’t operating at a deficit? And since we aren’t going to bulldoze Chicago to restore a prairie, how can we replicate the prairie ecosystem processes of condensation and capture of respiration in our built environment so we come out ahead? And how do we know when we are actually “sustainable” with respect to our local ecosystem?

Bullfrog, Cook County Forest Preserve

Using Biomimicry to Evaluate Success of a Regenerative Built Environment

That last question might be hardest to answer. However using the biomimicry methodology we can begin to collect information from biological research on the numbers associated with how water is managed in a prairie ecosystem to create system-wide design goals. For example, if basically all stormwater that falls on a prairie is captured and held within the ecosystem, this gives us a baseline from which to measure our stormwater systems and evaluate if they are contributing positively or negatively to the successful functioning of water cycles within our ecosystem. Gathering many of these metrics (e.g., for evaporation, condensation, capture of water from respiration, groundwater recharge rates, etc.) can help us start to reevaluate our water systems as a whole. We can then begin to rethink and redesign our water systems to reflect our understanding of the limitations presented by our local operating conditions and knowledge gained from solutions embodied in native ecosystems.

Janine Benyus describes these metrics as “ecological performance standards” (EPS). One benefit I see with EPS is that they deliver goals which designers, architects, planners and engineers can try to meet with existing off-the-shelf technology (before more advanced innovations slowly make their way into the market). Of course, the risk might be that we design only for one metric without understanding the need for a holistic design that gets as close as possible to every metric that represents successful functioning of the system as a whole. And certainly an iterative process that allows our built environment to adapt and respond to the system as it is restored (or perhaps disrupted) will enable us to incorporate new technology and approaches as our understanding and capabilities evolve. Existing efforts to use EPS to address water challenges such as the Seattle Urban Greenprint project, Biomimicry South Africa’s Genius of Space and Durban Urban Resilience Framework projects, Terrapin Bright Green’s project in Buffalo, New York, and Biomimicry 3.8’s current project with Interface all aim to establish what it means and how to apply EPS on a city scale or project site. We are aiming to start a similar effort in Chicago.

We can of course also use the biomimicry methodology to solve for challenges that current design approaches and technology don’t address (or don’t do very well). Within every ecosystem there are plentiful examples of how organisms deal with the same operating conditions – and therefore challenges – that we are trying to solve for. Each of those species presents an opportunity for us to learn a new design principle upon which we might base a new innovative design. This process of looking at local organisms, including the deep patterns we find among them, to solve local built environment problems enables our built environment to be more attuned to place, and thus more likely to be able to sustainably function long term as well as respond to disturbances. In biomimicry we call this “Genius of Place”.

We must take the next step in our built environment design to think about the larger ecological, social and economic systems within which our designs reside. This step must be based on an underpinning of acknowledgement that not only is our success dependent upon the success of thriving ecosystems, but also that we have a direct and crucial role to play in contributing to the functioning of the system and the creation of opportunities for life to thrive. Therefore, it’s not enough to “do less bad” when it comes to our built environment. We need to actively restore and regenerate the functionality and resilience of local ecosystems to try to mitigate the radical shifts of larger planetary systems in motion, while at the same time shore up the resilience of human systems. Because change is coming to both.


  • How do your local city water systems either work with or against your local water cycles?
  • What can you learn from your local ecosystem and species about how to effectively manage water on site in a way that benefits both human and non-human communities?
  • What system metrics can your community strive to meet?