Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Drawing of a Nautilus Shell

Abstracting a natural object and graphically depicting it as an architectural object.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanks, Wikipedia

Support Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a free resource I use every day and my work would be so much more complicated without having this one place to look up scientific topics, read their synopsis and follow their links.  It is a non-profit entity and looking for donor support.  I encourage you to support their mission.

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
—Jimmy Wales, Founder of Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Biomimicry in Buildings: A Work in Progress

Missing photo credit.  File no longer found.
The integration of biomimicry into the built environment is a work in progress and I am continually looking for models that explore its potential.  Below are my thoughts as of now and I am hoping to continue this discussion for years to come.
  • Biomimicry and Living Buildings.  I have heard that the Living Building Challenge was inspired by biomimicry, but I don't know this for a fact.  Even if it weren't, many of its principles are the same: building performance tied to regional characteristics (life's principle to be locally attuned & responsive), limits to growth (integrate growth with development), zero impact (material/energy efficiency), and integrating beauty.  I can think of many building products and a few examples of partial systems integration (the living waste water treatment eco-machine at the Omega Center or various products, as quick examples), but I can think of only one building (Eastgate Center in Zimbabwe) where it has been integrated on both a metophorical as well as performance basis.  I am constantly searching for more examples of building integrated biomimicry and would welcome any suggestions that come my way.
  • Nature as Measure.  Similar to the zero impact prerequisite set by the Living Buildings Challenge, using the inherent ecosystem services of a site as a measure to benchmark the ecological performance of a particular building is very powerful.  If a site was formally prairie that absorbed and held x gallons of water, y number of species, and z tons of biomass, designers can strive to create buildings that strive to meet or exceed this threshold.  I especially like the Mannahatta Project as an example because as a virtual ecological restoration of the island of Manhattan, it holds the genius of the original place as a benchmark by which the ecological performance of a site.  Are there similar efforts in other regions of the world?
  • Biomimicry in Existing Buildings.  I've started having conversations about biomimicry in existing buildings with architects all across the country.  This is a potentially amazing solution space that is relevant to all major developed cities across the globe.  Beyond integrating biomimicry inspired products into interior fit-outs, how can we begin to emulate life in existing structures?  How does nature reuse materials?  How does nature adapt to changing conditions?  How can our buildings evolve to survive?  And what are natural models that can help guide our search?  This is usually discussed in a metaphorical sense, but I am continually looking for tangible manefestations of this on individual existing buildings. 
  • Systems Interaction.  Finally (for now), there are many parallels to how the components of an ecosystem interact and how the components of a building interact.  Systems are systems and I know there are exciting lessons to be learned in this space.  
This is just the beginning and I welcome any and all thoughts from interested parties.

Interesting References (courtesy of Dayna Baumeister)
http://www.d3space.org/competitions/ (previous competitions, natural systems)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Upcoming Events!

Come hear about Biomimicry at the next Foresight Green Drinks in Chicago!  
November 16th at 5:30pm (panel starts around 6:30)!  I'll be on a panel with Lindsay James of InterfaceFLOR and Colin Rohlfing of HOK, facilitated by Peter Nicholson - all Biomimicry Chicago core group members!

Biomimicry, the practice of learning from nature to solve human design problems, is emerging as a powerful tool for creating more sustainable solutions. Applied at a variety of scales, from individual products to buildings to organizations, biomimcry brings nature's 3.8 billion years of innovation experience to the design table.  This month's panel examines this quickly evolving practice, reviewing what it is, how it is being applied, the tangible advancements it has already produced, and the powerful potential for the future. Of specific interest to designers, architects, entrepreneurs, biologists, and related others, the conversation will be wide ranging and inspiring to anyone with a concern for a more vibrant and resilient future. Come learn more about this exciting field, and the new emerging network, Biomimicry Chicago.
And if you are out in the Northeast Illinois region, check out a CEU level presentation I'll be giving on Biomimicry for the AIA NEI Committee on the Environment.  November 10th at Wight & Co in Darien, IL.  
Nature is inherently sustainable and has been for over 3.8 billion years.  While we have been designing our world on a mass scale for approximately 200 years, our evolutionary elders have found a way to fit in on this planet for millennia.  Perhaps they have something to teach us? The emerging practice of biomimicry brings nature’s problem solving solutions to the design table by studying the processes, products, and performance of life on earth and translating their lessons into the language of design. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pecha Kucha this Thursday!

Ryerson Woods Pecha Kucha this Thursday!  Lindsay James and I are talking biomimicry.  Check out this invite for more information.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

PechaKucha on Green Design!

I will be speaking at a Pecha Kucha with Lindsay James, BPCP Candidate and Director of Sustainability at InterfaceFLOR in Chicago next Thursday, October 13th at 7:30pm.  Come learn about biomimicry in this fast-paced forum - 20 slides x 20 seconds each!  Press release after the cut:

Monday, October 3, 2011

Biomimicry as a Wordle

biomimicry wordle created by wordle.net with modified text from wikipedia

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Structure of a Spider Web

It is a well known biomimicry meme that ounce for ounce, spider silk is stronger than steel or Kevlar.  But what is it about the structure of a spider silk that makes it so strong?   Is it the nano scale makeup of the silk?  Is it the pattern?  Do the patterns indicate function?  Over the summer, I've collected a couple images of spider webs as I've seen them and tried to learn a little more about what makes them so special and how we can learn from them.
Spiral orb web in the forest

I started by taking a walk in the forest preserve near my house. Quite quickly I came upon the most ratty looking, massive spider web I'd ever seen.  It looked like something out of a haunted house movie - spiral, torn, and at the center was a huge spider.  As soon as I walked through the brush to get a closer look, the spider took off thinking it should be afraid of me (the feeling was mutual).

It's about Scale
The first thing I learned about spider web construction is that it is modular based on the size of the spider - the larger the spider, the larger the gaps between the threads for the simple fact that the spider must walk on it without getting stuck in its own web.  In fact, the scale of the space between the sticky threads that catch prey is directly proportional to the space from the tip of its back leg to its spinner.

This makes me think of the whole idea of "human scale" in architecture, which of course varies.  Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes for men of smaller stature, such as himself, so that when a taller person such as me walks through a home he designed, I feel like a giant.  The difference is mere inches, but it is noticeable.  Cathedrals were designed in direction opposition to the idea of human scale - they were designed to overwhelm the humans that entered them in order to convey the greatness of their god.  But the spaces where we feel most comfortable are the ones that have been designed down to the detail with our proportions in mind.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Life in and Around a Tree

We sometimes think of trees as solitary objects - lone specimens standing in a field of green.  Or we think of them in clusters of a forest, one indistinguishable from another.  But trees, like everything else, are interconnected and linked with all life around them.  I thought about this when looking at the tree in my backyard yesterday.  What life does this tree support along its vertical axis?  And what relationships do these life forms have with each other?  What can we learn from these connections?
The pride of my backyard - our Norway Maple
Our Norway Maple was planted well over 50 years ago, and is large and established, much like most of the trees in my downtown neighborhood.  This type of tree, however, is considered to be an invasive species because it sends off thousands of little "helicopter" seeds, sometimes a couple times in a season, that create tiny little trees everywhere you look.  Its leaves are also so complete as to shade everything below it and its roots are so dense and shallow such that very little else can grow among them. For these reasons, and the fact that it was planted underneath an elevated power line, I'm not sure it was the best selection that the former land owners could have made, but I love it just the same.  

I love that my house was designed on axis with the tree so that as soon as you walk in my front door, you see the tree centered in the back.  I love that it shades the back part of my yard so completely that you can lie in the grass in 90 degree weather and feel cool.  I love that my daughter's playhouse never sees the sun and is always cool for her to play in.  And I love all the critters it attracts to my garden - even the chipmunks which eat every last strawberry I plant.  Well, maybe not the chipmunks.  What other life does my maple support? 

Let's look a little closer.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Studying a Flower - the Plumeless Thistle

Here is the problem with a novice naturalist walking through a restored prairie and seeing pretty flowers - I assume they all should be there!  It turns out that the pretty pinkish purple flowers I saw on a walk I did way back in July (how summer flew by!) were actually Plumeless Thistle, an invasive weed, and it was everywhere, at least near the walking path I was on.

One invasive species on another - a Japanese beetle on a Plumeless Thistle bud.  From Prairie Flowers in July.

While walking through the prairie on bright July day, I wanted to observe the prairie species mix to see if I would find any patterns.  The main pattern I found was centered around water availability.  The highlands where there was no standing water found home for yellow coneflower, wild carrot, thistle, some milkweed, and turf grass gone to seed.  The lower areas where the creek ran through hosted cattails, grass, a spiky purple plant that looks like salvia, and some strange broadleaf species that seemed like it would be more at home on the forest floor.  Near the paths in higher elevations, I was taken by a pretty purple flower that I found and thought I could learn a little more about it.

Studying the thistle, by Amy.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Local Biomimicry

As a part of my coursework on Biomimicry's Life's Principle to "Be Locally Attuned and Responsive," I wrote an informal white paper on the intersection of Biomimicry and the Transition Town network using my town of Naperville, Illinois, as a case study.  I posed the question,
"What would Naperville look like if it followed the biomimicry principle to be ‘locally attuned and responsive’ in all of its (re)designs?"  
This fits in with our theme for the year at Greendrinks Naperville of local resilience in the face of peak oil and was written to further this discussion.  If you have time to spare and care to read and comment, I would love to hear your thoughts.  Read my paper "Local Biomimicry" here.  

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Biomimicry at Greendrinks Naperville!

Amy is bringing biomimicry to the western suburbs of Chicago at the next Greendrinks Naperville.  Come here what biomimicry is all about and how you can use it to inspire sustainable design!

Wednesday, August 31st, 7pm at Sugar Toad in the Hotel Arista.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sustainability Wordle

Wordle: sustainability
Just a fun graphic of the words that we use to define sustainability, courtesy of wordle.net and wikipedia.org.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning from Carpenter Ants

Carpenter Ant Colony in a Bounce House
In honor of my biology professor, Adrian Smith, who has devoted his career to studying ants, I chose to learn a little bit about the carpenter ants which until this morning and without my knowledge had built a small colony in my kid's rolled up bounce house.

I have no idea why a colony of carpenter ants would chose to build a satellite community in a rolled up bit of plastic fabric.  It must have been dark and slightly damp and that must have been enough.  It was a poor choice on her behalf.  After the destruction of their nest, the ants were obviously very erratic and grabbed their rice shaped pupae, or egg sacks, and scattered in the grass.  I watched them for a while, trying to determine if they had any idea where they were going, but they just seemed to be running for cover.  Within minutes, each and every egg sack had been picked up and was being carried by an ant in its pincers and within a few minutes, very few pupae were visible.  Ants in general are very good at concealing themselves to avoid predation, so it is difficult to follow ants in grass and see where they go.

Being Present

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips.  
Have you ever tried to just sit and be still for 25 minutes?  Without thinking about anything in particular?  Or without really moving?  Well, I tried.  And it's hard.  On a recent trip to the Springbrook Prairie Preserve I completed a BPCP iSite where I was to "Sit and Be Here."  Being present is so hard to do, especially for someone so used to multi-tasking.  Sitting still and observing is a form of meditation, and I found it extremely relaxing but also irritating.

It felt relaxing because I was alone, my children were being cared for by our babysitter, and I had the luxury to just sit down and look at a field of green and yellow prairie flowers.  That experience alone made the time worthwhile.  But the multi-tasker in me wanted to be doing something else at the same time - walking or running so that it would count as my exercise for the day; naming the grasses, birds, and bugs I see and remembering the ones I couldn't name; thinking about what I see and practicing my biomimicry translation skills...  I find it almost impossible to turn off the part of my brain that tells me what I am doing now is not as important as what I should or could be doing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading the Sky

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
How much of fifth grade science can you remember?  What are the different cloud types called?  My knowledge was tested today on the most gorgeous day we've had in months when I was lucky enough to be at the Morton Arboretum with my friend and our kids.  The children's garden was complete chaos with every child in the five surrounding communities all congregating there for the day, so we decided to climb a little hill and sit and watch the clouds.  I have fond memories of staring at the clouds on a pretty day and trying to guess what shape they were making.  My daughter humored me a bit in between trips running up and down the hill and found a snake that the cirrus clouds created (I thought it looked like a spine).  My friend found a stingray made of puffy cumulus clouds.  And I seemed to find mostly fish of different sizes and shapes, a group of cumulus clouds that looked like airplanes flying low, and one space ship.  A psychologist has probably developed a way to analyze what we see in clouds as some type of Warshak test, but I prefer to leave that at the surface.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pictures on the Prairie

IMG_8319, originally uploaded by dgphilli.
My friend Felicia Akman took pictures of my kids at the Springbrook Prairie Preserve in the minutes before a powerful summer storm blew through. The effect in the photos was striking, and it was an amazing experience to feel the storm as it passed over us - and as we ran for cover.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

July's Prairie Flowers as Design Inspiration

Today was a beautiful sunny day for a bike ride through the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve.  It was hot today.  Very hot.  But the flowers in the prairie were in full bloom, and I was curious about the plants I found there.  What are their names?  Where do they grow and why?  Is there anything we can we learn from them that could influence design?  To try and answer these questions, I took a collection (which doubles as an interesting wildflower arrangement) and have attempted to classify a few of the flowers I picked.  I did a little research on the natural history of each and then have extrapolated a few questions as to how each plant may inspire design.  What questions do you think the plant could help us answer?  

Aster (Daisy) family (Asteraceae)
Natural History:  This plant, while native to Illinois, is not that common in native habitats.  In fact, most of the plants that grow in the wild are escaped cultivars or as a result of prairie restoration efforts.  On my ride, there were only small clusters or small groups of individuals but I was determined to collect a few for my daughter, who loves pink flowers.  It has only a faint smell.  The stem is strong and rigid and the seed head is heavy.  The petals are smooth on top, rough on bottom, and damaged with black spots from insect or impact damage.  The top of the flower head is a collection of small spines, which is why it was named after the latin name for "hedgehog."  The spines are packed closely in the Fibonacci spiral formation, which allows for radiating growth.  

Biomimicry Inspiration:  I wonder what a seating arrangement in a restaurant, theater in the round, or other establishment where many people must be placed would look like if we tried to emulate this radiating pattern?  Would its allowance for growth allow the seating arrangement to grow and contract as needed depending on how many people need to be seated?  Would this pattern be relevant to temporary disaster shelter camps as well?  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I fell for this tree

I went for a walk in the Morton Arboretum today, looking at tree bark. Yes, tree bark. For my biomimicry coursework, I have certain prescribed iSite assignments where I go out and observe nature. One of them included looking at tree bark and the differences between different species. This was on my mind after a conversation I had with Dr. Robert Fahey, a forest ecologist on staff at the Arboretum, about tree bark and its (marginal) insulative values. He spoke about Oak forests and how the rough bark fissures that Oak trees present actually create air pockets that help insulate the tree from fire and extreme cold.  It's cork-like texture also traps air pockets, adding insulation.  He was quick to mention that the cell structure of the live phloem has more to do with a tree surviving cold than the dead bark, but it was an intriguing idea for me and I resolved to contact a plant physiologist soon.  Dr. Fahey spoke about the the chemistry of bark and how some species create chemicals in their bark that protect the tree from predators.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Walking the Woods with Kids

2011-06-26 17.06.36, originally uploaded by dgphilli.
I went on a hike with my husband and two young kids through Starved Rock State Park in Northern Illinois this weekend. The park is a series of canyons that were formed when the glaciers melted, forming a series of rock walls, 50' + waterfalls and sand basins from disintegrating sandstone. When I told my 4 year old daughter that we would be going on a hike to a sand mountain that they could climb, she was beyond excited. So excited, in fact, that she was so focused on getting there that she wasn't really able to enjoy the journey to our destination. Not surprising for a little kid.

In between questions of "are we there yet?", I pointed out tangled tree roots that could have been steps up the cliff, tiny shade flowers, butterflies that crossed our path, interesting moss and lichen, and anything else that I thought may interest her. Not so much. Sand mountain, please!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Garden Gossip: Growing Season 2011 Kickoff

I'm excited about my first entry of Garden Gossip for growing season 2011! Every year, I chronicle my little suburban garden on this blog, mostly for personal reasons so that I can remember what I did right (and wrong) the previous year. I'm not sure anyone else would find it interesting, but if you do, please read on.

To recap the last two years, I have removed about 1/3 of my backyard lawn in favor of an annual "square foot" vegetable garden and perennial planting beds for growing herbs, berries, and privacy ornamentals. The first year, I focused on making the garden beautiful in the classical French garden aesthetic with cute little useless fences that surrounded the pavers. Unfortunately, the bunnies thought the little fence was a joke and decimated most of what I grew. Same for last year, only worse - I think they told their friends. When I asked my fellow gardeners how they controlled the bunnies, they recommended a pellet gun. Ok, I don't like the rodents, but I don't want to kill them. So this year, I put up an ugly chicken wire fence. My garden isn't nearly as beautiful as last year, but so far it has kept the bunnies munching on my grass rather than my herbs. Success! Now I need to figure out what to do about the chipmunk that eats my strawberries just when they are ripe. Grr...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Want to learn more about teaching biomimicry?

Then check out the 2011 Biomimicry Education Summit in Cleveland, Ohio - June 27-29.  If you are in the Chicago region, email me for a promo code to save $150 off the registration. Click here to learn more.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Patterns in the Forest Floor

Walking in the woods yesterday, I couldn't help but look down - mostly to make sure I didn't step on something that would throw me off balance and fall. And the forest floor is gorgeous - the random but uniform pattern of broad swatches of green and brown and the texture of the green moss intermixed with last year's dried grass is random but creates a uniform pattern. One of my cohort colleagues works for Interface carpet, and they have a line of carpet tiles called Entropy that is based on the forest floor, where nothing is uniform but the pattern that emerges is aesthetically attractive. This is especially important when dealing with construction materials. By creating a design of seemingly random patterns, tiles can be placed in any order and replaced as needed. This reduces construction waste and gives a longer life to the floor covering itself.

The Art of Systems Thinking

Creating Shelter in the Forest
We are learning about systems thinking this week during my biomimicry intensive at the Harvard Forest, so one of our exercises was to go out into the forest and create a piece of art with nature using systems thinking. The architect in me came upon a collection of downed tree limbs and I instantly wanted to build a fort. I thought about how animals create their own shelter using local dead things. Perhaps most interestingly, they follow certain rules of thumb to make sure the structure is stable, but the overall design emerges based on the characteristics of the material. So that is what I attempted to do here - create shelter using found objects. I found three live trees that I used as columns, added large felled limbs to the sides and placed medium sized limbs on top as a roof. The smallest limbs were used as a floor. Had I had more time than 45 minutes, I would have spent more time on the overall aesthetic, but it was fun to get outside and create something fun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Genius of Place: Lichen in a New England Forest

Lichen are plants and fungus that create a mutualistic relationship greater than the sum of their parts.  What can we learn from them?

Common Greenshield Lichen.  Flavoparmelia Caperata.  Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
Natural History
How does the lichen fit into this forest?

Walking through the forest for my first iSite in the Harvard Forest, I came upon this beautiful lichen growing on a red maple tree.  Up close, it looks like flattened lettuce or cabbage growing in these romantic formations, an example of a foliose (leaf like) lichen.  And lichen is unique because it is not one organism, but a symbiotic relationship between two organisms:  fungi and algae.  To form a lichen, the fungus either encloses the algae in fungal tissue or penetrates the algal cell wall in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities.  The fungi form the structure and then recruit algae to come live with them, and the algae benefits from the protection the fungi provide as well as their ability to capture water and nutrients.  The mutualistic relationship between these two organisms (although sometimes commensalistic or even parasitic depending on the species) is greater than the sum of its parts because it allows both organisms to survive and thrive in areas they would not be able to alone.  Their relationship creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole as well because as rain water falls down the bark of a tree, it gathers nutrients from the lichen which feeds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, and then by extension, the tree and other plants.  

Vernal Pond

Vernal Pond at Harvard Forest
I am at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, for my second Biomimicry session in the temperate deciduous forest and today we took a walk in the forest. To say I loved it would be an understatement, but I'm a forest lover. This is a picture of a vernal pond, or a pond that fills in the spring and then drains gradually. The Harvard School of Forestry took a sample core and was able to trace 9,000 years of history in this area from evidence that this Hemlock forest was once a Maple forest to evidence of Native American under story controlled burns. Probably most interestingly, because this is a seasonal pond and fish cannot live in it, there are no natural predators for amphibians such as frogs to lay their eggs here. Oh, and its gorgeous.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Wildflower on the Prairie

wildflower at springbrook prairie, naperville, il
For the final iSite I needed to complete before my next biomimicry trip next week, I went to the Springbrook Prairie Preserve in Naperville, IL.  I love walking through the prairie with my younger son while my daughter is at school, so I had to see what the prairie looks like in the spring.  The prairie is coming alive.  In areas that were burned, the ground is a carpet of green new growth.  In the areas that weren't burned, dead sticks of last year's grass blow in the wind while short green blades and some yellow wildflowers grow up below.  For this last iSite, I was to sketch an object using only shading without lines, and this was pretty difficult.  I did use some lines because I can't every completely follow the rules, but I concentrated on the shading that the small leaves of the flower cast on the others.  I am excited to have completed my iSites and am so looking forward to seeing my fellow cohort members in Boston!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Elevating the Lowly Dandelion

Dandelion Sketch
Today my kids and I were walking around our neighborhood and started picking dandelions.  I picked a bouquet for my daughter, Ellie, and gave my son Jake one that had ripened into a ball of white fuzz.  My one year old son tried to blow the fuzz off of the stem, with a little success because most of it ended up on his lips.  My four year old daughter and I sat down and started picking the yellow dandelions flowers apart.  I had never spent much time actually looking at these ubiquitous wildflowers other than to pull them from my yard, but it was pretty fun to do it with a four year old.

We discovered that when the flowers are in bloom and yellow, they peel apart just as they do when they go to seed.  The flower is actually made of many tiny florets that are yellow at the ends and white and fuzzy underneath.  At the end of each floret is a tiny seed, small and undeveloped, until the dandelion matures into the fuzzy pappus so fun to make a wish and blow on.  The stem of the parachute, called the beak, elongates as the flower matures into the fuzzy pappus, but it is still visible when the flower is yellow as is the fuzzy parachute.  All of the necessary components for life and reproduction are present from the start, though immature.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

McDowell Grove Forest Preserve

Fallen Limbs at the Forest Preserve in Spring
I took a walk in the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve by my house today. I had never been to this area before and I'm so glad I visited for the first time in spring. There weren't any real flowers to speak of but the floor was a carpet of green. I know in a few months, I won't be able to walk through the fields like I did today because the grasses and under story brush will be too high.  

There were fallen branches everywhere, creating a natural clearing. I don't know if it is normal for so many branches and trees to lie on the the forest floor or if there was some event that caused the branches to fall. One fallen log had a reddish moss growing on it but the majority did not. I wonder what was different about that log - the age, type of bark, moisture content of the wood? I'm guessing the latter, but I'd love to bring an ecologist to find out next time.

The Pattern of a Tree Limb

Tree Limb Observational Sketch
On a walk through the forest preserve today, I thought about the growth of tree branches.  Seeing so many that had fallen to the ground, I wondered about their structural integrity.  Upon further reflection, I think the downed limbs had more to do with flood damage to the roots than to any defect in the branches themselves.  But, it got me thinking about how a branch grows out from a tree and sends out leaves.

Tree limbs tend to grow and send out leaves and branches in a spiral pattern to maximize exposure to sunlight.    I found areas of the limb where it looked like the limb was going to grow in one direction, but then made a sharp turn.  I am hypothesizing that the initial direction became damaged or did not get as much sunlight as its offshoot branches and was abandoned in favor of the more productive branch.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tracking Changes over Time

Magnolia bush in my backyard
my backyard is a constructed ecosystem.  but even so, i've tried to keep it as naturalistic as possible by minimizing turf grass, adding bushes and planting beds, and introducing edible plants into the landscape to encourage wildlife (but not in my fenced off vegetable garden).  so, despite it's constructed nature, it is still natural.  and since it is my backyard and i spend a great deal of time there, i've decided to use it as my iSite for tracking changes over time.

i live in a downtown area with a small lot and just a tiny patch of turf grass for my kids to play in.  that tiny patch of grass isn't doing well - bad soil, erosion, or my natural weed inhibitors and organic fertilizers don't go far enough to keep it lush and green.  but oh well.  if it all dies, i'll reseed it with more appropriate varieties that hopefully don't require the maintenance that kentucky bluegrass does.  in most of the yard, i have gotten rid of  my grass in favor of planting beds.  i have flowering trees and bushes, berry bushes, herbs, and far too many hostas that will all fill out later in the season, but right now they look like green sticks in the mulch.  

Thoughts on a Tulip

Backyard Tulips
i decided to focus my attention on my backyard for a couple of iSites this week, for a couple of reasons.  1) i love my backyard and have put a lot of effort into making it beautiful and 2) i'm getting seriously close to my next trip and the deadline for all of my assignments - and my backyard is very convenient.  and the tulips are out and beautiful this time of year.

so, tulips.  while outside, i studied my tulips looking through the lens of multi-functional design.  when thinking about this, i divide the tulip plant into three parts - the bulb root, the leaves, and the flower.  i'll focus on the flower because we don't plant tulips for the foliage or the bulb.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sound Mapping the Morton Arboretum

Sound Map of the Morton Arboretum
Another day, another chance to work on my iSites - I still have a few more to do before my next Biomimicry trip in 3 weeks, so I am using every opportunity to finish them that I can find.

Today is Easter.  We are not religious, but my two little kids like the idea of the Easter Bunny, so after hunting eggs in the back yard we went to the Morton Arboretum to welcome spring the way we feel most comfortable - by being outside.  For this iSite, I did a sound map.  By closing my eyes, I made a map of every sound I heard.  I was also supposed to see if any of the sounds were related or responsive to one another.

Happy Spring!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Cantilevered Tree

Cantilevered Tree at the Naperville Riverwalk
For today's iSite, I was to test my skills of observation by drawing an object and then trying to draw it again without looking.

Walking along the Riverwalk in my town, I came across a tree that has grown horizontally off the riverbank. It's roots have grown horizontally and are strong enough to cantilever the tree 30' over the riverbank. The tree is truly an amazing feat of natural engineering. It will fall eventually, but so will everything. For now, it has found a way to survive and stand out from the rest of the trees - gaining access to solar resources that others cannot reach. Life will find a way.

As for my skills of observation, I spent a lot of time observing the tree. The roots that hold it up are buried under the ground, but I would have loved to see how deep they reach and how far they extend. Moss was growing on the underside of the tree to the east - not surprising considering it was only a few feet above the water and a river that often floods. This tree has spent a bit of time underwater and it still survives.

Drawing by looking at the tree, but not the paper, was pretty difficult. I felt like I should have picked a simpler object for this exercise, but the outline of the second drawing was not much different than the first. Which was kind of cool.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Business as an Ecosystem (Coastal Salt Marsh)

What would it mean to run a company like an ecosystem?  

Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida
Using Sanibel Island as my test model, I've thought about this question.  
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Florida.  Th
e coastal salt marsh ecosystem is formed on the inland side of Sanibel Island and is a water-based ecosystem that has adapted to tidal fluctuations in water levels.  Mangrove trees and oysters form land masses and inter-tidal areas that are the nurseries for the sea and the rookeries for many birds and mammals.  

What can we learn from this ecosystem and how can it influence business practices?

An ecosystem is interdependent and the the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Successful businesses need to be able to see the big picture and to understand the connections between each aspect of their work.  This ability allows a company to plan for future contingencies as well as streamline operations and reduce waste and redundancies.  

One of the most abundant plants in this ecosystem is the mangrove tree, a freshwater plant that is able to desalinate the salty/brackish water in order to obtain the water it needs to survive.  If businesses were designed to cleanly harvest abundant resources without contributing harmful byproducts, they would restore the land and its resources they use instead of exploiting them.  Additionally, by learning a skill that other businesses cannot replicate, they have a competitive advantage.

Oysters create a natural concrete that allows them to adhere to sandbars, adapting to tidal fluctuations.  By manipulating their shell to close and keep the animal inside from drying out, the oysters survive where others cannot.  If businesses were flexible and able to adapt to not only expected changes, as the oysters do, but also unexpected changes, they are more likely to survive the "downs" and thrive during the "ups."

Over one half of the land mass of Sanibel Island has been set aside as a wildlife preserve and the areas that have been settled by humans fit fairly seamlessly into the natural environment and aesthetic.  Heights of buildings are limited to below the height of the trees; houses on the seashore are raised on stilts to reduce damage due to storm surge; beaches are left undisturbed and vegetation and seafood that washes up is a nutritious resource for shore birds; and so on.  In the example of Sanibel Island, humans have chosen to integrate with the natural ecosystem rather than fighting against it, which is a paradigm shift compared to the majority of human development.  If companies were to emulate this model and seamlessly integrate with the surrounding environment, costs associated with environmental cleanup, maintenance, and waste disposal (among others) could be reduced.

Sanibel Island Ecosystem Interactions

Marine Life Interactions at Sanibel Island
(sketch by Amy Coffman Phillips)
This iSite took place on an ecology tour through Tarpon Bay on the Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, FL.  A biologist, Brianna Coffman who turns out to be a distant unknown cousin of my dad (it's a small, interconnected world), led our tour with incredible knowledge and insight about this coastal marsh ecosystem.  In addition to the insights learned from the boat, our tour guide also gave us knowledge about how marine life interacts below the sea, interactions I've sketched above.  Because this was a boat tour and not a snorkeling tour, my photos of their aquarium will have to suffice for now.

my biologist guide's attempt to recreate tarpon bay's marine ecosystem
(photo by Faye Coffman)
Barnacles attach to any hard substrate they can find, including the shells of various marine organisms.  While walking the beach, I found beautiful pink and white barnacles attached to a pen shell (marine mollusk).  Given the amount of dead pen shells with barnacles I found on the beach, it is possible that the barnacles could get out of control and adversely affect the pen shell's ability to feed itself, developing a parasitic relationship. 

Whelks, such as the Lightening Whelk Conch, are carnivores that are able to eat the flesh of the barnacle by grinding down their outer shell.  The Conch uses its shell to grind and can repair and grow new shell using calcium from the ocean - talk about life friendly chemistry!   They also use suction to pry open the shells of their prey, and their favorite food seems to be the Arck, because their shells must number in the trillions and create Sanibel's white sand beaches.  These beaches create more land mass and continue the cycle of land creation.
Red Mangrove roots forming new islands
(photo by Amy Coffman Phillips)
As this sketch shows, terrestrial organisms are continually looking for new opportunities to colonize new land formed by the shells of marine life.  
Terrestrial Interactions at Sanibel Island
(sketch by Amy Coffman Phillips)
Intertidal zone sand bars are colonized by oysters, which form land by secreting a natural concrete-like compound and bind them together and with the land.  The interstitial spaces are filled by crabs and other organisms looking for shelter from the birds.  The birds land, looking for the crabs and find some, leaving feces to fertilize the sand bar with nitrogen, necessary for plant growth.

Sand bars that stay more or less above the tides are colonized by floating mangrove seedlings, which grow roots into the sand.  Barnacles and other organisms colonize the roots and trap more sediment, which stabilizes the roots and allows the plant to grow more roots.  Birds sit on these roots and look for food, giving nitrogen to the new soil with their feces.  This process grows an island and the sum of its parts are greater than they would be if each organism existed alone.

Mangroves have an impact on the ecosystem at the macro-scale as well.  This network of roots in the coastal marshes are the nurseries of the ocean and they help coastal nurseries respond to dynamic non-equilibrium by dampening hurricane winds and slowing flood waters.  

Sanibel Island Coastal Ecosystem

Jacob chasing shore birds on Sanibel Island, FL

For this iSite, I was to translate what I saw into an engineering diagram of energy flows.  I noticed that all normal energy flows are cyclical - each organism's waste creates an input of energy for another.  The energy my son expended chasing shore birds is not accounted for on the diagram below, but maybe it should be.  

Sanibel Island Coastal Ecosystem Energy Flows

The Laughing Gull on Sanibel Island

Laughing Gull on Sanibel Island

We just returned from our vacation to Sanibel Island and Ft. Myers, Florida and it is so nice to get a break from the cold winters in Chicago. As a part of my work on the Biomimicry Professional Certificate Program, I get to do site observations called iSites. During this time, I have the luxury to think and observe nature while trying to tune out distractions - not always easy for a mom with two small kids. For this iSite, I was to imagine my life as an organism I observed, and the seagulls on Sanibel Island are ubiquitous.

I feel a bit like I am cheating on my iSite to talk about the sea gulls at Sanibel. I threw down a cracker and within three minutes, there were about 20 birds hovering over me. Yes, I know I'm not supposed to feed the wildlife, but sometimes you get great pictures that way!

If I were a seagull, I would spend much of my time waiting for humans on the beach to leave or throw food. I would not be that dissimilar to a vulture in my feeding habits. When humans are not around as much, I scavenge and swim for crabs and shrimps. I coexist nicely with other shore birds, but we are very competitive over food. I have agile wings and can catch food in the air. I'm an omnivore. I'm not picky. Most of my cousins scavenge in parking lots and landfills, so by comparison I'm very classy.

My special niche is my ability to take advantage of areas where humans or other organisms have changed the habitat substantially. While I prefer to breed in coastal marshes and beaches, human modification of this habitat does not bother me. My colony mates and I adapt well. We make our nests of grasses.

I have few natural preditors. Some herring gulls feed on my eggs if I am not careful, but beyond the search for food I have little population control. You will find me everywhere on the coast.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Multi-Functional Design

Recent one page report on Life's Principle to be resource (material & energy) efficient, focused on the sub-principle to design multi-functionally.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

How will we feed ourselves?

Green Drinks - Naperville, an organization I help organize, has decided to delve deeply into the issues of local self-reliance and adaptability this year.  Every month, lectures will focus on the Transition Town initiative as we explore different ways that our community will adapt to peak oil and climate change.

This month's lecture was entitled "how will we feed ourselves?"  Steve Tiwald of the Green Earth Institute and Ron Nowiki of The Land Office discussed organic food production and permaculture, respectfully.

Highlights from Mr. Tiwald's lecture on organic gardening and community supported agriculture:
  • There are approximately 6 billion critters in 1 cup of good, organic soil.  The use of petroleum based fertilizers kill these critters.
  • 3 c's of organic gardening: Compost, Crop rotation, and Cover crops.  He likes red clover as a cover crop.
  • Soybeans are now 80% genetically modified.  The organic seal forbids GMO.
Highlights from Mr. Nowiki's lecture on permaculture and Liberty Gardens
  • By 2100, one-half of all species currently alive today will be extinct.  (We are in the middle of 6X, or the sixth major extinction our planet has faced.)
  • "a child can only learn so much from a mown lawn"
  • A 40' tree transpires 40 gallons of water per day +\-
  • A linden or bass wood makes a delicious and flowery tea that is mildly sedative
  • An AIA study determined that design changes alone can save 40% in energy costs. 
  • Lemon grass makes a beautiful decorative grass in container arrangements with sage surrounding it.  Lemon grass makes a good tea. Ornamental grasses can be harvested and used as mulch under strawberries.
  • Kwintis beans are a good pole bean.
  • Another decorative arrangement is red cabbage in front of dinosaur kale.
  • Tuscan kale - gorgeous tall fountain looking plant.
  • Gooseberries for juice.
  • Clove currant - fragrant plant with edible berry that doesn't taste that great.
  • Apple service berry - gorgeous white glower tree with berry that looks like a blue berry but tastes like a seedy apple; autumn brilliance has a great fall color.
  • Elderberry - mates a fritter; berry high in antioxidants, but invasive.
  • Rhubarb grows in some shade.
  • Hardy kiwi is a vine, also called grape kiwi; best when soft and mushy after a frost
  • Neonicotinoids may be causing honeybee colony collapse disorder.
  • Bird baths are popular and attract birds to eat insects.
  • Succession of a mature landscape.  At first, mice and voles loved his permaculture yard.  Unitl a screetch owl moved in to help control that population.  
  • Pesticides we use were evolved from chemical warfare from WW2.  Since production capacity was already there, it was just adapted to a new use.  But do you really want chemical warefare in your food?
  • Victory gardens in 1944 produced 40% of produce consumed in the country.
  • Compost, sand, and topsoil in equal parts make good soil starter.
  • "Liberty Gardens," liberating ourselves from the industrial food supply.
  • Sungold cherry tomato.
  • Microgreens grow in the basement under lights.  Standard 4' fluorescent bulb almost as good as full spectrum lights.
  • Forest gardening - martin Crawford; part shade gardening
References and Future Reading:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Transition Towns

How will our towns adapt to climate change?

A local group I help organize - Green Drinks Naperville - is addressing this question through a series of monthly presentations this year focused on promoting our local green economy.

It started with the idea of Transition Towns and adapting our local community and economy to the changes that climate change will necessitate.  This idea, promoted by the Transition Network, is based on the ideas of permaculture, but grew beyond food to address holistic climate change adaptation for local towns.  The program provides a framework through which local communities can figure out what the needs of their community will have and help draft a strategic plan to address them.

Goals of the Transition Town include:
  • liberate our time (consumers to producers)
  • triple bottom line (job sharing, telecommuting, less hours)
  • generosity and sharing over hunkering down (collaborative consumption, barter)
  • currencies that favor connection and community over hoarding and lack
  • economies that consider community well-being as new definition of success
  • spirit of "enough for all" rather than "winner takes all"
Initiatives our town will hopefully employ include addressing production and distribution of local food, energy (and resource) harvesting and storage, business and economy, education, building and manufacturing, transportation, government, health/well-being, heart and soul/spirituality, arts and crafts, waste, etc.

Reference:  Green Drinks Naperville lecture on Transition Towns by Jodi Trendler

Monday, February 21, 2011


My only sister had her first child the day I created this piece, so birth was on my mind.  When I thought of the phrase “life creates conditions conducive to life,” I was drawn to the idea of life creation and the cyclical nature of the phrase, beginning and ending with “life.”  I thought about the intricacies of our bodies and how every condition must be ideal to create and sustain life.  I reflected on how most life begins with an egg, either inside or outside of a mother’s body, and I thought about how an egg is an oblong circular shape, ideal in shape and strength to protect the fragile life within.  For these reasons, I chose to represent mother and child as humans cocooned in an egg.  I then gave the piece to my sister, Sarah, to commemorate the birth of her son, Ambrish.    

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Garden Song

"Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Till my body and my brain
Tell the music of the land."
- Garden Song by David Mallett

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Life's Principles Project #1

I just submitted my first project for my Biomimicry Life's Principles class and I have to say - it was so much fun.  I was tasked with creating a hypothetical marketing campaign for Life's Principles and I chose to market to college students.  Today’s college students will inherit the world that we create, and we need to inspire them to create a better world for tomorrow.  

How many of us signed up for multiple credit cards we didn’t need in college just to get a free t-shirt – and they weren’t even attractive shirts!?  T-shirts are great ways to grab a college student’s attention with the hope that they will be interested to learn more, and this strategy is even more effective if the shirts are worn by professors and students they admire.  This person-to-person marketing campaign targets college-aged students who, as a group, are mature enough to know the direction in which they want to take their life may be undecided about how to channel their ambitions.   

The t-shirt uses the slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle, (re)THINK.”  While the concepts of Life’s Principles reach well beyond the materially focused 3Rs, I have used it because it plays into concepts associated with environmentalism that are already prevalent in American culture.  It would allow the Biomimicry Group to play off of these already familiar ideas and refocus the mind of the reader.  

This campaign will introduce the basic concepts of Biomimicry’s Life’s Principles to those that are young, impressionable, and energetic enough to make a difference!