How Genius of Place Helps You Think (and Design!) Differently

Genius of Place: Temperate Coniferous Forest

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If you’re designing for the Pacific Northwest, then you’ll find the SeedKit, a report filled with local strategies, essential for your place-based design. Jennifer Barnes (55-5 Consulting) and Alexandra Ramsden (Rushing), founders of the Biomimicry Puget Sound network, began a project called Urban Greenprint to use biomimicry to revitalize their city. In the process, they created a Genius of Place report and fortunately for all of us, made it available for anyone to use. Intrigued, we decided to interview Jennifer and Alexandra to learn more about their place, the SeedKit, and how they have been using it.

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Original map by Terpsichores

Original map by Terpsichores

An Interview with the Authors of The SeedKit

Pacific Northwest Forest

Pacific Northwest Forest

Questions from Biomimicry 3.8, responses from Jennifer Barnes and Alexandra Ramsden:

Not everyone is familiar with biomimicry, so let’s start with the basics. What do you tell designers when introducing them to the SeedKit?

The SeedKit illustrates how biomimicry can be applied to building and infrastructure design. It provides local examples for architects, engineers, and other designers of how they might learn from nature at both an ecosystem and an organism scale and then translate that understanding into a real-world design solution. When we facilitate introductory biomimicry workshops and presentations, the most common response we hear is "Wow, this is amazing, but how do I actually apply nature's strategies to my design project?" This SeedKit begins to illustrate that process. The design ideas here just scratch the surface, but we see them ignite new ideas as people think about and work through the possibilities. In addition to using it as an example of the process, designers are using the SeedKit to share the possibilities of biomimicry with their colleagues. It has become one of our most powerful communication tools.



You have used the SeedKit to introduce biomimicry to design teams. I think readers will be eager to do the same. How have your clients responded to using the SeedKit?

Several firms we have worked with have been inspired by the creative problem solving that biomimicry inspires. One local architecture firm, Weber Thompson, was so energized by the possibilities after an initial biomimicry workshop that they brought us back to lead them through a second workshop, using the SeedKit as a springboard to dig deeper into a challenge one of their projects was facing. One outcome of this process was that they developed and submitted an entry for an international biomimicry design competition and won an honorable mention. Their multi-disciplinary team worked together to clarify the design challenge, identify a short list of nature's mentors, select and dig deeper into the strategies of one organism that solved for that challenge, and translate that biological strategy into an elegant architectural design solution.

We've seen the SeedKit’s influence both in terms of specific problem solving for individual projects and as an entry point into a larger discussion about biomimicry and sustainability in general. Nature's wisdom is the best gauge we have to make sure the solutions we generate are truly sustainable. Several teams we have met with are looking at ways to incorporate biomimicry into their firm's sustainability approach, whether using a Genius of Place perspective or other powerful biomimicry tools such as Life's Principles.

To give readers a sneak peek of the SeedKit share with us your favorite biological strategy in the kit?

It's so hard to choose! One of our favorites is how pine cones open and close depending on the moisture content in the air. The scales of each cone are made up of two structurally distinct layers. When the air is dry, cells in the outer layer shrink longitudinally, and the cone opens. Conversely, when the scales are exposed to humidity, cells in this outer layer expand, and the cone closes up. This action protects the seeds. Seeds have greater likelihood of being dispersed when conditions are dry. When conditions are wet, the cone closes to hold onto and protect the seeds. We can learn so much by observing and listening to nature. Firefighters know that when cones on the forest floor are wide open, fire danger is high. Any of us can read these signs if we know what we're looking for.

How might we apply this to building design? What if our buildings responded dynamically to humidity? What if facades opened and closed depending on the moisture in the air, collecting moisture at certain times and either evaporating or storing it at others? Exterior cladding could be designed to reduce polluted runoff, collect and store water for building systems, and tell a beautiful story through its movement.

Images courtesy of Biomimicry 3.8

Images courtesy of Biomimicry 3.8

Open pinecone

Open pinecone

The Genius of Place process is ultimately important because our local context should influence our designs. Share an example of how understanding your local place changed your expectations for local designs?

In our NW region, we hope that the SeedKit shifts the way designers think about polluted runoff. Understanding that our forests return 50% of the rain that falls on them to the atmosphere can change the way architects and others see the relationship between buildings and runoff. Rather than sending all of the runoff into pipes and then focusing all of our efforts on cleaning that now polluted water, let's figure out how to evaporate more of that water from rooftops, facades, and other built surfaces before it becomes polluted in the first place.

If a designer approached you asking for tips on incorporating the SeedKit into their design process, what would you tell them?

Get in at the very beginning of the design process. No matter how enthusiastic the team is about incorporating biomimicry strategies, if the project direction is already established, it will be hard for any new idea to gain traction.  

Also, this sounds obvious, but make sure you understand the challenges of your specific project. With one team, building on the work of the SeedKit, our initial goal was to evaporate stormwater because we know that's a regional challenge we are facing. Ultimately, however, it turned out that this particular project needed to capture every drop of water to meet its water reuse goals. Once we recognized that this non-local issue was the challenge, it made more sense to look to organisms outside the biome. The team ultimately found inspiration in an organism from an arid part of the world. It was a good lesson for us to make no assumptions up front.

Biomimicry is still an emerging practice. What will it take for biomimicry to become a widely accepted design tool in architecture and engineering?

Most design firms want to be presented with an array of successful examples before they will incorporate biomimicry into their own processes. Fundamentally, designers need to see examples of biomimicry's benefits and they also need confidence that they know how to incorporate this way of thinking into their own design process. Some forward-thinking firms are willing to explore the field now, but many are not. Until we have more successful examples to share, outside funding can help offset the perceived risk. The Bullitt Foundation, for example, is supporting this process. This Pacific NW Foundation, dedicated to promoting sustainable communities, helped fund the SeedKit and is now helping fund education and workshops that incorporate biomimicry into regional design work. Augmented funding, coupled with the sense of urgency many of us are feeling about environmental issues, will help biomimicry become more widely accepted. If our species is going to survive on this planet, it is profoundly important for us to learn from the time-tested brilliance that surrounds us.


A Big Thank you to Jennifer and Alexandra!

For more information on the SeedKit, please contact the authors.

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Jennifer Barnes

Co-Founder of Biomimicry Puget Sound | Architect | Regenerative Development Consultant

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Alexandra Ramsden

Co-Founder of Biomimicry Puget Sound | Principal | Director of Sustainability

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EXPLORE Genius of Place Reports

Does your project lie in any of the highlighted areas on the map?
If so, a Genius of Place report has already been released for your biome. 

Browse the collection of existing Genius of Place reports below.

Original map by Terpsichores

Original map by Terpsichores

Collection of Genius of Place Reports

Browse this growing collection of Genius of Place reports developed by biomimicry experts around the world, including Biomimicry 3.8. Stay tuned as we add to this list throughout 2019.

1. Genius of Place: Temperate Broadleaf Forest by HOK & B3.8
2. You’re already here - the SeedKit by Urban Greenprint
3. Coming soon!
4. Coming soon!
5. Coming soon!

Check back soon for interviews and more with the creators behind Genius of Place studies, or revisit the Ultimate Guide to Genius of Place

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Explore our upcoming biomimicry immersion workshops and register early for a discount.

Ready to work with Biomimicry 3.8 on your own project? We can advise you how to proceed.


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