New Workshop: Biophilic Design and the Stories of our Place


I remember as an architect interviewing for jobs fresh out of grad school, I was asked about my influences. Who were the designers I most admired? My answer always started with the same: Frank Lloyd Wright. This wasn’t the most contemporary answer, and I know I was dinged in an interview because of it, but for me it continues to be the truth. I’ve always felt that the best design is that which is intrinsically connected to the place in which it exists, which fosters connection between humans and nature, and which is built at human scale with the health and comfort of the occupants foremost in mind.

I now have many new mentors, of course: Bob Berkebile, Michael Pawlyn, and Jeanne Gang to name just a few. And of course, nature herself is my ultimate mentor. The designers I most admire use designed space – interior, exterior, and the permeable membranes that separate them – to foster connections between humans with the rest of nature. By learning from nature through biomimicry and biophilic design, designers can create healthy, attractive spaces that are grounded in the “stories of our place,” creating benefits for both humans and the ecosystems we inhabit. But what is biophilia and how can YOU integrate biophilic design into your current and aspirational projects?

Join us for an interactive, in-person workshop grounded in the Prairie Lab. LLC, university-style model where you learn about a topic and quickly begin to apply it to your own context. You will learn about biophilic design and the patterns and elements you can use to foster a deep connection to place, and you will learn how biophilic design seamlessly integrates into the Living Building Challenge. We also draw on local expertise to showcase case studies of biophilia applied in our local region as well as nationally. And you will experience activities that help you to recognize biophilic design as well as begin to apply it to a common context. Sign up for the additional assignment and be mentored through applying it to your own context!

April 5th, 2016. 4pm – 6pm in the Chicago loop.

2 LUs for $69, 4 LUs for $99 if you sign up before March 22nd!
Instructor Amy Coffman Phillips is a Partner at Prairie Lab, LLC, architect, and Certified Biomimicry Professional. She continually advocates for strategies that integrate natural forms, processes, and systems into the built environment to create more healthy, sustainable, and resilient environments that contribute to the ecosystems they inhabit. She was the curriculum developer and facilitator of the “Chicago Biomimicry Immersion” held at the Morton Arboretum.

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Posted in biomimicry, biophilia, design, process

Ooh That Smell! Low-Emitting Materials


You can smell that smell. The smell of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) surrounds you: your new car, a brand-new marker, a recent carpet installation, a fresh paint job. That smell is increasingly less noticeable thanks to regulations and standards like the LEED® Green Building Rating System.

When I taught the old 8-hour LEED Technical Review workshops, I used the Low-Emitting Materials credits to demonstrate the low-hanging fruit of green design. These were the gimme credits. Product manufacturers didn’t want to make paints and adhesives just to meet California standards, and another set of products for the rest of the world. The referenced standard for carpet was written by that industry’s trade association. No-added urea-formaldehyde in composite wood was the only real challenge presented by the suite of credits.

Not so any longer. Now it’s complex if not complicated.

In developing LEED Version 4, the US Green Building Council (USGBC) Environmental Quality Technical Advisory Group (EQ TAG) wanted to get the most health value out of the limited number of points we had to work with. We arguably had the toughest credit category, covering a broad range of topics including pollutants, ventilation, and occupant experience. But the algorithm that determined the total number of points for the EQ category didn’t give us enough points to be as comprehensive as we would have liked. I really wanted to commandeer the point for having a LEED AP on your project, but it was not to be. We had to be efficient. Counting grams per liter of VOCs wasn’t’ going to cut it anymore. Those content standards were written to address ambient air quality and smog production. Occupant health effects stemmed from what people were actually exposed to – the emissions.

The sub-committee assigned to this credit was comprised of scientists, manufacturers, and one lonely practitioner, who happened to also be an industrial hygienist: me. Our charge was to strike a balance between rigor and practicality.

For rigor, there were two major tenets. One: base compliance on emissions of the entire assembly. Two: use independent third party referenced standards. This commitment would up the game for manufacturers, testing organizations, and practitioners because everyone liked the “show-me-the-list” simplicity of the LEED-2009.

For manufacturers there is a learning curve to understand not only what type of testing to do, but what information to provide to practitioners. Of the early manufacture tech sheets I saw, none of them disclosed the total VOC range (TVOC) as required in the credit language. It’s part of the test, but not compliance. The point of the requirement is to increase transparency for practitioners so they could make better design decisions.

To level the playing, field third party certification organizations now had to adopt the referenced standard rather than using their proprietary test methods. As you can imagine there was some resistance. The 3rd party certification table includes the organizations that agreed to make those changes. Hopefully that list will grow.

As for practitioners, the sticking point is the matrix of thresholds, standards, and calculations. How much compliance is enough? The current credit calculations are a result of many conversations around the balance between rigor and practicality. They appear more daunting than they are. It could have been much worse; an early iteration of the credit calculated compliance in terms of 1/32 of a point – certainly overly granular for an allocation of 3 total possible points. The current budget calculation is basically a simple average to be referenced against a set threshold. Fortunately the Low-Emitting Materials Calculator provided by USGBC goes a long ways towards easing that pain point.

That’s the basics. If you want to do a deeper dive, I’m teaching a 2-hour course from 4pm- 6pm on March 15th, 2016 in downtown Chicago. I’ll go into more detail on the referenced standards and you will practice reviewing manufacturer tech sheets and working with the Low-Emitting Materials Calculator, so you can tackle this credit with confidence. For even more confidence, you can sign up for an additional 2 Learning Units by doing an assignment related to your own work, and I will mentor you through the process. The October launch of LEED v4 is coming sooner than you think, so join Prairie Lab and be prepared to take on this credit.

Register for Prairie Lab Low-Emitting Materials and other courses in the LEED v4: Beyond the Requirements series at

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Learning from the Oak Woodlands!

For the third in our immersive biomimicry workshops, we explored the oak woodlands at the Morton Arboretum and came up with innovative design ideas based on the inspiration we found in nature! We hope to see you at our last one on October 17th where we will “Learn from the Genius of our Place” as we explore how the sustainability and resilience of the tallgrass prairie can influence the design of our buildings, businesses, and communities! Register at!

Ready to learn from the woodlands!

Ready to learn from the woodlands!

Scott talking about the levels of a forest or woodland: canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and groundcover. Each of these help to slow the flow of rainwater and aid absorption of this precious resource.

Scott talking about the levels of a forest or woodland: canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs and groundcover. Each of these help to slow the flow of rainwater and aid absorption of this precious resource.

Discussing ecotones, or the transition zones between different ecosystems that are hot spots of diversity and activity!

Discussing ecotones, or the transition zones between different ecosystems that are hot spots of diversity and activity!

Design Jam!

Design Jam!

Design Jam!

Design Jam!

Diverse community planning inspired by ecotones!

Diverse community planning inspired by ecotones!

Design Concept #1: BRR Comfort passively cooled clothing inspired by the Bur Oak!

BRR Comfort passively cooled clothing inspired by the Bur Oak!

Dynamic Living Grids inspired by mycorrhizal fungi!

Dynamic Living Grids inspired by mycorrhizal fungi!

Multi-functional bus shelter / bar inspired by the dragon fly!

Multi-functional bus shelter / bar inspired by the dragon fly!

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Posted in Uncategorized

Learning from the Prairie!


We held our second immersive biomimicry workshop on a gorgeous day in June, and discovering natural models on the prairie and translating nature’s lessons into the language of design has never been more fun! Join us for the the third workshop in our series, August 22nd at the Morton Arboretum where we discover the oak woodlands and practice generating new ideas in an interactive Design Jam. Register today!

Learning on the Prairie

Learning on the Prairie

Bringing nature indoors

Bringing nature indoors

Practicing discovery

Practicing discovery

One of our favorites: compass plant (at right)

One of our favorites: compass plant (at right)

A monarch caterpillar

A monarch caterpillar

A gorgeous day to learn from the prairie!

A gorgeous day to learn from the prairie!

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Posted in biomimicry, design, learning, nature, workshops

Nine Reasons Why Applying Biomimicry to Built Environment Projects is A Win-Win-Win

Designers in the building industry are continually looking for new and innovative ways to create beautiful, livable spaces that are environmentally responsible and resilient to disturbances. Increasingly, those on the leading edge are looking to nature as a source of inspiration. Here are nine reasons why applying biomimicry in the context of the built environment can help designers, projects, and communities as they work to create naturally sustainable, inherently resilient spaces.

Biomimicry for the Built Environment 101

Watch this short (13 minute) introduction to biomimicry for the built environment to learn how the practice of biomimicry is currently being applied and it’s potential for the future!


Value for the Designer: A Source of Design Inspiration

Looking to nature for inspiration can help the designer by:

  • Nourishing Curiosity. Designers are innately curious, and biomimicry provides the opportunity to learn about life’s water, energy, and material use strategies. It is a practice and philosophy which broadens the design solution space to bring new ideas to the design table.
  • Going Beyond Form. The practice of looking to nature has historically been standard practice, from Corinthian columns on Greek temples to Santiago Calatrava’s iconic biomorphic structures. But the practice of biomimicry looks beyond form and teases out life’s inherent sustainability strategies, creating structures that fit form to function and are material efficient as well as well-adapted to their environment.
  • Giving Permission to Play. Too often, going to work means sitting at a desk in front of a computer and putting out metaphorical fires, which is hardly a creative environment. Studies have shown that people who go outside often are happier, healthier, and more creative than those who do not, so integrating outdoor experiences into your design process gives your creativity a boost!

Value for the Project: A Framework for Design Innovation

By using the Biomimicry DesignLens as a framework, looking to Life’s Principles (some of which are shown in italics) as a design guide and evaluation tool, and bringing ecologists and biomimics to the design table, design teams can bring in new perspectives that:

  • Disrupt Traditional Thinking. The process of asking the question, “how would nature solve this challenge?,” as well as ensuring the design team has the adequate knowledge to answer it, gives project teams an opportunity to explore new solutions and brainstorm opportunities to solve challenges in new and innovative ways.
  • Accomplish Multiple Needs with One Simple Gesture. In nature, there are no single-purpose tools. For example, trees provide shade with their leaves, which also generate energy, and bark, which also helps to protect and cool the moving water beneath the surface. Imagine building surfaces and systems that could accomplish multiple functions with one simple, multi-functional design!
  • Are Well-Adapted to their Context and Climate. Rather than fighting against the climate using energy and resources to hold nature at bay, our projects can leverage cyclic processes such as the change of seasons and build with readily available materials and energy, making the achievement of LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge standards more easily achievable while minimizing additional costs.

Value for the Community: A Tool for Systemic Transformation

Integrating the process of Biomimicry into your design practice can generate multiple benefits for the community at large, including:

  • Leveraging Collaborative Synergies. Rethinking our buildings as nested systems, both made up of smaller systems and a part of multiple larger ones, allows us to cultivate collaborative relationships that save resources, energy, and cost for the project and the community at large.
  • Emulating and Enhancing Ecosystem Services. By constructing buildings, streets, and parks to perform the same services a natural ecosystem does: stormwater harvest, flooding mitigation, habitat creation, energy production and carbon sequestration, we can create a built environment that “fits in” again and contributes to the ecosystems we inhabit, truly emulating the genius of our place.
  • Embodying Systemic Resilience. Life on Earth is the epitome of resilience; adapting and changing itself to fit its context for billions of years. By looking to how nature confers resilience on its systems, incorporating diversity and embodying resilience through variation, redundancy, and decentralization, we can create human built cities and systems that are inherently resilient to disturbances, even the unexpected.

On the Leading Edge

Many in the global network of practicing biomimics are differentiating their work by integrating nature’s strategies into their design practice; creating beautiful spaces that are sustainable, resilient, and modeled on nature’s strategies. Architecture firms HOK, Grimshaw and Exploration Architecture along with the carpet manufacturer Interface are just a few of the practitioners already integrating biomimicry into their practice, and you can do this too.

Learn more!

Learn more about the integration of nature’s strategies into the process of design at the next Chicago Biomimicry Immersion on Saturday, June 27th at the Morton Arboretum and make an investment in your career that will help you create locally-attuned buildings and communities that fit in again with the ecosystems they inhabit while earning up to 8 professional LU|HSW credits. Visit for more information and enter promo code “PraLab10” for 10% off the cost of registration!

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Posted in biomimicry, design, learning, nature, workshops Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dormancy as an Energy Strategy: Learning from our Native Prairie

It’s been a long winter! Can you remember last summer’s lush green prairies when looking at them today, brown and dormant? As we drag ourselves out of our own winter dormancy and into the full light of spring, let’s take a moment to consider how our buildings and businesses can begin to emulate the biomimicry Life’s Principle to “Leverage Cyclic Processes” by embedding the ability to automatically respond to local conditions.

By understanding how ecosystems, like our native tallgrass prairie, are attuned to local conditions, we can begin to design buildings that optimize resource allocation while being more responsive to user needs.

Prairie Dormancy

How does dormancy in a prairie work?

The prairie, like any ecosystem, continually adapts and changes itself based on local conditions. Life in cold climates has evolved the pattern of dormancy to respond to unfavorable environmental conditions, such as decreasing sunlight levels, lower temperature, and lessening water availability.

In fall, a plant senses that a critical threshold is being reached where resources necessary for survival are becoming scarce. It enters into dormancy, reallocating resources away from the growth and investment in above ground infrastructure during spring and summer toward stasis and the consumption of stored resources in the roots during fall and winter. In spring, the opposite is true. Inverse thresholds (increasing sun, higher temperatures, more water) are triggers that dictate an automatic response on the part of the plant to begin to reinvest resources toward growth and development.

By changing itself to respond to these local, cyclical conditions, the prairie is able to survive and thrive in a cold, drought-prone climate.

What does dormancy mean for buildings?

By embedding the ability to automatically respond to environmental conditions based on local information, buildings can begin to automatically adjust indoor environments according to the needs of the occupant, ramping up when spaces are occupied and going “dormant” when they are not.

For example, office buildings have cyclic usage patterns of day and night. Thermostats moderate energy use in buildings, allowing for unoccupied spaces to consume less energy when unoccupied. They use the common trigger of temperature as the cue to either turn on or off the mechanical equipment that feeds the space. Occupancy sensors do similar things for lighting – using the trigger of light levels to moderate the light levels in a space. As building management systems become more sophisticated, these tools can be integrated into one seamless interface that moderates multiple variables and automatically adjusts environmental conditions according to use, saving energy and time in the process.

What examples can you think of for how we can embed the ability to leverage cyclic processes in our buildings?

By looking to the “genius of our place,” we can begin to design locally-attuned, restorative buildings and systems, saving energy, money, and making our buildings more responsive to occupant needs.

How can I learn more?

Learn more at our upcoming educational experience on “Discover Innovative Solutions for Designing Net-Zero-Buildings Today” on May 30th at Venue SIX10. Click here to register!


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Posted in biomimicry, workshops

Biomimicry: Design Innovation Inspired by Nature

The challenge of designing and adapting our built environment to be more sustainable, restorative, resilient and generous to all living things is a daunting one!

Those of us working to improve the environmental performance of our buildings and the lives of its inhabitants have run into many stumbling blocks along the way. But by looking to the successful examples of life around us, we can begin to address these challenges and create new, innovative ways of transcending the barriers presented, using biomimicry’s Life’s Principles.


Prairie Lab, LLC recently hosted a workshop experience on “Innovative Solutions for Designing Net Zero Buildings” at the AIA Chicago. During our time together, we showcased our challenge-based innovation method and used biomimicry’s Life’s Principles as one of the innovation methodologies available to help participants transcend barriers to designing net zero buildings.

Biomimicry's Life's Principles

Biomimicry’s Life’s Principles

Biomimicry’s Life’s Principles is a toolkit developed by Biomimicry3.8, the global thought leaders in the field of biomimicry. They have distilled patterns found across 99.9% of life on this planet – strategies that most organisms use to respond to our challenging and ever changing climate. By following these patterns, life has found a way to adapt to the constraints and abundances of our planet – to not only survive but thrive! By looking to and leveraging the hard fought wisdom of our evolutionary elders, we can begin to design a built environment that fits in with our climate and context again.

It is likely too bold to say that we can design our way out of all of the challenges we’ve created, but looking to Life’s Principles in combination with sustainability best practices, we can begin to create a built environment that truly emulates life at the deepest level – where life creates conditions conducive to life!


Some of the biomimicry inspired experiences we offer:

  • Biomimicry in the Built Environment: Life’s Principles Applied to Whole Building Design. In this course, we look at Life’s Principles at a broad level as they apply to the built environment and showcase examples of how they are currently and can be applied to create buildings that are more sustainable, restorative, and resilient.

  • Be Locally Attuned and Responsive: Learning from the Genius of our Place to Inspire Restorative Design. This course offers participants a chance to take a deep dive into what it means to design environments in our Chicago region, learning from our ecosystems and the ecotones in between to design in a way that fits in better with our context.

  • Be Resource Efficient: Learning from Nature to Optimize Energy (or Water) Use. Building on sustainability best practices, this course looks to specific strategies that champion organisms use to use less material and use what is required wisely.

  • Adapt to Changing Conditions: Applying Nature’s Resilience Principles to the Built Environment. In this course, we look to nature’s deep principles of resilience to understand how they can be applied to make our built environment more adaptive to the changing context in which they exist.

Learn more! 

We are excited to bring this groundbreaking knowledge and methodology to work for your firm. Please contact us at to learn more!


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Posted in biomimicry, workshops

Learning By Doing

swimming with vests -

How do you learn best? Statistics vary, but no matter which research you look at, application and collaboration top the list at between 75% and 90% retention. At the bottom of list is reading, which produces only 10% retention. Interestingly, writing accounts for only 45% retention, which means I will remember about half of this blog post if you ask me about it later.

Source: Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, and Glaser, Cognitive Science, 13, 1989

Source: Chi, Bassok, Lewis, Reimann, and Glaser, Cognitive Science, 13, 1989

Regardless of the precise consistency of the research, maybe we believe these stats because we know them to be true from our own experience. If not, why are there cooking classes, art classes, and figure skating classes? Do you really want to learn scuba diving by watching a webinar?

Source: USGBC LEED Faculty™ Training Program, June 13-15, 2009

Source: USGBC LEED Faculty™ Training Program, June 13-15,

It’s no different with professional development. I’ve taught at least 100 LEED® workshops (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System), and if the glazed over eyes, texting, and palpable energy are any indication, the application exercises are the best part of the workshop. That also matches my personal experience. I knew LEED from studying it before I ever used it in practice. But when it came to actually certifying a project, I really didn’t know what I was doing until I dug in and started designing and documenting with the rating system as a guide.

If applying and collaborating are by far the best learning methods, why is professional development usually in the form of a lecture, lunch and learn, or increasingly, online education? I think it’s because it’s easy, and educators feel they are reaching the broadest audience that way. So I wasn’t surprised when looking for an image to include here that I found a dearth of “learning” photos showing real-life experience, and no one was smiling except in posed pictures. I particularly like the one of a woman hugging a stack of books. A search for “fun learning” still showed people in suits around desks and conference tables, but now with high fives and thumbs up.

Instead I chose these guys learning, I don’t exactly know what, in the water because it works as a metaphor for what we are doing at Prairie Lab. Some of the people in the picture are dipping their toes in and some are fully immersed. That’s the experience we want to give you: full immersion. There will still be some lectures with audio-visuals, but the hallmark of our education is hands-on experience, for example in a prairie or a boiler room. If you choose our customized curriculum subscription you also get to apply your learning in a real-world project with mentoring by our expert leadership team. The idea is that rather than putting your handouts on a shelf, you will instead use them successfully in future projects, expanding your firm’s repertoire, and increasing value to your clients.

Sound interesting? If so, please come check us out on October 29th 8:15 am to 12:30 pm at the AIA Chicago office for a workshop on Innovative Solutions to Net-Zero Buildings. We’ll put you to work while you learn and we expect that you’ll have fun doing it. Amy, Joe, and I are excited about this new venture and hope you will be too.

-Michelle Halle Stern

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Posted in learning, process