By Leon Wang
Our next guest on the Meet a Biomimic series is Nicole Isle. Nicole has a strong connection to nature and seeks to guide our communities to live and build sustainably. With a solid foundation in ecology and urban planning, she leads sustainability work at Glumac, a full-service engineering consulting firm. Nicole is also well-versed in biophilia, touching upon the human-nature connection that plays a major role in (re)thinking our space. Read on to learn more about her journey and words of advice.
Tell us about how you first learned about biomimicry. What was your biomimicry “aha” moment?
My academic background and early professional experience were in biology, specifically freshwater ecology. I learned about biomimicry early in my career when I shifted focus from science to building design. I was so excited to discover that a connection had been made between products humans create and nature-based solutions. The discovery was one very exciting “aha” moment for me as I immediately found my place in the sustainable building world.
What is your current job and how do you incorporate biomimicry into your work or life?
I lead sustainability work and programs at Glumac, a full-service engineering consulting firm specializing in energy analytics and MEP design, commissioning, lighting, and IT. The best examples of our firm integrating biomimicry into our work is through the collaboration we have with clients in pursuit of The Living Building Challenge certification for their buildings. When the goal is to operate a building within the local, natural budget for energy, water, and material availability, the best approach is to mimic nature’s winning ideas. Nature is a great mentor for building and operating sustainably.
How did you get to where you are today? What paths led you to biomimicry?
My family spent a lot of time outdoors when I was growing up. We hiked, camped, and played outdoor sports all four seasons. I had a very early appreciation for nature. I volunteered at the zoo and adored anything I read about Dr. Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees. Surprisingly, my middle school and high school biology teachers were women, a rarity at the time. Without the knowledge that there was gender bias in the world, those women established a sense in me that anyone can pursue a career in anything they wanted. I studied watershed ecology in college and conducted a ton of outdoor field work for professors and graduate students. Later, I became interested in sustainable building and sought a master’s degree in urban planning to make that shift to the design world. That’s where I learned about biomimicry.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to enter the field of biomimicry or hoping to incorporate it into their work?
Find out what most interests you, your academic or professional passions, and then spend a lot of time outdoors. Learn about systems thinking, local ecology, and your native plants and animals. Connect with local environmental organizations, so you can learn more about nature. The appreciation for nature that you will develop or strengthen will uncover creative nature-based solutions in what you do. Oh, and join or start your local regional network under The Biomimicry Institute’s Global Network!
How are you making an impact?
I hope I’m making an impact through education, advocacy, and application to building designs. I’ve also been involved in a group exploring the human-nature connection in design, a philosophy called biophilia. I think biomimicry and biophilia offer two powerful tools in advancing sustainable building and they have the greatest potential for designers to create widespread adoption of nature-based thinking.
What do you need next to do what you want to do in the world?
More passionate people to learn, apply, and spread the word. Nature is our best mentor for living and building sustainably and we need more people who believe in this philosophy to make biomimicry the standard.
What are your three favorite books?
I’m enjoying Jason McLennan’s book Transformational Thought. Everyone should read Richard Louv’s book Vitamin N regarding the importance of getting outdoors in nature. And this may seem strange, but my favorite childhood books had a big influence on my thinking (parents beware!). There was one book, which I now read to my 3-year-old, called Rabbit Finds a Way by Judy Delton. It’s about determination, creative problem solving, and remembering to slow down to help others along your way. I just love that book.
What kind of people are you looking to collaborate with?
Educators, researchers, product manufacturers, collaborative designers, and most importantly, developers, higher education institutions, and building owners who understand that nature-based design attracts users and pays big dividends. People are infinitely attracted to nature and its systems, forms and patterns, and a project that embraces this thinking will be beautiful. Beauty attracts people and people are attracted to other people. We’re social animals after all. Pretty soon, you’ve got an immensely successful project and the economic returns kick in. Check out the Hassalo on Eighth ecodistrict in Portland, Oregon. All of the water for 650 apartment units is recycled through a constructed wetland system that’s integrated into the landscape. It’s beautiful, functional, mimics nature’s approach to filtering water, and it was accomplished in a very urban setting.
If you could have any biomimetic super power, what would it be and why?
Chlorophyll! If my body could also make energy from the sun, I could really get some stuff done!