University of Vermont

Ecological Design Collaboratory


The overall objective of the Ecological Design Collaboratory is to provide opportunities for students to practice place-based ecological design. In order to realize this objective, the activities of the EDC will be centered on four main themes, each outlined in more detail below:

Design and Build with Local Materials

We envision a program where students are not only designers, but are also engaged in the hands-on experience of bringing their designs to fruition. With the mentorship of local craftspeople, they will learn to build things. This merging of the cerebral world of design with practical building skills provides a critical synergy much needed in higher education.

In his February 2012 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled Tools for Living: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands, Scott Carlson argues that “it’s time that instruction – at least at some colleges – included more hands–on, traditional skills. Both the professional sphere and civic life are going to need people who have a sophisticated understanding of the world and its challenges, but also the practical, even old–fashioned know–how to come up with sustainable solutions.” With this charge in mind, we will offer students the opportunities to work with their hands on a number of projects ranging from wood-working, fire-making, bicycle repair, gardening, and more through courses in the GreenHouse RLC and through mentorship from members of the community.

The raw materials for these design-build projects will come from primarily from the local landscape: wood from Shelburne Farms and Jericho Research Forest; clay from the glacial lake sediments of the Champlain Valley; and food and fiber from local farms and surrounding ecosystems.


Biomimicry is a field of study with broad implications in ecological design and planning. The Biomimicry Intstitute defines biomimicry as “a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Designers and planners evoking biomimicry look to examples in nature to solve problems and enhance our built environments.

Engineers studying a leaf to improve solar cells, and fan blade producers studying the geometry of seashells and kelp are example of biomimicry in action. On a landscape level, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute studies the ancient perennial tall-grass prairies of the Midwest to develop a model of prairie-like polycultures of edible perennials that not only sustain us, but regenerate and sustain the land by re-building soils. A thriving example within at the University of Vermont is the Eco-Machine™ designed by John Todd and housed in the Aiken Center, that looked to wetland ecosystems to design a natural wastewater treatment system for the Aiken Center.

We agree with the the Biomimicry Institute that “the conscious emulation of life’s genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.”

Biophilic Design

Biophilic Design is based on the premise that humans have an innate affinity for nature, which presents a great opportunity for designing healthy places to live, work and play. Biophilia, a term coined by German psychologist Erich Fromm and made famous by E.O. Wilson's book on the subject (Biophilia, 1984), is described by Wilson as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature."

Architect and Ecological Design Collaboratory advisor Liz Calabrese elaborates: "biophilic design in the built environment reconnects humans, communities, and societies with the natural world, weaving the two back together to promote well-being for both humanity and the natural environment." She notes that the main elements of biophilic design include the following:

  • Environmental Features – well-recognized features of the natural world which are incorporated into the built environment
  • Natural Shapes and Forms – features which represent and simulate the natural world, on facades and within interiors
  • Natural Patterns and Processes – properties and processes found in nature
  • Light and Space – quality of light and spatial relationships
  • Place Based Relationships – marriage of culture with ecology in a geographical context
  • Evolved Human Nature Relationships – fundamental aspects of the inherent human relationship to nature

(from: Calabrese, Liz. 2013. The Architecture of Healing. The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont.)

The goal of biophilic design is to enhance and restore our built environment in order to create spaces that not only serve their essential function of humans, but actually enhances the experiences of its occupants. Ecological design that is rooted in biophilic design will create structures that are not only low impact through their energy efficiency, power generation, passive heating and cooling, and rainwater catchment (to name just some features), but are also desirable places to live, work, and gather.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is an emerging field that draws upon transformative learning theory (which emphasizes changing the mindsets that are the basis for how one operates in the world; not simply changing outward behavior), organizational change, and systems thinking to create social and personal change. Through the Ecological Design Collaboratory, students will have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, that can help to make paradigm shifts at the personal and community scale.

The skills of Transformational Leadership are designed to help practitioners understand how to create new partnerships and alliances that transcend race, class, power and ideology, which so often keep change from happening. Transformational leadership workshops will help students generate the courage, creativity and compassion needed to achieve the highest forms of leadership. Finally, transformational leadership addresses how to support individual leaders who are currently carrying the burdens of change on our organizations, communities, and society at large.

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