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New Bottom Line Volume 4.24 – Ecological Design: Living in the Material World

December 5, 1995

Nature has been rediscovered, and in that most unlikely place–the heart of industry. A recent bounty of articles and books, and a growing body of industrial practice, are acknowledging that natural ecosystems—with several billion years of evolutionary R&D–can teach us alot about developing and operating productive, efficient, stable and adaptable systems.

“The environmental crisis is a design crisis,” assert Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan, in Ecological Design, just released by Island Press. “It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used. Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on what we believe to be true about the world. Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature’s own.”

This slim but important book attempts to frame the problem and chart the principles of the solution hinted at in that quote: a design epistemology that is compatible with nature’s own. Drawing on a wealth of design examples, insightful readings and expressive excursions into the biological systems that are the real foundation of all our wealth, it hints at the hints at an emerging design paradigm that–with a little luck–will become the norm rather than the exception in decades to come.

“For our purposes, let us define design as the intentional shaping of matter, energy and process to meet a perceived need or desire,” they write. “Design is a hinge that inevitably connects culture and nature through exchanges of matter, flows of energy and choices of land use. By this definition, architects, landscape architects, and city planners are of course designers, but so are farmers, chemical engineers, industrial designers, interior decorators and many others. All are involved in shaping the physical details of our daily experience.”

Design lays down a template for that experience, and for the flows of energy and matter to come. The market economy typically prices an artifact in terms of the cost to build it. But the artifact’s design to a significant degree determines the costs–financial, material, energetic, biological, social–incurred over its lifetime. Since the lifetime of many artifacts, like buildings, infrastructure, etc, are measured in years, if not decades, those “secondary” costs may be far greater than the primary costs. And they are largely determined in the act of design.

Van der Ryn and Cowan outline five principles that to them make up the core of the “ecological design process”:

Solutions grow from place
“Today, many design opportunities and possibilities are sacrificed to the gods of centralization and standardization, the supposed economies of scale, and a simple ignorance of how one learns from a place….Ecological design begins with the intimate knowledge of a particular place.” The global monoculture, the great nemesis of ecological design, is stared down and sent packing.

Ecological accounting informs design
“No conventional design is executed without a careful accounting of all economic costs. Likewise no ecological design is executed without a careful accounting of all ecological costs, from resource depletion to pollution to habitat destruction. Tracing the full set of ecological impacts of a design is obviously a prerequisite for ameliorating those impacts.”

Design with nature
“Ecological design…is a kind of covenant between human communities and other living communities: Nothing in the design should violate the wider integrities of nature….By working with the patterns and processes favored by the living world, we can dramatically reduce the ecological impacts of our designs.”

Everyone is a designer
“No one is participant only or designer only. Everyone is participant-designer. Honor the special knowledge that each person brings….The best design experiences occur when no one can claim credit for the solution–when the solution grows and evolves organically out of a particular situation, process and pattern of communication.”

Make nature visible
“De-natured environments ignore our need and our potential for learning. Making natural cycles and processes visible brings the designed environment back to life. Effective design helps inform us of our place within nature.”

These principles provide more of a landscape than a plan. The actual “architecture” of ecological design is presented in a detailed table of some 18 contrasting issues, comparing how conventional design and ecological design address energy sources, materials use, spatial scale and more.

But this is not really a “how to” book. It’s more a “how to think” book. It is not a technical handbook for the industrial designer, but an intentionally thoughtful and provocative book that will challenge how any designer approaches the process of design…and how any user of design approaches the purchase decisions with which we cast our votes for the design decisions that will in turn shape our lives.

(c) 1995 Gil Friend. All rights reserved.

New Bottom Line is published periodically by Natural Logic, offering decision support software and strategic consulting that help companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.

Gil Friend, systems ecologist and business strategist, is President and CEO of Natural Logic, Inc.

May be posted intact–including this notice–in any non-commercial forum.
Please inquire at “reprint_rights at natlogic dot com” before reproduction in any commercial forum.