Ecological Design Book Extract

Nov 26, 2018 by

In many ways, the environmental crisis is a design crisis. It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used. Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of 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. It is clear that we have not given design a rich enough context.

We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defined human interests but have neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures.

Such myopic design cannot fail to degrade the living world, and, by extension, our own health.

If we believe we can sever our design decisions from their ecological consequences, we will design accordingly.

We will consistently find, in the words of Wendell Berry, a “solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution.”

Thus, while pesticides may partially curb the immediate problem — an abundance of pests — they often create a chain of new problems left unconsidered by those who design pesticides.

These problems are large and diffuse, including the exposure of farmworkers to carcinogens, polluted groundwater, and impacts on the beneficial birds and insects that might have kept the pests in check in the first place.

Over the past fifty years, we have reduced a complex and diverse landscape into an asphalt network stitched together from coast to coast out of a dozen or so crude design “templates.” The poverty of the industrial imagination is manifested in the limited number of templates used to meet every imaginable need.

There are strip malls, mini-malls, regional malls, industrial parks, edge cities, detached single-family homes, townhouses, and sealed highrises, all hooked up with an environmentally devastating infrastructure of roads, highways, storm and sanitary sewers, power lines, and the rest.

The pattern of these templates has become the pattern of our everyday experience, insinuating itself into our own awareness of place and nature.

City planners, engineers, and other design professionals have gotten trapped in standardized solutions that require enormous expenditures of energy and resources to implement. These standard templates, available as off-the-shelf recipes, are unconsciously adopted and replicated on a vast scale.

The result might be called dumb design: design that fails to consider the health of human communities or of ecosystems, let alone the prerequisites of creating an actual place.

Dumb design is wasteful of energy and resources. It is polluting, extravagant, and profoundly dangerous. Unfortunately, we are surrounded by it. We have let dumb design come to dominate the scene because we lacked the words and awareness to fight it.

We have been late to acknowledge that the environmental crisis is also a crisis of design, and slow to generate forms of knowledge and policies that might favour more sensible kinds of design.

We have created sterile places because we have not honoured the small, constant acts of compassion required to care for the living world.

Scientists: ‘Look, One-Third Of The Human Race Has To Die For Civilization To Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?’
On the other hand, if we build a rich enough set of ecological concerns into the very epistemology of design, we may create a coherent response to the environmental crisis.

In Germany, manufacturers are  now required by law to either take back and recycle old packaging or pay a steep tax.

This has transformed the epistemology of the German packaging industry. Now new questions occur in the packaging design process: How can durability and reuse be designed into the packaging? How can easy disassembly of packaging components to facilitate recycling be designed into the packaging?

These questions have triggered extraordinary innovations in reusable or recyclable packaging with corresponding environmental benefits including decreased waste and use of virgin materials.

In contrast, dumb design doesn’t ask the right questions. It blindly optimizes with respect to cost or convenience while neglecting environmental considerations.

If the assumptions underlying our agriculture include maximum productivity and minimum workers per acre, monoculture, cheap fuel and fertilizer, infinite availability of soil, and the irrelevance of negative health effects from pesticides, we will use our land much as we do in the American Midwest.

These assumptions were taken to their logical extreme in a 1970 National Geographic article, “The Revolution in American Agriculture,” which included a two-page illustration of life on the farm in the early 21st century.

The caption says it all: “Grainfields stretch like fairways and cattle pens resemble high-rise apartments… Attached to a modernistic farmhouse, a bubble-topped control tower hums with a computer, weather reports, and a farm-price ticker tape… a jet-powered helicopter sprays insecticides… Across a service road, conical mills blend feed for beef cattle, fattening in multilevel pens that conserve ground space. Tubes carry the feed to be mechanically distributed.” 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture produced this particular projection without any apparent ironic intent.

Changing the assumptions underlying agriculture – the epistemology of farming – clearly produces a different result.

Small organic farms are beginning to flourish again by minimizing inputs of fuel and fertilizer; providing healthy working conditions; diversifying crops to give protection against weeds, pests, and diseases; and conserving soil.

If we view the growing of food as a design problem embedded in a wider cultural and ecological context, it begins to echo other design problems.

Many of the same considerations that inform ecologically sound agriculture also inform the design of sound packaging systems, the design of sane energy systems, or the design of environmentally sensitive buildings.

The case of architecture is typical. For most of this century, architectural design has been informed by the metaphor of the machine. At best, nature is seen as a picturesque backdrop to the dominant form, the piece of architecture itself, representing an expression of unfettered creative will.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House just outside of Chicago, which has influenced generations of modernist architects, is an example of a pristine technological statement that draws its power from appearing to be abstractly placed in its Midwest riparian setting.

The landscape seems undisturbed. The floor and roof plans hover above the floodplain, raised on precise steel columns painted white. The trees on the riverbank are reflected in the ceiling-to-floor glass. The house is an object that draws its power from its spartan machinelike quality juxtaposed against its verdant natural setting.

Much of what architects have designed since the invention of the camera and of architectural magazines is heavily influenced by images, by surface rather than depth. Architects sometimes boast of the buildings they have designed without ever visiting the site.

The exhibit halls in our leading architecture schools are filled with student projects consisting of models of buildings that seem to respond only to a cryptic logic of their own.

Architecture is sometimes taught and envisioned as though sites were interchangeable background slides projected behind the manmade object.

The Farnsworth House is an example of the best that the metaphor of the machine has produced in relation to nature. At its worst, the metaphor of the machine allows us to see nature as a passive and malleable resource, ready to be refashioned into useful products.

We have only to look at the millions of acres of wetlands, hills, forests, and farmlands that are converted to urban and suburban uses every year in order to comprehend the dominant attitude toward natural landscapes and places.

Before the energy crises of the 1970s, architects went about their work without possessing any vocabulary for the environmental impacts intrinsic to buildings. Such impacts were invisible because the prevailing architectural epistemology considered buildings as abstract, static forms with no internal living processes and no significant exchanges with the larger environment.

There was no way to talk about the energy required to manufacture and transport building materials or about the building’s climate responsiveness. As a result, these factors played no role in the design process, and the underlying epistemology was manifested in grotesquely inefficient buildings.

Unfortunately, at most universities it is still possible to earn a master’s degree in architecture without knowing how the sun moves through the sky, without being aware of energy or resource use in buildings, without constructing anything, and without taking a course in environmental science.

This tells us what counts for valid knowledge in the architectural profession and helps explain why 40 percent of the energy consumption in the United States can be traced to building construction, materials, and maintenance.
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