What is Ecotecture?

Ecotecture is the art and science of designing human systems that are integrated, functionally and aesthetically, with natural ecosystems. While this chapter focuses on human habitation systems- dwellings, communities, and cities- the design principles learned by studying ecosystems can also be applied to transportation, industrial, communication, and even economic and social systems.

The word "ecotecture" is a combination of the words "ecology," meaning the totality or pattern of relations between living organisms and their environment, and "architecture," which Webster's currently defines as the art and science of building. An older definition of architecture as the "arch," or "over" technology, also applies, because ecotecture, which in this book is used interchangeably with "ecological design" and "sustainable design," must become the next paradigm, or fundamental, coordinating world view for the design professions if our global civilization is to survive the twenty-first century.

The reason we must learn to design our systems the way nature "designs" its systems is that natural ecosystems are our best models of sustainability. Using only the sun's energy and a handful of simple chemicals as building blocks, life has found the means to sustain itself, by organizing into ecosystems, on all but the most inhospitable portions of the planet. Large scale ecosystem can remain stable, that is, sustain themselves in a state of dynamic equilibrium, for tens of thousands of years.

Neither fire, disease, nor invading species, with the possible exception of homo sapiens, poses a permanent threat to major ecosystems which, when they are damaged, tend to reorganize themselves to resemble their original form and complexity. Only extreme climatic changes or other extraordinary conditions cause a large, stabilized ecosystem to break down to the extent that most or all of its plants, animals, and microorganisms disappear and the system cannot repair or regenerate itself.

If a major ecosystem is destroyed by events on a regional or planetary scale its territory is normally occupied by new organisms, either transplanted or newly evolved, which establish a new ecosystem. However, the new ecosystem functions- and in this we have one of the keys to sustainability- in essentially the same manner as the system it has replaced, even though its array of species differs. The basic functional relationships between the three groups of organisms which comprise any ecosystem- producers, consumers and decomposers- have existed everywhere on the planet and throughout the history of life. The net result of the turnover of ecosystems on the planetary scale has been that life as a whole has managed not only to survive a variety of vicissitudes- some of which were in their own ways as devastating as nuclear winter- but to triumphantly attain ever higher states of complexity since its inception three-and-a-half billion years ago.

While the structure of ecosystems has provided stability, the capacity to evolve has enabled life to meet the ongoing challenges of changing conditions. No matter how well established an ecosystem is, its organisms can tolerate only a certain amount of change. Both cyclical changes such as the advance and retreat of glaciers and unidirectional changes such as continental drift are inevitable. Many changes, in fact, are instigated by life itself, which can turn rock into soil, inorganic chemicals into biomass, and alter the content of the atmosphere. Without the ability to evolve the first organisms would have become extinct billions of years ago, leaving hardly a trace. It is the dual capacity of life to stabilize the structures of organisms and ecosystems and to produce new forms which has insured its survival.

By contrast to natural systems, human systems have rarely been sustainable. Nor have they had to. During most of humanity's tenancy on earth, dating back to our origins in Africa several million years ago, resources and space aplenty have been readily available. Starting as tiny, wandering bands of hunter-gatherers, eventually settling down to become small-scale farmers and finally establishing cities and complex civilizations, humans have simply been able to take what they needed for their sustenance and pleasure. The earth's riches, relative to humanity's population and expectations, were more than sufficient to provide not only for our survival but, as we have become increasingly efficient at manipulating nature and extracting her resources, for the doubling and redoubling of our population to the point where we have occupied the entire planet and become its dominant consumer.

During the entire course of our spread across the earth, we have rarely bothered to replace or replenish any of the resources we have used. In almost every instance, the means which humans have thus far devised to provide their food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and luxuries are dependent on a one-way flow of energy, materials, and living substance from nature toward human society. Today, most of the materials which humans do return to nature are true waste, in the sense that they are either so degraded or concentrated that they are toxic or that they will not biodegrade in a reasonable length of time and simply pile up, hoarding their stored energy rather than releasing it back into the environment for reuse. When, as often happened, our exploitation of local resources ecologically degraded an area to the point where it became uninhabitable, we moved on. Now, there is nowhere left to run.

Nature, as we shall see, has evolved a much more sustainable survival strategy of balancing its production and consumption by recirculating resources within local ecosystems and throughout the biosphere, or global ecosystem. In ecosystems there is no "waste," but only the by-products of biological processes which, when they are expelled by one organism, become the sustenance of another. Waste equals food.

Although the human strategy of providing for ourselves at the expense of the planet's well being has generally worked until now, it is clear that our ecological bank account has almost run out. It is said that we have been living on the non renewable principle of nature's savings account- guzzling oil, destroying forests, soils, and oceans- rather than the renewable interest of biofuels and sustainable forestry, fisheries and agriculture. Humanity's well being, and possibly our survival, not to mention the survival of hundreds of thousands of our kindred species, depends entirely on our ability to adopt nature's sustainable ways and integrate our systems with hers. As human and natural systems co-evolve toward full integration, the artificial, perceptual distinction which has separated the two will fade, and the recognition will grow that there is in fact but one planetary ecosystem which includes humans among its many interrelating and cooperating species.

How the integration of human and natural systems can be achieved (particularly through the design or redesign of our habitation systems) is the subject of this book. The vision of ecotecture- a world in which humans dwell in sustainable harmony with nature- and the general approach to manifesting that vision are discussed in this chapter. As sustainability is the standard by which all human designs and activities will be judged in the coming decades and centuries, we will begin by inquiring into its nature.