what is ecological design? 



"[Ecological design is] any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living processes."  

Sim Van der Ryn & Stewart Cohen, Ecological Design

Van der Ryn and Cohen's definition provides an important foundation for thinking about the work of ecological design, as do the five principles (solutions grow from place, ecological accounting informs design, design with nature, everyone is a designer, make nature visible) laid out in the same book.  

Developing a sense of desired outcomes (in this example, minimize destruction, integrate with living processes) is a fundamental part of design practice. But to be practically useful, designers must also have some rules of thumb for how to implement ecological principles, particularly with regard to design process--which involves working with, and thinking about human behavior and group/community dynamics.

How do we tell the difference between a functionally robust design and one that looks good on the board but fails in the field?  If we assume that everyone is a designer, how do we encourage community exploration of assumptions--buried design errors--early in the development of a response to an ecological issue or problem?  Given that life is often complex, and that many of the natural systems we rely upon (and impact) as we design are both non-linear and dynamic (and thus unpredictable and continuously changing) how do we determine what is a minimally destructive impact? 

And how do we go about integrating our designs with living processes? What living processes do we choose to pay attention to? And at what level? Is the goal to mimic nature? Or create something with a heartbeat, that truly lives--and by definition, can sustain itself over time?  Is mimicry a good substitute for animate design? How can you tell? Where is the counter-intuitive in all this? 

These questions becomes especially knotty when dealing with people as a part of, rather than separate from, nature.  For example, when an environmental regulation designed to protect salmon limits the development rights of a landowner, leading to community conflict and policy push-back in the form of takings legislation, it's common to hear environmental advocates insist that the landowners are at fault, need educating, don't understand natural systems, etc.  But their perspective is often limited by a failure to think, and thus, design regulations systemically--that is, ecologically--taking into account the fact that people are a part of the natural systems within which they live.  So, while it may be true that the landowners are missing a piece of the puzzle, it's likely the environmentalists are too...and for both groups, part of what's what needed is a recognition that new learning is in order, and part of that learning involves a genuine willingness to reach across lines and understand the point of view of another.  

Ecology is about relationships....and ecological design, if it is truly robust, has to focus on more than the environmentally destructive impacts.  It has to take into account (and attempt to mimize) destructive impacts in the social and economic realms as well...and must do so at varying levels of scale, within multiple interlocking communities, many of which have competing interests, some of which--just like environmental impacts--will take time to emerge.  

If we start with the proposition that design is a form of (ideally) highly skilled and elegant problem solving, the ecological, or relational, twist involves combining technological savvy with a measure of humility...admitting there are some things we don't know, and some things we can't fix with technological solutions..and this is no excuse for ignoring their potential impact. 

Taking such a stance has a number of effects: it shifts our attention away from the physical elements of design (the "things" we make during the design process, including napkin sketches, concept drawings, bid proposals, working drawings, and ultimately, projects themselves, whether those projects are abstract (e.g. curriculum design, environmental regulations, tax legislation) or concrete (a house, toothbrush, sports complex) to several much more important issues.  First, how the designed "things" actually function in specific contexts over a particular period of time, and second, how our attempts to imagine, communicate about, and actually create those "things" either supports our stated values (which are assumed to be generative and life supporting, rather than harmful) or degrades them.   In addition, such a stance serves to remind us that we are working to preserve, maintain, and establish healthy relationships, not only with the more than human world, but with ourselves and other people.  If we are arrogant in our beliefs about what to do to solve a particular problem, and willing to risk destroying relationships in order to see our  ideas realized, an awareness that ecological design involves sustaining relationships might be a useful check system.  

If nothing else, this stance can help us reorient from what we think we are doing--saving salmon, to take the example given--to what is actually taking place--which, in this case, is potentially harming salmon (in the long run) through the unintended consequence of creating a community of angry, disenfranchised land owners who want to pave the wetlands, not because they are indifferent to salmon, but because they perceive this as a way of protecting themselves from encroachment (by government, environmentalists, liberals, etc. etc.) upon their habitat. 

This is the essence of an ecological design approach:  at every step of the process, we must take into account disparities between our intentions and a desired outcome, and adapt both what we are trying to do, and how we are trying to do it, in order to continually develop more adaptive, holistic responses to the issue we are trying to address.

Of course, practicing ecological design involves the use of many of the same skills used in conventional design, including the ability to listen deeply, represent concepts visually and dimensionally, collaborate with others, think critically about technical isssues, and use our imaginative capacities to their fullest, but it is the congruence between underlying core ecological principles--such as the concept of "zero waste"-- and how a designer applies those priniciples to the process of designing (who is included in the design conversation, how is  the problem/issue being framed, etc.) and to the technical aspects of a project (how much energy a building consumes, how to manage runoff,  limits on emissions, etc.) that distinguishes an ecological design approach. 

For example, an isolated 5000-square foot single-family detached home, accessible only by car, and an hour away from the nearest community, built for a retired couple in the high desert, made entirely of sustainably harvested materials, with a water catchment system, PV-panels, composting toilets, etc. might be technically green, but its location, global disparities in housing, issues of need versus want, source material inequities (Ipe for the flooring?  Brazilian cherry?), and an outsized transportation-related carbon footprint disqualify it from the category of ecologically designed.  In contrast, a small, well-insulated, conventionally-built row house, oriented to capture and store solar energy, use limited space effectively, interact with and teach its inhabitants (through signage, provisions for design education related to future adaptations), and provide residents with economic and social opportunties within a 15-minute walk from home, is much more congruent with the deep values of ecological design...without adding a single green gadget.

Ecological design concerns itself with the environment, for that is the foundation upon which we live on this tiny jewel of a planet.  But it also involves the human issues of community and reciprocity, of respect for differing perspectives, and a willingness to be changed by what you learn from listening to another's point of view.  At its heart, ecological design is systemic design.  In addition to skillfully using the craft and cognitive skills common to conventional design approaches, ecological designers recognize the profound importance of context and culture, the influence of time, and the necessity to design for adaptation, taking into account new information and impacts as they develop...even, or perhaps especially, when they think they "know" what should be done.