An Introduction to Ecological Design

An Introduction to Ecological Design from Bachelors of the Arts Thesis

Ecological Design is born simply from the application of ecological understanding to the practice of design. A contemporary understanding of scientific ecology is rooted in the concept of interrelatedness. Because organisms evolved in relationship to one another, ecological systems are interconnected and interdependent at all scales. Seeing natural cycles in their entirety can provide profound evidence of this.

Imagine it beginning to rain. A single water drop falls on ridge top; it may evaporate and return to the sky; it may be absorbed by a tree and become part of that tree; it may be flushed down your toilet; it may join others in a fractal of streaming patterns, each connected to a greater flow, eventually rejoining with the ocean.

Imagine yourself inhaling a deep breath; part of the breath was undoubtedly breathed by many other creatures; part of that breath was created by plant life; part of that breath contained nuclear fallout; part of that breath was absorbed into your blood; part of that breath will be breathed by your children.

Imagine yourself a farmer. You reach down and take a handful of dark, rich soil. In that one handful of soil exists an entire ecosystem of life; that soil contains nutrients from weathered rock millions of years old; that soil may have carcinogenic toxins from artificial fertilizers and pesticides; the soil we hold contains our livelihood for the future’s food production.

Phenomena occurring at very different spatial scales are linked together by natural cycles. From a dewdrop to the earth’s oceans; from a baby’s breath to the earth’s atmosphere; from a grain of sand to the Himalayan Mountains, living systems are in continuous dialogue through the cycling of materials, energy, and information.

Living systems are interconnected in this way because they evolved in response to the relationship they have with one-another: they co-evolved. In this context, all living beings are connected and dependent on the relationship of the others around them. Biologists are discovering that more than 95% of plants in nature live in mycroryzal relationship with fungus in their roots, meaning the plant and fungus live in cooperation. When we take a seed and plant it in a sterile medium, we neglect its relationships to a greater ecological system, thus are only witnessing only a fraction of the life that seed has to offer. When we raise children in sterile urban environments, neglecting the important relationship humans have with ecology, we produce people who do not understand ecological systems and will design with that perspective.

The foundation of Ecological Design rests in a hope for humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, diverse, and sustainable manner. Thus, the mission of Ecological Design is twofold: to see living systems as models and metaphors for sustainable design; and to use this knowledge to integrate humans systems with existing ecological systems.


Ecology, as defined by Eugene P. Odum , emerged from the study of biology and now is its own discipline that integrates the study of organisms, the physical environment, and human society. The word ecology derives from the Greek root oikos, meaning “the study of the household,” which has come to represent the entire environment in which we live. The word ecology thus links the entire range of scales that we consider home: our bodies, our houses, our cities, ecosystems, and finally earth.

As the millenium draws to a close, environmental concerns have become crucially important. Humanity’s rapid and reckless consumption of billions of years of stored solar energy (fossil fuels) has thrown off our planet’s ecological balance. We have overrun the earth’s digestive capacity for waste, and its toxic effects are building up in our environment. We are faced with a whole series of interconnected global problems that are harming the biosphere and human life in alarming ways that soon may be irreversible. Environmental trends are showing that our current manner of living is compromising the quality of life of future generations.

Could our current state of environmental crisis stem from a lack of understanding natural systems, and even more fundamentally, a lack of understanding ourselves? Can ecological understanding inform us on how to live sustainable lives?

Steve Gliessman, founder of the sustainable agriculture program at UCSC, defines sustainability in relation to agriculture: “Sustainability means different things to different people, but there is a general agreement that it has an ecological basis. In the most general sense, sustainability is a version of the concept of sustained yield—the condition of being able to harvest biomass from a system perpetually because of the system’s ability to renew itself or be renewed is not compromised. …Natural ecosystems provide an important reference point for understanding the ecological basis for sustainability.”

Thus, an acute awareness of ecology provides a coherent framework for making health-promoting choices in our life: Does it heal and enhance life, or diminish it? Does it preserve ecosystem structure and function or degrade it?


To design is to see a pattern within a relationship and make predictions based on that pattern. The word design derives from the Latin word signare, meaning to mark. Inherent in design then is the concept of a sign, an indicator. When we design with sensitivity to ecology we become aware of the signs that nature provides to guide us in design decisions.

In response to our environmental crisis there is a need for a more cohesive, holistic design intelligence; one that respects all forms of life while taking into account future sustainability; one that reconnects the fragmented pattern between human and ecological systems.

Rethinking design is fundamental to bringing about sustainability because design is the interface to material flows between human culture and natural systems. Design decisions coordinate the exchange of nutrients, energy, and information between humans and the environment. As it is now, the exchange is too simple: we take resources from the environment at rates that are non-renewable and give back pollution at rates faster than can be absorbed.

If examined within a holistic context, the relationship our designs have on the environment are complex and extensive. Let us imagine we are going to design a simple shelter. When seen from an ecologically holistic perspective, many questions arise. Are the materials used to build renewable? Are they processed with toxins, adding pollution to the environment? Are they recyclable or reusable if the shelter were ever to be dismantled? Are the materials derived locally or was a huge amount of energy required to ship them from across the world? Are people suffering in developing countries to produce these materials? Does this shelter displace wildlife? What is the impact of my design on the environment whole? These are the questions of Ecological Design.

Design may then be defined in the context of ecology as, “the intentional shaping of matter, energy, and process to meet a perceived need or desire. Design is the hinge that inevitably connects culture and nature through exchanges of material, flows of energy, and choices of land use.”

“The everyday world of buildings, artifacts, and domesticated landscapes is a designed world, one shaped by human purpose. The physical form of this world is a direct manifestation of what is most valued in our culture. . . 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 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.”

Thus nature provides a model for a new way of designing. Whereas the machine was the paradigm of industrial design, nature is the paradigm for ecological design. Incorporating an awareness of ecological sustainability into human systems is the practice of ecological design.


  1. Use ecological health as a standard point of reference in design evaluation.
  2. Design with sensitivity to place. Allow site to inform design. When we build in response to climate; with respect to local wildlife and cultural traditions; and with recognition of appropriate scale, our designs become integrated into the pattern of the landscape.
  3. Account for the complete environmental impacts of design. By designing with awareness to the interdependence of living systems, we take full responsibility for our designs.
  4. Show respect for all life by preserving, conserving, and restoring ecological systems through design.
  5. Value all types of knowledge in the design process. Because ecology examines systems holistically, specialists from all disciplines are necessary to fully assess designs. In this respect, design is interdisciplinary as ecology is interconnected. Place special value on local and indigenous knowledge.
  6. Bring awareness of natural systems to the surface in design. By making natural flows apparent in human systems, we uncover opportunities to learn about ecology.
  7. Preserve cultural and biological diversity, they are resources for future generations.
  8. Make use of the passive energy flows of sun, wind, and water. The sun provides a perpetual income of solar energy that if used efficiently can provide all of our energy needs.
  9. Use only materials that are non-toxic, renewable, and resource efficient. Don’t create burdens for future generations.
  10. Use only technologies which are appropriate to culture and the environment.
  11. Make resources out of waste. Living systems have no concept of waste; all is recycled as a resource.
  12. No design can solve all problems for all time. Account for the unpredictable by incorporating feed-back mechanisms in design. Create designs that are open to the changing environment.


Implicit within Ecological Design are guiding morals:

First, a respect and gratitude for all forms of life is fostered. To protect all living creatures is to protect ourselves, for we are all part of an interdependent global ecosystem. Maintaining biological and social diversity is the foundation for sustainability.

Second, ecological design admits humility in the face of nature. Ecological systems have been functioning in a sustainable manner for some 3 billion years. That is a considerable longer time than humans have been designing. Rather than thinking we can control spaceship earth with advanced technologies and highly trained specialists, we should approach design with an attitude of stewardship. We must be willing to limit technology, material wants, stress placed on the environment, and human arrogance.

Finally, ecological design rests on faith in the integrity of the human spirit to produce greater beauty than the industrialized world of today. It recognizes the necessary connection between spirit and matter by preserving sacred places, fostering community, and valuing art.






One response to “An Introduction to Ecological Design”

  1. Daryl Lights Avatar

    Nature is antifragile. When man sees partially he can only build partially. It is a wholistic view of the world that is only attainable by elevation above the ego. Capitalism is a self satisfying entity in many ways but has many positive attributes as well. But nature teaches us that if we only view profit through the accumulation of monetary gain and cutting expenditure that we are doomed. In our profits even nature should profit.

    In other words, what does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul? Or, what does it profit a man to gain a dollar and lose the planet?

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