Ecological Principles

In recent years there has been a growing environmental consciousness involving most professions – especially architecture. Architects and builders agree that buildings must be an asset to the environment rather than a liability. This is our manifesto.

All buildings, both private and public, must be responsive to environmental conditions and be designed according to principles of ecological architecture; that is, they must be sustainable.

Therefore, it has become vitally important that proposed projects be carefully evaluated with regard to the state-of-the-art materials and methods of green design. The following list of principles provides a basic framework by which to design buildings that are sustainable and built in harmony with nature.


Photo by NASA

  • Preserving the Biosphere

    Ecologists have concluded that urban and suburban growth has a detrimental effect on the earth’s biosphere. Pavement and rooftops displace vegetation and, as a result, the natural processes of photosynthesis and rainwater absorption are greatly hindered. In addition, critical wildlife habitats are lost, especially those of birds, amphibians and insects. While a typical suburban building site might not support as many species of birds and insects as a rainforest, consider the bio-diversity of an asphalt or metal roof.

    Ecological architecture suggests that roofs can be used for flower and vegetable gardens, grass, patios, greenhouses and so on. This principle posits that buildings should be the means by which the earth plane is simply elevated; that buildings should be designed as planters. These so-called ‘living roofs’ have a number of positive environmental attributes that should be seriously considered for every project.

    In light of global warming, environmental degradation, and the loss of open space, this principle has become vitally important. Once again, buildings should not be dead, sculptural objects displacing nature; they should be instrumental in keeping our planet green.

    This first principle suggests that architects need to be more like magicians; first to design and build a beautiful building, and then make it disappear into the natural landscape. Also, we must build entirely compact, sustainable communities to counteract the suburban sprawl that is choking the biosphere.

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  • Reusing Buildings

    We cannot arrive at a positive future state along the path of our own destruction. Buildings are not disposable. Yet smaller homes that are in excellent condition are routinely destroyed and replaced with larger ones. Even historically significant buildings are demolished to make way for high rises and shopping centers due to outdated mechanical systems or economic rationale.

    This principle considers existing buildings an important resource, not only because they are often cultural assets, but also because of the energy expended in their construction. It takes more energy to build a new building than to restore an existing one, and re-using existing buildings reduces the amount of waste that must be disposed.

    The demolition of an existing building is not only a material loss, but also a spiritual loss. A building is infused with the stories and personal investments of those who create and inhabit it. In consideration of both the past and the future, duration is an important aspect of ecological architecture.

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  • Energy and Form

    Nature provides us with examples of optimum surface-to-volume ratio for reduced heat loss, proper orientation for solar heating, energy efficiency with regard to size – all of this can be directly applied to the design of a house, building, or entire city.

    For example, a saguaro cactus is cylindrical in order to optimize its surface-to-volume ratio, thus reducing the amount of transpiration (moisture loss). This feature in the saguaro and other xerophytes enables them to survive in the desert. Transpiration in a cactus is analogous to heat lost in a building. Generally, compact and basic forms are more energy efficient that articulated ones.

    Lizards position themselves perpendicular to the sun’s rays in order to achieve that maximum amount of solar heating when warming themselves. Similarly, buildings elongated on an east-west axis have the greatest potential for passive solar gain.

    Size is also an important consideration. For example, the massive whale requires fewer calories per kilogram of body weight than any other mammal. Likewise, a population housed in a single structure community consumes far less energy than when dispersed among single family homes.

    Site and program conditions such as solar orientation, wind patterns, land form, opportunities for views, or desires for private spaces and different household temperature zones, are also important parameters of architectural morphology. All of these things in combination should influence built form.

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  • Generic Design

    This principle suggests that if a design for a house or other building works extremely well, it can be successfully modified and repeated. Because the construction is repeated, and therefore perfected over time, it produces a much more efficient use of products and materials. Of course, variations and minor modifications of the design should be made in response to specific site conditions, budget, and particular client needs – after all, these small differences amount to a sense of place and home.

    Globally and even nationally, architects are involved in a very small 
percentage of residential construction. Outside of this margin, most of the houses built are small environmental disasters, while the skills and experience that architects possess continue to benefit mainly those more well-off in society.

    Working to foster affordable and quality generic design may be the most creative thing we can do.

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  • Energy Production and Conservation

    Disengaging our buildings and houses from the umbilical cord that connects them to non-renewable fossil fuels is possible through the use of renewable energy such as solar, wind and geothermal.

    Energy from the sun can be gained through technologies such as photovoltaics, or by design considerations such as building orientation, notably south-facing glass and thermal mass. In cold, sunny climates, these can be especially effective. Wind turbines located on mountain tops, in the sea, or in other windy locations are capable of producing significant amounts of energy for towns and cities, and smaller turbines are available for private homes.

    Geothermal heating and cooling are feasible in almost every geographical location. Water is circulated down into deep wells, where it assumes the temperature of the soil. This stored heat is collected using a ‘water furnace’, and then distributed throughout the building, usually in radiant tubes. In many locations, trees can be properly harvested, dried, and cut into firewood for use in wood stoves capable of heating an entire house. All renewable energy sources should be investigated and incorporated into a building’s design whenever possible.

    Taking measures to conserve the energy harvested is equally important. Exterior walls should be thick, double-studded, and filled with insulation. When possible, outer walls should also be multi-functional — through integration with halls, stairs, closets, pantries, and entrance foyers — to further insulate the living space. On the south side, this could be done with sun rooms and greenhouses. Such measures prevent unnecessary heat loss, lowering both the cost of utilities and, more importantly, decreasing the loss of utilizable energy.

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  • Healthy Buildings

    A Massachusetts (USA) study has found that there is ten times more 
pollution indoors than outdoors. Radon, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, airborne mold spores, and other contaminants accumulate in tightly sealed building envelopes. This condition can be severe, causing people to become sick, especially those who are chemically sensitive.

    Therefore, all buildings should allow adequate air exchanges and be built 
using natural, non-toxic materials. All architects should consider themselves house doctors and be willing to assume responsibility for the health of their clients (patients).

    There are a great number of environmentally friendly substitutes to toxic materials on the market. Insulation is being made of natural cotton and also of scrap from blue jean manufacturers. Cotton and wool carpets are rather common. Companies such as Auro, Livos, and AFM make non-toxic wood sealers, paints, and similar natural products available to homeowners and builders.

    Along a similar vein, some studies suggest that electromagnetism caused by motors (in refrigerators, for example), and found in electric and radio fields, might have detrimental effect on brain neurons. Sensitive design should also take this into account. A Gaussmeter should be a tool readily available to every designer, architect, and builder.

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  • Site Harmony

    By far the most important consideration in designing any building is its relationship to the site. The energy flow of the site (chi), geological topography, geopathic zones, solar access, hydrology, and so on, affect the design of any structure. The art and science of Feng-Shui (wind, water), once known only to ancient Chinese geomancers, is now common knowledge.

    Buildings should be a natural extension of the site. Imagine the building 
placed in a shallow stream of flowing water. Little turbulence should result. The building should be one with nature. Interior spaces should also flow one into the other with an abundance of direct and indirect natural light where possible.

    A site model should be built, showing elevation, significant natural 
features, and any adjoining structures. A scale model of the proposed building should also be built and placed within its site context. Miniaturizing the process with a physical model will help determine the best building form in relation to the natural site.

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  • Appropriate Materials & Methods

    The most appropriate construction methods in one location may be 
completely irrelevant in another. For example, in a severely cold climate prefabrication may be considered. Building components and even entire modules can be built indoors in a controlled environment, then simply transported to the site and assembled. Using silt as concrete form work is perfect in the desert where such a soil condition naturally occurs, but would not be advisable in New England, for example.

    Exposed roof trusses with structural insulated panels are a very effective method of framing a house or small building. Any number of truss designs can be used for this purpose. Where weather permits and carpenters are available, stick framing is not only advantageous but enjoyable too. Changes can be made easily, details improvised, and the design process can actually continue throughout the construction.

    It is always best to use indigenous materials because they tend to perform well, and help to integrate a building with its site. Using locally produced materials and labor also cuts the imbedded energy costs of transporting materials long distances. Furthermore, it allows for a direct relationship and accountability between the buyer and the producer. Skills should be considered a local resource — from the construction stage to the home finishes — utilized to benefit the local economy.

    However, it is understood that some products and materials are available only in certain parts of the world, and importing these at times is unavoidable. This should be kept to a minimum, however, and opportunities to use local alternatives should be rigorously investigated.

    For an in-depth look at wood as a sustainable building material:
    Download Eco-Wood: The Ecological Benefits of Building with Wood [PDF 1MB]

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  • Divine Proportions and Alignments

    The pyramids of Egypt, Chartres Cathedral and Stonehenge are reflections of the proportional harmonies in nature, and take into account solar and lunar alignments. All buildings should be designed with this in mind because it connects us to the cosmos. In this way all buildings can be designed as sacred places – places which help give us an overview and establish our place in the universe.

    The Golden Section (1:1.618), for example, is an optimum plan proportion for a passive solar building. When elongated on an east-west axis, it has an optimal relationship between south facing wall area and surface-to-volume ratio.

    Consider apertures in buildings, through which solar rays may enter at 
winter solstice, for example, or a skylight through which one may observe a certain constellation at a given date. Such alignments, taken together with particular applied mathematical proportions, and also special spaces within the building (a tokonoma, for example) combine to make places sacred.

    Remember that buildings have a great influence on our lives. Winston Churchill said it best —

    We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

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  • Waste Management

    Waste management should begin in the design process by specifying 
products which are made of recycled materials or are themselves easy to recycle. Wood scraps, for example, can be used as an energy source in an outdoor oven or as kindling in a wood stove. Other construction waste should be properly sorted and transported to a recycling station.

    A greywater system, managed wetlands, and composting of bio- 
degradable organic waste should be incorporated into every homestead. In some cases a solar aquatic system enclosed with a greenhouse is a distinct possibility.

    Within the framework of a sustainable design and according to principles of ecological architecture, waste should be thought of as another resource.

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  • Social responsibility

    There are many non-profit organizations committed to socially and environmentally responsible work that need architects but do not have the means to hire them. Architects should donate their time and services, assisted by interns, to these organizations whenever possible. This process can be mutually beneficial for both architects and interns.

    Architects should be selective (even at great expense) about the work in which they choose to become involved. For example, they should not design housing developments which displace working farms, or any projects proposed for ecologically sensitive or culturally precious sites.

Architects should not design custom multi-million dollar private 
residences, or any projects for that matter, that promote and ostentatiously display economic disparity.

    This principle states that architects, designers, and builders must be 
responsible planetary citizens and work only on projects that enhance global equity and peace.

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  • Peaceful Process

    The design process must always be undertaken with a sense of trust and mutual respect. The outcome should be mutually beneficial – a building resulting from a democratic, educational, cooperative endeavor by a team of individuals searching for the perfect solution.

    Creation is a patient search
    Le Corbusier

    during which time many possibilities are attempted until one design option clearly stands out from among the rest.

    Client, architect, and builder should join in this common undertaking with completely open minds and the flexibility necessary to thoroughly develop their project in ways that will benefit all parties involved.

    The process should be so rewarding that it ends with an enduring spirit of peace and friendship.

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