Architecture as Place of Sustainability

The argument I’m introducing regards the result of my initial inquiry into the relation between architecture and the concept of environmental sustainability, which is an issue I began to work on in the second part of the last decade. The draft of this document goes back to the late 2012 and it was the architectural follow-on of the more general inquiry into the happenings that favoured the development of ecological thinking and environmentalism I’ve considered in the past article — The Place of Sustainability. With the present work, I intended to set up an easily implementable conceptual framework to unveil the basic connections between architecture and ecology, on both theoretical and practical levels. It was this sort of framework that I followed when I made my first architectural and urban project specifically focused on ecological principles (Badel Block Redevelopment, Zagreb, Croatia). It was this framework and that project which heavily influenced my theoretical turn towards place (and the related reconsideration of the meanings of place and space), whose encompassing structure has for me a systemic dimension (whose functioning is based on ecological principles) as one of its constitutive dimensions, in addition to processual, relational, evolutionary and choral [1] dimensions (see the article What Is Place? What Is Space?). In future articles, I will be more specific on the ecological working principles of reality and the Cosmos, understood as complex systems, and on their influence on the reformed concepts of place and space that I’m proposing here. In this way, I will conclude the first cycle of articles (initiated with the presentation of the paper From Space to Place, A Necessary Paradigm shift in Architecture) concerning the main reasons and arguments that provoked my turn from space to place and the necessity to re-thinking the meanings of both concepts.

What follows is the original text I wrote in 2012, with just minor revisions for the present release (by clicking on the links in the captions under each image you can download the high-quality vectorial version of each image).

1. Introduction

The traditional competences and the traditional theoretical knowledge of architects are no more sufficient to manage a necessary paradigm shift concerning design disciplines (architecture, urban planning, landscape design, industrial design, etc.): environmental questions are so inextricably connected to the profession of architects, and so tough to overcome, that, now, a basic knowledge of ecological principles is mandatory for those involved in design disciplines. Soon, professional designers should have a diffused knowledge of the fundamental concepts of ecology and its systemic working principles; new figures will be created and the traditional competences of architects and architectural firms will be reduced unless they will carry on structural changes. We are in front of those changes. Which are the frontiers of ecological thinking for architects? Which new expertise and competencies do architects need to develop a truly integrated approach with the complex processes of reality (physicochemical, biological, socio-cultural and symbolic processes, to begin with) so that they can try to answer, from the early stages of design processes, all of the sustainable questions raised by our contemporary society? This study proposes and analyses a basic and easily implementable conceptual framework that aims at developing an ecological approach to design practices (architecture especially), which can integrate ordinary bottom-up approaches that architects adopt through the implementation of current environmental monitoring systems that control the environmental impact of a building using benchmarks, indicators, indexes, and quantitative ratings.

2. Definition and Premises

Architecture and ecology have similar figurative meaning and intent: while architecture deals with the house of man, ecology — from the Greek terms: οiκος, ‘house, household’ and λόγος, ‘word, speech, discourse, study’ — [2] deals with the house of every living being. Why is it so compelling for architects to start a proficient dialogue with ecology? Architecture lays its foundation in-between culture and nature: to protect themselves from nature, men built the first ‘A’-shaped shelters and, from that moment on, culture — architecture is a form of culture — began to diverge from nature. Actually, the balance between man and nature was not a question during the entire evolution of mankind. Things especially changed during the last couple of centuries, and so great was the impact on nature of anthropic activities that a new name for the current geological epoch has been proposed: the Anthropocene.[3] Now, architects have to enlarge their duties: not only their projects have to consider the human environment, but also the consequences of their activity on the natural environment should be evaluated. Why? What is the ultimate problem? The quantity and the rate of consumption of natural resources are not sustainable anymore for the human well-being, and given that our survival completely depends on Earth’s ecosystems and the services they provide (food, water, climate regulation, biodiversity, etc.), when we design, we are now requested to consider and, hopefully, to take care of the physical environment as a whole, as well as the ecosystem services it provides.

Image 1: Architecture and ecology have the ‘house’ as their common ground: the house of man, is the main theme for architecture; the house of every living being is the main theme for ecology. To pursue a benign co-existence between the two, architects should extend the meaning of architecture so far as to consider the interdependence between physicochemical and biological processes as a new focus of interest, beyond the exclusive anthropocentric vision that always characterized architecture. This question is still an open debate between architects (click here for high quality image).
Image 2: Conceptual framework for a global sustainable approach based on (i) the interdependence between economy, society and the environment, (ii) the possibility for architecture to be integrated with ecosystem services — see also Image 3 (click here for high quality image).

3. Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability, that is ‘the unimpaired maintenance of human life-supporting systems’,[4] is a key target for any kind of future development and for men’s projects. For those involved with their professions in those activities that modify the territory and its use (architects, urban planners, engineers, politicians, stakeholders) a global vision is compulsory when local action is necessary: actions can have multiple side-back effects on the environment, here, miles away, in the near or distant future. Sustainability goes beyond fixed boundaries (geographic, political, economic) and new competencies are needed to face a completely new situation. Environmental sustainability is a concept deeply entangled with economy and society (environmental sustainability is a prerequisite for social sustainability).[5] Since the economy is always largely based on the exploitation of natural resources, it is easy to understand its effects upon the natural environment, both considered as a source and sink. And if we consider that many natural resources are located in underdeveloped or quickly developing countries, whose environmental interests are secondary to their necessity to grow and develop, then, we can easily understand that it is necessary a global natural and social contract to overcome environmental problems and reach for higher standards of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

4. Ecosystem Services

What do we have to sustain to keep or improve human well-being? Ecosystem services. People’s security (personal safety, security from disasters, secure access to resources), the basic material for a good life (adequate livelihoods, sufficient nutrition, access to goods), health (strength, access to clean air and water), good social relations (social cohesion, mutual respect, ability to help others) and freedom of choice and action, are all inextricably linked to the supporting, provisioning, regulating and cultural services provided by the ecosystems. As reported by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, the degradation of such services due to the human action dramatically increased during the last 50 years and it could grow significantly worse and some damages could be irreversible if actions are procrastinated.[6] All of the eco-services, such as food, water, fuel, medicines, air, climate, water and erosion regulation, soil formation, primary production, nutrient and water cycling, etc., help supporting life on earth and biodiversity.

5. Ecosystem Services and Architecture

It is extremely important to understand that the amount of knowledge concerning the way ecosystem services work and what they produce constitutes a reference corpus everybody should consider in order to tackle environmental problems, at any level, disregarding any profession or personal position. Eco-services and their linking to the human well-being represent a global comprehensive view on sustainability; their study and knowledge should be the starting point on which different disciplines, directly or indirectly involved with design strategies, should rely on. It could be useful to set up a diagram and find correspondences or possible links between any single eco-service and the discipline we choose to confront that service with. For instance, in the case of architecture, if relations between architecture and erosion problems or the water cycle are expected to be investigated since the first stages of the design process, what is about the relation between architecture and food or pollination? (see Image 3, below).

Image 3: The ‘matrix’ between ecosystem services and design disciplines: correlations and possible actions (click for here high quality image).

At least in the last decades, several tools and evaluation methods for the building sector (e.g., LEED, BREEAM, CASBEE, etc.) were introduced to rate the level of environmental sustainability of a building, or architecture; even if some of them are rather efficient, the risk for architects is to use them with a reductive bottom-up approach, failing to comprehend the overall vision and sense of sustainability. The adoption of a matrix or chart in which architecture and the ecosystem services are directly connected represents a method inversion: a top-down approach requesting for a global comprehension of the ecological links between the human and natural environment. If innovations, discoveries, and new research fields are to be found for sustainable architecture, they will probably come from the fruitful encounter of apparently different subjects in the fields between architecture and ecology (see Image 4 below, the part on the bottom right).

6. Sustainability and Architecture: A Threefold Strategy

The comparison between architecture and the ecosystem services introduces us into the field of sustainability applied to design and construction processes. What is sustainable architecture? Can the overall concept of environmental sustainability be directly transferred to architectural sustainability? I think it should: architecture has to address environmental, economic and socio-cultural issues, through its entire life cycle. Specific indicators and tools for constructions were developed especially related to the environmental area; quantitative economic indicators can be easily applied for monitoring economy and costs (costs related to construction, embodied energy, energy, maintenance and disposal); a relative paucity of literature and specific instruments characterizes the area that links social sustainability to constructions. This lack of balance between the three parts of the system architecture-sustainability reflects the differential development during the last twenty years: environmental issues and problems were the first to be treated with the help of monitoring systems to measure performance indexes, followed by economic issues. It seems like social sustainable issues for design and construction are an indirect consequence of the others. This area deserves further investigations by architect and planners.[7] As regards architecture and environmental sustainability, we may point out three main different approaches: (i) energy-saving, (ii) bioclimatic and (iii) ecological. They span from technologically-oriented considerations to a more holistic and ecological vision, which is desirable. The energy-saving approach refers basically to the form factor of a building and the technological solutions used to guarantee high energetic standards, with a consequent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (dimension of insulation panels, efficiency of the opaque and transparent parts of the envelope of a building, presence of solar and photovoltaic modules, the efficiency of windows and doors, mechanical equipment, etc.). The bioclimatic approach regards the overall structure and form of a building, the choice of appropriate materials, the disposition of doors and windows, the orientation of the building to the sun and its exposure to winds and breeze, and similar strategies to maximize or minimize passive energy gains, according to the geographical location. In this case, understanding the close relation between a building and its place is a decisive factor. While the adoption of a bioclimatic approach, in most cases, is coupled with the energy-saving approach, the contrary is not always true. Even more complete and integrated with the physical environment is the ecological approach to buildings, since it integrates human necessities within the local ecosystem, thereby considering the overall environment — its abiotic and biotic components, that is its physicochemical and biological processes — as a focus of interest, not just as a physical background having aesthetic value.

Image 4: Environmental sustainability and architecture: three levels of architectural sustainability and strategies (click here for high quality image).

This ecological approach, which is conceptually very close to my notion of place, given that it considers the correlation between physicochemical and biological processes in correlation with social and symbolic processes that are mediated by architecture or urban planning, should be reflected in the aesthetical value of architecture and planning, as often sustained by the Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, a leading pioneer in the relatively recent field of ecological architecture and planning, or eco-design: bio-integration should be a typically visible trait changing the appearances of futures architectures and cities.[8]

7. Between Ecology and Architecture

This ecological approach to architecture and landscape has wide areas to be explored and potentially new areas to be discovered: we have to fully explore the domains that divide architecture from ecology and fill the gaps of knowledge between the two. According to the context in which they operate, architects should start a direct and profitable dialogue (or deepen the existing one) with colleagues from disciplines like, climatology, geology, hydrology, engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, botany, zoology, ecology, sociology, anthropology, human geography, etc. since, physical, biological and sociocultural values and attributes are all deeply interrelated in sustainable design strategies, at any stage. If the proposed radical integration between different expertise should happen at a diffused scale, it would probably be reductive to speak just of architecture in the traditional sense: we would need another term or extend its meaning to identify such a comprehensive and interdependent way of designing, building and dwelling. Which research fields should architects explore, in their fundamentals, to fill the gap between architecture and ecology? Landscape ecology, bio-integration and biomimicry issues, regenerative design and permaculture, site inventory analysis, which should involve the study of climatology, physical geography, geology, hydrology, botany, ethology, anthropology, human geography, sociology, or more abstract disciplines; and again, urban farming and agriculture, green technologies, landscape design, bioclimatic architecture, etc. (see Image 4 above, the part on the bottom right). Of course, the list is not exclusive and is open to individual investigations, reminding that ethical values and considerations cannot be excluded from setting up the foundations for a sound ecological approach to design disciplines and to architecture, especially. The rationale behind this framework of transdisciplinary co-operation between different professional figures is to cover the four interdependent states of place, or processes, out of which the different dimensions of reality and of architecture as a part of reality emerge: physicochemical, biological, social and symbolic states of place or processes (see Image 3 above, the part on the bottom right).


[1] By the attribute choral I mean the encompassing embrace of place from concrete to abstract dimensions. Like a chorus is composed of integrated parts that act in unison to produce a complete symphony, the same holds for place, which is composed of both concrete and abstract dimensions: physicochemical, biological and social processes, which I consider more concrete processes, are correlated to cultural and intellectual processes, which I consider more abstract processes, specific of human beings and having ‘thought’ as its specific or exclusive component; in this way, by focusing on those four categories of processes, we embrace the entire realm of reality understood as the place where matter, life, society and thought processes occur. To put it differently, for an architect interested in understanding the entire range of processes that happen in a place, this means that concrete processes — like for instance physicochemical and biological or even social processes that happen in a certain place — are interdependent with abstract processes — that is, cultural processes, collective or personal memories, aesthetic processes, ethical or other abstract values or considerations related to or suggested by that place — to create the reality we see and live in. At a symbolic level, all of these processes are mediated by the work of the architect, who contributes to integrating the overall symbolic meaning of any place, with his/her scientific-and-artistic work. To be place-sensitive is to consider, and be able to integrate (at an architectural level in the case of the architect) all of the different four-level processes out of which reality-as-place emerge. As a chorus is composed of integrated parts, the same holds for place: if integration exits, a symphony results; if processes are not integrated by the work of the architect, a cacophony results and we negatively contribute to place. This is what I mean when I speak of choral dimension of place. At a more abstract or philosophical level, the correlate role of concrete and abstract realms defines what Plato called chōra, an intermediate realm resulting from the interdependence of concreteness and abstractness; this is the origin of my use of the attribute choral, to define place as encompassing realm that integrates concrete and abstract dimensions. The American philosopher Edward Casey, in different passages of the book The Fate of Place, as an attribute for chōra, used the more technical term ‘choric’ to define the spatial/placial ambiguity concerning that complex notion (ambiguity in the positive sense of that which can be both concrete and abstract): in Edward Casey, The Fate of Place, A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 34, 35,41, 46, 48, 76, 467.

[2] The term ‘ecology’, was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in 1869; In the classical text ‘Fundamentals of Ecology’ by Eugene P. Odum, and Gary W. Barrett, we read that ‘the word “ecology” is derived from the Greek “oikos”, meaning “household”, and “logos”, meaning “study”. Thus, the study of the environmental house includes all the organisms in it and all the functional processes that make the house habitable’, in Eugene P. Odum and Gary W. Barrett, Fundamentals of Ecology, fifth edition (Belmont: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 2005), 2.

[3] For the use and meaning of the term Anthropocene I redirect you to the following article by Paul J. Crutzen, “The Anthropocene”, in Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, edited by Ehlers and Krafft (New York: Springer, 2006), 13-18. See also note [14] in the article Urban Spaces or Places?

[4] Robert Goodland, ‘The Concept of Environmental Sustainability’, in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 26, 1995, 5, 10.

[5] Ibid., p.2.

[6] In ‘Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005’, Ecosystems and human Well-being: Synthesis (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2005), 1.

[7] For instance, in the period that passed from the time I wrote this article, in 2012, and the present days, the so-called ‘tactical urbanism’ or similar proposals (which we have briefly spoken about in the article Urban Spaces or Places?) are becoming diffused practices; they are an attempt to investigate the entanglement between social and environmental processes.

[8] Ken Yeang is a leading theorist in the fields between architecture, planning and ecology, where he was active since the beginning of the ‘70s. In 1974, he submitted his PhD dissertation at Cambridge University, which was later published as ‘Designing with Nature: The Ecological Basis for Architectural Design’ — in Sara Hart, EcoArchitecture, the Work of Ken Yeang, ed. David Littlefield (Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd, Publication, 2011).  Many of the strategies that I applied in my first architectural project, where I investigated the relation between architecture and ecology at local and regional levels — Badel Block Redevelopment, in Zagreb, Croatia, 2012 — were mediated by Yeang’s decennial expertise across architecture, planning and ecology. I believe Eco-architecture, or Bioclimatic Design, is a preliminary condition for architecture to reach for a maximum understanding and integration with its place, far beyond (in addition to) its traditional social and cultural values. Only if we are able to correlate physicochemical, biological, sociocultural and intellectual dimensions into a harmonic or choral synthesis — see note [1] above — can we finally reach for a mature stage of architecture/planning, understood as encompassing artistic-and-scientific disciplines of place. Is this the final and fully-fledged stage of the so-called ‘critical regionalism’?

Works Cited

Casey, Edward S. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Crutzen, Paul J. ‘The Anthropocene’. In Earth System Science in the Anthropocene, edited by Ehlers and Krafft. New York: Springer, 2006.

Goodland, Robert. ‘The Concept of Environmental Sustainability’. In Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol. 26, 1995.

Hart, Sara. EcoArchitecture, the Work of Ken Yeang, edited by David Littlefield. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd, Publication, 2011.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC.

Odum, Eugene P. and Barrett, Gary W. Fundamentals of Ecology (fifth edition). Belmont: Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 2005.

Image Credits

Featured Image by Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, CC BY-NC-SA: Badel Block Redevelopment, project, Zagreb, HR, with Croatian Ecologist Ivana Vojnic Rogic, 2012.

All other images by Alessandro Calvi Rollino Architetto, CC BY-NC-SA

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