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Ecological Design

by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan

238 pages, paperback, Island Press, April 2007

Ecological Design describes how making natural systems the basis for design makes more efficient, less toxic, healthier, and more sustainable buildings, landscapes, cities, and technologies. Initially published in 1996, the book was reissued this year.

Praise for Ecological Design

"With vision and coherence, Van der Ryn and Cowan lay the basis for a new philosophy and practice of design. Ecological Design expands and enriches the nexus of human and natural systems."--Amory B. Lovins

"An elegant introduction to the field of ecological design. This ground-breaking book will change the way we think about buildings, agriculture, industrial processes, and our management of resources and wastes."--Alex Wilson, Editor and Publisher, Environmental Building News

Ecological Design is not a book about things, but rather one about systems, patterns, context, integration, and ultimately about vision, which is where good design begins."-- David Orr, Whole Earth Review

Quotes from Ecological Design

"In nature, geometries reflect and enhance underlying processes. In a paper on the role of biological surfaces, the visionary biologist Paul Mankiewicz discusses the ability of the fractal root systems of plants to purify water. In conventional wastewater treatment systems, bacteria flow along with the water to be treated. They absorb substances in their immediate vicinity through relatively inefficient diffusion processes. In contrast, ecological wastewater treatment systems facilitate rich chemical exchanges on the surfaces of the roots. The roots actively order the flow of chemical energy, facilitating the work of the microorganisms that inhabit them. Preliminary research indicates that the vast surface area provided by the root systems permits nutrient filtering to be performed extremely efficiently."

"Nature's geometry is an important organizing principle for ecological design. . . . A project conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area provides a contemporary application of this principle. Geographer Josh Collins has been working with a mosquito abatement district to try to approximate the original fractal drainage fingers on a seventy-acre march on U.S. Navy land. After the marsh was disturbed by a road, it began to harbor some stagnant water, which served as a breeding ground for mosquitoes. In an attempt to eliminate this standing water, early mosquito abatement efforts focused on digging additional drainage ditches. These ditches--unaccompanied by an increase in tidal flux--were so effective that water no longer entered the upper reaches of the natural channels. Portions of the upper channels filled in, creating the very potholes the mosquito abatement efforts were trying to avoid. As Collins notes, 'The ditches previously created for mosquito reduction are not alleviating the problem. In fact, the marshes with the most extensive ditch networks often generate the most mosquitoes. This is because the number, size, and arrangement of these ditches were not determined in relation to marsh geomorphology and tidal hydrology.' By augmenting total tidal flow, severing drainage ditches connecting distinct drainage basins, and adding new ditches, Collins and colleagues have been able to partially restore the original fit between the geometry of the marsh's drainage fingers and the character of the tidal flux. The new system is working well, and the marsh not only is mosquito-free but also is attracting shorebirds previously unknown at the site."

. . .

"The Ocean Arks International ecological wastewater treatment facility in Providence, Rhode Island, demonstrates the power and beauty of self-designing systems. It is located in a sleek greenhouse structure that stands in marked contrast to the grimy conventional treatment plant a hundred yards away. While the conventional plant relies on mechanical filtering, bacteria, and chemicals, the ecological system relies on the inherent capacity of aquatic ecosystems to purify water.

"The greenhouse is filled to the brim with four rows of large, translucent cylinders that are overflowing with aquatic plants. Each row of cylinders is connected in a long series. It takes about four days for the water to flow from the first tank to the last tank. The earliest tanks contain the simple inhabitants of any nutrient-rich pond, including bacteria, algae, snails, and amphipods. Later tanks contain more delicate creatures: higher plants, clams, mollusks, and fish. Up top there is an inflow pipe labeled 'SEWAGE,' providing a gentle reminder that this delightful greenhouse is actually treating secondary effluent from Field's Point. Another sign, tongue-in- cheek, warns, 'NO FISHING.'

"In effect, the greenhouse facility replicates the purification of water that occurs as it travels through a wetland. It contains a series of microcosms--tiny artificial ecosystems--that can support all the species necessary to take nutrients, pathogens, and toxins out of the water. As designer John Todd describes the process, 'Microscopic bacteria consume the nutrient-laden organic matter from the wastewater and convert toxic ammonia to nitrite and nitrate, which creates suitable food for plants like duckweed. Algae growing on the sides of the tank consume abundant nutrients and grow rapidly. Snails and zooplankton feed on the algae. The zooplankton are then eaten by fish, such as striped bass, tilapia and minnows, etc.--and on and on churns the natural food chain cycle of an ecologically engineered system, purifying the wastewater with each step.'

"In another part of the building are simulated tidal marshes, where the effluent passes through two distinct cycles: one without oxygen during high tide and one with oxygen during low tide. The marshes, which are planted with bulrushes, cattails, and other species, are an important source of metabolic diversity. As species diversity increases, so does the range of compounds that can be absorbed or neutralized. . . . The system provides habitat for a wide range of species as an integral part of its functioning. . . . The organisms themselves do the work of wastewater treatment, forming a kind of 'living machine' much more flexible than its mechanical counterparts."

Table of Contents of Ecological Design

Sustainability and Design
An Introduction to Ecological Design
Nature's Geometry

Introduction: The Compost Privy Story
First Principle: Solutions Grow from Place
Second Principle: Ecological Accounting Informs Design
Third Principle: Design with Nature
Fourth Principle: Everyone Is a Designer
Fifth Principle: Make Nature Visible

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