“We do not seek to imitate nature, but rather to find the principles she uses.”
(attributed to) R. Buckminster Fuller
“Our task is to make cities function more like natural landscapes.”
Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams
“A companion rock? Really? Can’t we just move the tree and leave the rock here?” my buddy complained.
I shook my head and positioned the wheelbarrow up against the heavy boulder. We managed to wrestle the large boulder into the wheelbarrow, and drag it across to the newly planted pine tree. Once we had it in position, giving the tree a companion felt right.
I had noticed in the mountains that trees seemed to favor growing near, against or even entrapping boulders. So, when I’ve planted evergreens, I’ve found the largest available rock to put next to the tree as a companion; hoping that they will keep each other company for many years. So far, it seems to work.
The buildings where I live date back to the mid-1800’s with many built before WWI. For the most part, these structures seem to sit comfortably in place, in harmony with their surroundings. Of course, they have had time to adapt to their settings, and the settings have adapted to them. I have a trumpet vine climbing up the front of my 140-year old house that easily dates to the early 1900’s. I’ve had to work to keep it from messing up the roof or eaves, but since it has lived here a lot longer than I have, I feel it has some inherent rights. Who am I, having lived here a mere 40 years, to infringe upon its existence?
Living With Nature
I’ve tried to let the plants and natural features of my house and lot be, well, natural. I’ve changed things around, but tried to keep the system, not just ecosystem, functioning. I see my house and lot as a landscape, an integrated organism. Trees, bushes, lawn and garden all are situated where they fit in naturally. A living landscape that we are a part of.
There’s a concept developing to create ‘living buildings’ that operate like independent complex ecosystems, processing water and waste while generating energy. A living building requires minimal external resources except those provided naturally through precipitation, wind and sun. Precipitation is collected and reused, waste is recycled, and the sun and wind provide power. Essentially, the building creates its own environment.
I’ve read about such self-contained environments, and some of the principles they represent are pretty awesome. However, it troubles me that most emphasize keeping nature out, and keeping people in. That segregation and isolation seems bad for both man and nature.
I guess I’d take the concept a little further and suggest that every building should contribute to the landscape and ecosystem where it exists. It will take a long time for every building to come up to the ideal of a ‘living building’, but meanwhile, maybe could we adapt existing buildings in a way that integrates more into their environments? And while we’re at it, we need to consciously design buildings to fit into their location. A building should not sit upon the landscape, but in it. If we can achieve that integration — make our existing building more like a ‘living building’ — we’ve enhanced the community and bettered both the environment and ourselves.
Is Everything Existing Obsolete?
Since most of us live in previously developed places, how are we to achieve the ‘living landscape’ concept? Retrofitting an existing structure to ‘living building’ criteria would be expensive in most cases and impossible in many. Certainly, developing ways to use wind or solar power gets us in that direction. Even short of that we can manage the sunshine we naturally receive through window shades and coverings, outdoor plantings (Deciduous trees on the south side to shade the building in the summer and allow sun in in the winter — evergreen trees on the north side to block the winter winds.) and the judicious use of houseplants to improve indoor oxygen, remove carbon dioxide and some pollutants, add humidity, and relieve stress.
We can conserve power and water, and reduce the amount of trash we generate. We can commute smartly, and do all those environmentally friendly things we hear so much about. But one missing piece seems to be finding ways to integrate nature into our lives.
Nature does not just exist in our parks or wilderness areas, it lives around (and in) us wherever we are. Try as we might to separate ourselves from nature, she ultimately finds a way, and we are better for it. So, lets find ways to create connections between ourselves and ‘nature’ to become one community. Whether it’s a window opening on a garden or a tree-lined avenue with comfortable sidewalks, those connections are critical to our quality of life and the quality of nature.
We are trying to create a community of ourselves, our structures and surrounding nature. Our landscape should be alive and should give us the opportunity to integrate with nature, to become an ecosystem that includes humans. A living landscape creates a community where we belong. It’s nice to be part of a community; everyone needs some kind of company, even if it’s only a rock.
More information on living buildings:
By Jason McLennan, and adapted from Sustainable Architecture White Pages from the Earth Pledge Foundation.
SEVEN SIMPLE PRINCIPLES OF LIVING BUILDINGS
1. Harvest all their own water and energy needs on site.
2. Be adapted specifically to site and climate and evolve as conditions change.
3. Operate pollution-free and generate no wastes that aren’t useful for some other process in the building or immediate environment.
4. Promote the health and well-being of all inhabitants, as a healthy ecosystem does.
5. Be comprised of integrated systems that maximize efficiency and comfort.
6. Improve the health and diversity of the local ecosystem rather than degrade it.
7. Be beautiful and inspire us to dream.