Many people see ecological architecture as a brand-new concept, but it has actually been around for a very long time. Whenever humans built up urban areas, they were aware of the changes they were making to the natural environment. Ecological architecture is about preserving and complementing the natural elements within an urban setting, whether that’s a green wall on a single building or integrating green spaces as a city is planned. Ecological architecture is a type of urban greening , which is about creating green spaces that promote symbiosis between urban and natural environments. As cities around the world become larger, ecological architecture has grown to promote that symbiosis in new, creative, aesthetically pleasing ways. It has also grown in popularity as we have become more aware of climate change, and search for means of combatting its effects.
Eco-architecture as we know it has been around since the 1960s, and is constantly evolving to accommodate the new ways in which we build. We are at a fascinating point in the timeline of ecological architecture, and watching this system grow and adapt will provide infinite possibilities to our cities’ skylines.
The history of ecological architecture
Ecological architecture has existed for thousands of years. A famous example is Angkor Wat , a Cambodian temple complex built in the 12th century AD that still stands today.
Angkor Wat uses a complex irrigation system and hydraulic engine to power many aspects of the complex, including reserving water for drier months, watering crops, and heating and cooling areas as needed. Angkor Wat also uses locally-sourced natural materials throughout its structure, meaning that its carbon footprint is lower than a structure where the materials would have been transported to the site from around the globe.
These transport emissions are a huge source of carbon emissions within the building industry; looking back at the practices used in Angkor Wat could help us to improve our own practices 900 years later.
Ecological architecture as we know it today developed from the wave of environmental advocacy that gained popularity in the United States in the 1960s. This movement combined a number of factors such as a reverence of the Native American way of living with nature, and an opposition to the urban sprawl and suburbs that were quickly growing across the US.
These environmental activists experimented with living structures and how their way of living interacted with the local ecosystem. In 1969, Ian McHarg, a landscape architect, published “Design With Nature”; a book about ecological architecture that promoted the ideas that had been explored over the past decade. From that point, ecological architecture has continued to advance, both technologically and in popularity. The 21st century saw a boom in green architecture, as the importance of green space in the urban environment became clearer.
Eco-architecture in the 21st century
Contemporary ecological architecture aims to combat the prevalent architecture style that is damaging the earth. According to The Encyclopaedia Britannica, the building of shelter consumed more than half of the world’s resources in the early 21st century. This includes: - 16% of the freshwater resources - 30-40% of all energy supplies - 50% of all raw materials withdrawn from the Earth’s surface (by weight) - 40-50% of waste deposits in landfills - 20-30% of greenhouse gas emissions.
The relationship between environment and architecture is currently at an all-time low, and contemporary ecological architecture is battling that. 21st century eco-architecture uses design and urban ecologies to create buildings that work with the environment, rather than against it.
The pillars of this style are the reuse of materials, using alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and careful siting. Implementing all of these structures when designing and building results in eco-friendly, sustainable architecture.
What happens next?
Two of the most prevalent reasons for the growth of eco-architecture are environmental and aesthetic. Every year, more is understood about the effects of climate change and many people are turning to eco-architecture to combat the damage that has already been done, as well as minimise the damage of future construction. Cities around the world are using the City Biodiversity Index to measure the strength of its biodiversity using factors such as native biodiversity in the city, ecosystem services, and governance and management of biodiversity.
Cities use the CBI to conduct measurements annually and use this information to determine how they can improve their local ecosystems. When a city receives a low score on the CBI, ecological architecture is often one of the first measures put in place by city planners. Living walls and green roofs can be added to extant buildings to improve the carbon footprint of the area, and ecological architecture practices can be used when constructing new buildings. Combining these practices helps us to create a greener, environmentally safer world.
As the contemporary ecological architecture movement began, so did an architectural movement that opposed it in every way. From the 1960s onward, there has been a huge increase in concrete buildings with construction consuming large amounts of water and fossil fuels. Styles like brutalist and modernist architecture are no longer as popular as they were between the 1960s and 1980s, and green features allow their harsh styles to be covered and transformed.
Design and urban ecologies are always changing, but ecological architecture brings these two together, protecting and enhancing both. Ecological architecture has changed drastically since its beginnings with the first cities, and even since its contemporary beginnings in the 1960s.
The relationship between environment and architecture is now being tested by expanding cities and increasing threats of climate change. Mainstream architecture in the 21st century is damaging the Earth to such a degree that contemporary ecological architecture is now invaluable as an alternative. Luckily, cities around the world are embracing ecological architecture, both through their city planning guidelines and implementing features like living walls and green roofs.
The future of ecological architecture will hopefully include a further rise in popularity, as well as positive effects on urban ecosystems.
When seeking to improve a buildings ratings with BREEAM or the code for sustainable homes choosing a green roof or a brown biodiverse roof is a good option. When trying to get planning permission a living roof can also help win favour with planners. To get further recognition, consider a bespoke plant mix roof with local wildflower varieties which we can choose based on your postcode area.