Eco Style: Published by New Holland

Book Extract from Eco Style by Siobhan O’Brien, first published in 2005 by New Holland. This is an excerpt from Eco Style, a book I penned on all things green/sustainable/ecological. Great if you’re building or renovating. It can be purchased online through this website.

A house as an eco system? To some people this is a new concept. But ecological design is not new. It has been around for millions of years: Australian aboriginals use stories and rituals to preserve a detailed ecological map of their land; the inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest, known as the Yanomamo, deliberately propagate hundreds of plant species that enlace biological diversity; while Balinese aquaculture and rice terracing maintains fresh water and soil fertility to feed hordes of people. Over generations, these cultures have accumulated an intimate knowledge of the world around them according to the climate, the seasons, the animals and the plants.

It is possible that the builders of early cities understood better than we do the principles of natural ecology. They planned the city of Olynthus in the fifth century BC. It had streets oriented to receive equal amounts of sunlight. Similarly, the city of Pueblo Bonito (built by Anasazi Indians in the twelfth century AD) that accommodated twelve hundred people featured dwellings that were filled with sunlight. These homes were oriented according to the sun’s winter and summer solstices, while straw and adobe roofs maintained a balanced temperature irrespective of the season. Evidence from ancient cities, such as those built by the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans indicates a sophisticated way of living that included: piped water and cisterns, hypocaust underfloor heating, hot baths, steam rooms, toilets and sewers, courtyards cooled with pools and fountains, and gardens filled with medicinal herbs.

In the eighteenth century American settlers developed “saltbox” houses constructed to catch the sun and shelter inhabitants from the wind. These structures featured ovens and fireplaces in the core of the home to generate heat and outdoor pergolas to minimise unwanted sunlight. Other homes that appeared around this time in the Southern states of America were cooled by cross-ventilation. Then along came the Industrial Revolution. It flagged a new belief in the mastery of nature by science and machines. People moved out of individually craft-built houses in droves and into uniform urban terraces. Health became a major problem: over crowding, disease, lack of sanitation, dark and airless conditions. But by the end of the nineteenth century the so called machine age was attacked by John Ruskin, William Morris and others from the London based Arts and Crafts Movement. A romantic domestic style (that was popularised by Ebenezer Howard’s book the Garden Cities of Tomorrow that focused on the concept of building town houses in green environments) flourished in England from the late 1800s to 1914.

Then along came the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright with his notion that design is like a living organism. His intention was for houses to be at home in nature and grow “out of the ground and into the light.” In his book, A Natural House, he said that a house should be “..integral to site, integral to environment and integral to the life of the inhabitants..” Then in the 1960s Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring famously alerted the world to the dangers of pollution; while the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were all kick started around this time. Experimental habitats and houses were constructed all over the world: designer Sean Wellesley-Miller and physicist Day Chahroudi designed building “skins” based on biological metaphors and principles; John and Nancy Todd and their associates at the New Alchemy Institute designed Solar Arks that grew their own food, provided their own energy and recycled their own wastes. Other experiments include Ouroboros House in Minneapolis, the Autonomous House at Cambridge University, and the Farallones Institutes Integral Urban House in Berkeley, California conceived by Bill and Helga Olkowski. The Integral Urban House was first conceived in 1973 when the oil embargo made consumers aware (for the very first time) of their dependence on oil. The house (that featured compost toilets, an aquaculture pond, organic gardens and advanced recycling systems) integrated energy, food production, waste and water recycling directly into the home design.

Great technical advances were made in solar and wind energy in the 1980s: Lovin’s Rocky Mountain Institute helped transform energy policy in many nations; the Tasmania based Bill Mollison developed his permaculture approach to organic agriculture and healthy building; and there were a host of fundamental breakthroughs in sustainable agriculture and pedestrian-oriented town planning as well as the publication of important theoretical works on ecological design. These publications continued into the nineties, which also saw the emergence of the international ecocities movement, that works to create more resource efficient cities. Now, constructed ecosystems are becoming an important alternative to waste water treatment systems; industrial ecology and life-cycle analysis are already key tools for minimizing pollution and alternative building materials, renewable energy, conservation and recycling are just a part of life in the 21st century.