Building with Nature (Ecological Principles in Building Design)


Building with Nature (Ecological Principles in Building Design)

Akubue Jideofor Anselm

School of Architecture and Urban planning, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China, 430074.

The main objective here is to confer ideas aimed at creating environmentally friendly, energy efficient buildings, developed by effectively managing natural resources. This entails passively and actively harnessing solar energy and using materials, which, in their manufacture, application and disposal, do the least possible to nature's 'free resources'; water, ground and air. This study provides ideas on the effective management of nature in building design and the process of integration with nature. Such ideas as ecological replacement scheme or ecology integration using traditional concepts of natural landform integration, natural orientation and effective methods of harnessing the climatic resources like the sun and winds and a breakdown on the modes of building material selection and application to suit geographical and climatic conditions are among the issues discussed in this study. The major emphasis here is to utilize these natural resources integrated effectively in design and building in order to achieve sustainabiligy, energy efficiency, and most importantly an ecological and healthy living environment devoid of waste and with minimized environmental pollution.

Key words: Ecological design, sustainable design, resource efficient desing, energy efficient design, building design

Journal of Applied Sciences 6(4):958-963, 2006. Open Access Article.


Significance of research: The earth is an emotional entity and nature, the result of its emotions. Man made and natural disasters are the means of expression of sadness or pain that the earth feels, thus when the earth hurts, Nature cries, likewise when the Earth is in health, Nature smiles. Man's activities through time produce adverse effects to the health of the earth and its expression through nature and since we are all property of the earth and not left out when nature cries, it is then mandatory for man to learn means of appeasing the earth by  means of harmonizing his activities with earth's most cherished progeny... nature.

The quest for an ecological understanding and approach in all of man's endeavours and activities, has become a challenge to all that care about nature as it is obviously a systematic method of restoration back to nature, hence a more healthy earth. It is a call that should be answered totally by all professional disciplines, as one unecological activity can prove retrogressive to the efforts of so many. Since architecture contribute in making the built environment, ecology should then be employed as one of its vital tools or element of architectural designs. Our design and construction trend, has witnessed changes and transformations from industrialization to machinism, a trend wihich in recent times is characterized as unfriendly to nature. Designing and building with or in harmony with nature is the one efficient concept which works towards integrating the leements of balance between the built environment and nature.

Understanding the natural environment: The surface of the Earth as a whole is an Ecosystem, called the Biosphere. The Biospere or the surface of the Earth constitutes nature's 'free resources' air, water and land, where living things exist.

The Biosphere with a structure of smaller units called Ecosystems includes all the organisms and the nonliving environment found in a particular place and this also includes our built environment, an area tht needs to be integrated into the ecosystem without negatively affectignt he balance in the ecosystem itself.

Understanding the natural environment is the first step towards achieving a nature integral design. It entails undesrtanding nature's environmental activities, the Ecosystem and its actions and reactions that will relate to building designs. The constant use of such analytical processes that determine and define functions of building designs and its corresponding effect to the immediate and distant environment should not be neglected. These procedures like the environmental conservation, environmental impact assessment, integrated assessment etc, which are normally undertaken for individual projects such as dams, motorways, airposrts or factories should be broadened to include damage assessment, ecological replacement systems or ecology integration solution for smaller project designs like commercial and residential buildings.

Traditional concepts; integating designs with nature by ecological replacement or ecological integration: An argument once arose that the one way to protect the enviroment is for society to place a monetary value on it and then sue any firm or individual that damages it. But how can society measure the economic damage caused by environmental injury? The ecological replacement concept is an idea that discusses ecological solutions in a small or larger scale for the restoration of damages or injury caused by tampering with the natural (green) environment in the process of builidng development. This idea has been utilized in the past based on local knowledge or unconsious attempts to balance the immediate natural environment aroung the  built environment (Gadgil et al., 1993). Such local knowledge, usually acquired through experience and oral transmission, often accounts for the inter-relationships among animals, plants, humans and the environment, resembling in some aspects ecological concepts held by scientists (Berkes et al., 1998). Thus, local ecological knowledge is an important keystone to the design and structure of natural resource management strategies. In nature there is no waste. The byproduct of one organism becomes the food for another. In other words, natural systems are made of closed loopes. By working with living processes, we respect the needs of all species. Engaging processes that regenerate rather than deplete, we become more alive. making natural cycles and proceses visible brings the designed environment back to life.

Building designs and construction take up natural foliage spaces or natural landforms. These natural landforms or foliage that supports some useful ecological organisms should be replaced systematically in order to ensure resuscitation of displaced plants and organisms which are also necessary for an ecological balanc. The percentage of replacement may depend on the function of the structure or architecture and also on the construction techniques employed as shown in Fig. 1. Such replacements, enhanes the energy efficiency and overlla thermal and environmental comfort of the area involved.


Designing with nature entails managing the three basic nature-resources of air, land and water. This also involves utilizing design elements and ideas that will make best use of these nature resources and their extended influences that may be human friendly or otherwise. Careful consideration is needed inthe chice of topography and terrain and the management of climate and energy.

Orientation and choice of building site: A building site is the closest environment to any proposed building plan;it forms the immediate atmosphere for the occupants of sucha a building and it is expected to satisfy the environment that will host it. Designing with nature begins with an intimate understanding of place. With active sensitivity to the nuances of place, we can inhabit without destroying it, be it a plain, undulating or steeply terrain, the landform is to be created along in the design concept. A careful design pland and construction technique will see to less damage to the topographical structure of the building site. Understanding place helps determine design practices such as solar orientation of a building on the site, designing with existing topography pattern and finally the preservation of the natural environment, whether the design site is a building in the inner city or in a more natural setting, connecting with nature brings the designed environment back to life. Effective design helps inform us of our place within nature.

Regional climatic conditions or local climate which define the choices of building orinetation when rightly managed and effectively considered in building design and orientation froms a source of energy conservation and management. Advanced climatic research identifies that most tropical building designs gain more in energy conservation by the use of the south/north-east/south-west orientation as against the east/west orientiation for purposes of better wind flow, ventilation and sun shading, likewise temperate designs with the south/north alternative for the major purposes of winter heat gains. A survey indicates that most residential buildings with an elongated east-west orientation, built virtually anywhere in the United States, will experience a 10% reduction in energy consumption compared to a square building and a 20 % reduction compared to a north-south building (US Dept. of Energy, National Best Practices Manual, 2002). This then indicates that choice of building orientation can make best use of the natural conditions of a place to achieve the desired thermal comfort with or without hte use of other sustainable energy sources like the solar photovoltaic or the wind energy generations.

Designing with climate: Climate is an inevitable member of nature and its effecs some times are unpredictable. The Sun, land and water interact in complicated ways throughout each day and throughout the year and the result is what we commonly refer to as weather. These interactions produce daily as well as seasonal temperature, humidity and wind pattens that can vary substantially between locations in close geographic proximity. A climate integrated design is a strategy that seeks to take advantage of the positive climate attributes of a particular location, while minimizing the effects of attributes that may impair comfort or increase energy requirements. A climate integrated design should consider the following points.

The microclimate of a building site can make or break a climate responsive design, for instance to better harness the solar rays for a passive design or a solar energy design, the solar path needs to be evaluated, as shadows cast by nearby buildings, trees, or hills are important considerations in orienting a solar collector or designing a passive solar building (Oktay, 2002). The proper study of the solar path can also effectively provide options of building materials or techniques for better sun shading or solar access. Figure 2 shows the solar analysis for the Beijing region of China. A standard reference on microclimatic conditions is Geiger, The Climate Near the Ground (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1965). A standard reference on China climatic data by Hui, et al., 1997.

Effective nature positive building designs: In the study of nature and design, a vast literature exists. When the two areas are connected, they are mainly referenced under bioclimatic design or the vernacular, with the emphasis on basic, good design principles. Bioclimatic design literature is on the whole more technical and scientific in nature, while vernacular architecture address issues of culture, tradition and aesthetics as well as comfort.

These two vital concepts are important in understanding the basic ideas of a nature integrated design (Table 2).

Data for Table 2, was derived from combined resources from: USEPA (Best Practices for Green Building in Chicago) 2003 and U.S. Dept. of Energy (National Best Practices Manual), 2002.

Resuscitating Architecture's Endangered Species

Recent studies identify the sustainable properties vernacular architecture and vernacular design principles hold in sustainable building. Although most of the original appearance of vernacular design principles hold in sustainable building. Although most of the original appearance of vernacular architectures disappeared through the renewals since the ideas of new developments in cities and cultures, there is still a lot of building substance that could be rediscovered as old and historic. There are many wonderful building styles from all over the world that can inform us with their shapes, materials, arrangements, decorations, concepts for heating and cooling, etc. Vernacular architecture has been losing ground over the last couple of centuries, as modern methods prevail. This is unfortunate since many of the old ways employ natural materials and simple concepts that are energy efficient. Also the buildings themselves are often beautiful and enhance simple live styles which are advantageous to the issue of environmental protection and health.

As the basic principles that outline a nature-positive design are all innate in the vernacular building design ideas should then be encouraged and improved in order to achieve sustainable and healthy nature integrated designs, making use of the local landscape, local materials, orientation, sustainable techniques of recycling and permaculture, local climate and the conscous idea of balance with nature.


Finally, designs that will be produced using this scheme will be identified as modern vernacular type. Its buildings make best use of sun, wind and rainfall to supply energy and water needs of occupants, be it the tropical or African vernacular type or the temperate vernacular architectures. In the case of multi-storey that maximizes the land available for green space, the design should be generally Resource Efficient;


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