Architecture Transforms Space

We transform the generality of space into the uniqueness of place through the act of building. This enterprise defines our built environment, creating new interfaces with people and the natural environment. Buildings are for People – Human Ecological Design addresses the design of those interfaces, seeking to benefit people and sustain our ecosystem.
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Buildings are for People – Human Ecological Design speaks to all those concerned with the state of building around the world and its impact on people, their communities and the ecosystem upon which we depend. It is dedicated to architects, planners, engineers, developers and policy makers – the students, educators and practitioners who will envision, enable and create tomorrow’s built environment.


Human Ecology
People – The Built Environment – The Natural Environment 

“Buildings are built for people” is an obvious truism. Yet much of our building over the last half-century belies that truism in all but its simplest interpretation, especially in urban and suburban areas. Profit, expediency and prestige frequently trump human welfare, community and the natural environment.

The application of “sustainable design” to architecture often succumbs to a similar fate. A victim of profit, expediency or “green-wash” marketing, it frequently fails to achieve sustainable benefit during its cradle-to-grave life cycle.

We are increasingly aware of the interplay between our built environment and nature’s ecosystem, its potential to foster a productive and healthful ecology or to do us harm. We, the people, are part of that interplay, the interdependent relationships that comprise the essence of human ecology. These relationships are animated by the exchange of energy, and the interactions of people, the built world and our planet’s natural environment. The energy of these interactions manifests in numerous forms significant to the effectiveness of architecture.

The more cognisant we are of these interactions, and the more we draw on their qualities during the architectural design process, the more human and ecological our built environment will become. Our growing understanding of human perception, interaction and healthful living highlights the relationships between architecture and human response, while ongoing research continues to shed new light on humanity’s impact on the ecosystem. In tandem with enhanced analytics, this expanding knowledge base enables us to confront the built environment’s ecological influence proactively.

New technologies, toolsets and materials, and an ecological inclination, mean that we are well-positioned to design buildings that engage current and future lifestyles with environmental harmony. We have the ability to integrate technological advances with an insightful design process, fostering designs that are responsive to both people and the natural environment while meeting the needs of the client. This is the essence of human ecological design: designing a client’s architecture in harmony with people and the natural environment. Human ecological design is proactive.

The Applications Gap

 Even in this new millennium, despite new insights concerning human ecology and the availability of new design methods, architectural practice continues to rely on outdated values and old DNA. Given the waning interest in revivalist transformation and classical reference used more for historical perspective than as a touchstone for comparison, this seems especially odd.

Architecture schools offer abundant exploratory opportunity, much of it enabled by the expanding accessibility of computer power and user-friendly software. Increased memory and processor speed at decreased cost have broadened access to a proliferation of design and sustainability oriented programs. Computers and the Internet also facilitate collaboration, communication and processing, as well as instant access to current innovation and digital graphic content. However, although architectural curricula teach the concepts of contextual design and the principals of sustainability in concert with computer modelling, increasing course requirements leave little time to tackle the gap between creative concept and fruitful application. The same is true concerning the availability of new materials and building technologies.

In professional practice, working with tight client budgets or timeframes, many architectural firms lack the resources to utilise innovative techniques. Formidable innovations available to architects such as computer-simulated design, new materials and building techniques, and the science of sustainable design have so far realised minimal benefit to society or the built environment. As this knowledge base rapidly expands, little fruitful benefit makes its way to the profession. The consequences reinforce the use of outdated designs, unintended misuse of new ideas and technology, and the continuation of uninspired building practices to maximise profit.

Resistance within the design/build professions to adopt emerging design philosophies, techniques and their toolsets remains greater than ever. Minimal opportunity exists for the implementation of state-of-the-art design methodologies without prostituting ingenuity in favour of expediency, disingenuous substitution or profit. Commentaries, critiques, seminars and design reviews worldwide evince dissatisfaction with the state of new building.

Sustainable design features intended to reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources, by using renewable sources and decreasing waste, frequently miss their goals. Calculations of their purported benefits often ignore material and equipment life cycles, and the energy expended mining raw materials and in manufacture, transportation, installation and disposal or reprocessing. Minimising environmental impact while lowering energy cost is attainable, but it requires realistic assessments. There is a gap to overcome between our design capabilities and their application.

We can enhance the built environment more productively. A society with such vast resources, depth of knowledge, and understanding of the hurdles can extract true benefit from its science, engineering and design capability. From an engineering perspective, the possibilities for advancing architectural effectiveness seem limitless. Computer simulations of parametric influences, that incorporate design and technological solutions for ecologically responsive architecture, provide the means. Conceptualising the building envelope as both a human and an environmental interface enhances that capability. With a meaningful methodology to alter the design vocabulary, parametric scrutiny of human ecological interrelationships enables more than a conceptual fantasy. A human ecological mindset that stimulates creative thinking can fertilise success.

Fortunately, there exist visionary architects who truly incorporate new thinking with architectural design. Nonetheless, the overall profession needs assistance to avoid reinventing the old, reincarnating style rather than innovative conception – overlooking how people and the environment interface with architecture.

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Architecture is Function

We may conceive architecture as a rule of order that defines a transition from one system to another, one environment to another, manifest as their common boundary. Whether real or imaginary, this interface is more than a mere surface that separates. Architecture is an interfacial system with substance and interactive surfaces. The surfaces transmit, communicate or catalyse, they input and output – to and from – one order to another, one environment to another. Analogous to a “black box”, the interfacial substance regulates a transition – morphing the inputs to outputs through the black box’s function. Whether embodied as a physical or a computational structure, architecture is a system that orchestrates transformation. The interface itself is the architecture.

Architecture in the built environment consists of manmade interfaces that distinguish places, one from another: exterior from interior, interior from interior or from multiple exteriors. They generate interior places amidst an external environment, systems that embody a transforming function. Architectural interfaces mediate environmental transition by means of their material section. Spatial plan and circulation articulate the exterior and interior program.

The concepts in this book apply to architecture understood in the context of an interface, one that negotiates with all the environments in which a building arises and that the architecture itself creates. Emphasis on the “all” prevails. The ideas explored here seek to shed new light on the way we regard the architectural envelope, especially its process of conception.

Human ecological architecture derives from the interaction of energy and matter in the pursuit of function. Energy, its existence and expression, a unifying thread in the human ecological vocabulary, provides sustenance for our survival, emotional state, wellbeing and aesthetic satisfaction, as well as the means for both human perception and action.

With multiple embodiments, the multitudinous manifestations of energy are not always apparent. Our response to shape, form, materiality and texture, and their expressions of energy, reveal interactions among people, architecture and energy. The qualities of shape and form, materiality and texture embody energy, they actualise the interchange of energy and physical expression, transforming or restating its essence. They interact with light, heat, sound and other forms of energy informing and influencing human perception, cognition, emotion and action. They constitute the substance and language of architecture. How we perceive those interactions – how we see, sense and interpret reality – is integral to how we relate to architecture.

Ecologically designed interfaces promote the beneficial intersection of human experience and the energy vectors of nature, things manmade and the community. They negotiate these junctures of energy in its many forms. Aside from obvious sources such as the sun, earth temperature, weather and gravity, energy is also inherent in sound, electric and magnetic fields, chemical reactions and physical force. Energy is evident in light emitted or reflected from what we see, airflow, vibration, the movement of people and the life cycle of plants, trees and other living things. The built environment and nature shape these energy fields and vectors.

Energy is the animating force of human ecology; energy interchange is the essential mechanism of human ecological design.

Human Ecological Design: Designing for People in Harmony with our Existing Built and Natural Environments

The physical interface of human ecology is realised in the building envelope. One cannot design it by formula, by puzzling solutions to maximise yield, by indiscriminately erecting to the allowable building lines, or window dressing a conventional box. Human ecological architecture emerges from the interface of the program and its global surroundings in a holistic conception.

The holistic approach to architecture addresses its interaction with the components of human ecology as well as the program, budget and other constraints: community, society, the natural and the built environments. When addressed together, they provide the framework for a beneficial intervention. It can emerge on any lot, be sustainably efficient, adhere to zoning, meet code and provide an appropriate yield for the developer.

Human ecological architecture is inherently contextual – relational to its universe. It requires a design process that addresses the coincident influences of environment, people and program. These are reciprocal relationships, whereby each element of influence influences each of the others, the resultant design itself an influence. This admixture of interrelationships promulgates an interfacial exchange between people and their surroundings, enabling human ecological design on many levels.

As an interfacial system, architecture defines space and influences environmental character. The program defines the purpose and the budget – site, zoning and building codes dictate the constraints. A client’s measure of success refers to the client’s directives – the program, purpose, outreach, aesthetics, economics and, sometimes, environmentally conscious design. There is no universal mandate requiring a positive relationship with the community or the environment. Nor are beneficial aesthetics, environmental compatibility and societal value intrinsic properties of architecture. They are contextual qualities achieved through thoughtful design.

This book aims to elevate our awareness of the unavoidable interplay of people, the things people create and the natural environment, our awareness of their mutual impact on each other. Consciousness is the first step toward achieving a more human friendly and eco-healthy built environment.

We no longer build the “primitive hut” for our shelter. We have journeyed from adapting to the environment for survival to creating our environment, and in so doing we alter our ecosystem. Understanding how we physically interact with the environment and how our built environment interfaces with our lives has become more important. These ecological interactions are of our making.

The methodology promulgates a new framework of thinking to seed the creative process, one that reflects human instinct, the manner in which we perceive things, and environmental reality. Neither a design manual nor a set of rules, this book does not offer suggested floor plans, elevations or master plans, nor does it require or inhibit novel thinking or dictate style. Its objective is to promote a consciousness from which to germinate design; one that is applicable to all styles and all budgets based on human ecological principles. Creative conception remains with the architect.

It is Time to Reconsider the Obvious

Architects understand the need to respect our environment, to address context and to stimulate human perception. Unfortunately, the realities of building, budgets and time often get in the way. In the building industry, as in other industries, profit motivates and projects are born from opportunity. Human purpose often gets lost in that pursuit.

Although social themes, waste and pollution, sustainability, energy generation, sensory value and the like are frequent subjects for architectural competitions, art installations and educational displays, the portrayals are generally symbolic – fantasy. We need to address our built environment in its reality.

The building design and construction industry is a competitive, client-driven world. Whether a project results from institutional expansion or real-estate development, a combination of funding, profit and timeframe tend to drive the momentum – favouring prestigious design at one end and low-cost solutions at the other. When the agenda includes energy or sustainability ratings, qualifying for points often outweighs substantive value. In actual practice, beyond the aesthetic goals, an architect’s mindset is specification driven. “What could be” takes a back seat, but this need not be so.

It is time to step back and reflect on the meaning of context – the design synergies it offers. It is time to reflect on the purpose of sustainability – how to net meaningful gain. It is time to examine our twenty-first-century goals and reset our mindset of what we can accomplish by design. We possess the tools, technologies, methodologies and materials to design more productive buildings within the confines of a client’s program. To do so, we need to rethink the obvious, taking advantage of architectural creativity and engineering ingenuity.

All architecture touches people – everyone: occupants, visitors, passersby and the community. All architecture impacts the natural environment. Nonetheless, a building’s primary purpose is to house a program. Style and aesthetics follow, but “green” living and community welfare are often afterthoughts.

The fundamental value of architecture resides in its service to humanity. When the creative process addresses the broad relationships of human ecology, and not only the needs of a client’s program, we serve people more effectively.

We start by exploring how we interact with the built environment – its interfaces, interventions and the building envelope.


Buildings Intervene


Human shelter has evolved from creations of nature to creations of science – from earth and stone caves to curtain wall systems and high-technology structures. The architecture we build is replete with enabling opportunities to enrich and sustain life; energy is the animating force. Once built, it projects its influence with physical interaction and sensory stimulation; therein resides its ability to affect the world we live in. New buildings impact all facets of human ecology – people, the built environment and the natural environment.

We experience a building in both corporeal and sensory ways as it serves multiple spatial, programmatic and environmental functions. The arrangements of mass and voids form spaces and interconnections whose surfaces, substance and volumes create material, experiential and performative interventions. Architecture’s elements are the means for its expression – the substance of its form and the mediators of its environments.

Created from an arrangement of substances, volumes and voids that fashion the tectonic and aesthetic, the building envelope comprises the container of built design. The notion of a building envelope seems straightforward: a structure’s shell – skin and form. But there is more. In addition to its tangible presence, the building envelope physically and chemically interacts with the environment and elicits human experience. Parsing the envelope’s tangible and sensible interplay with human ecology renders an expanded consciousness from which new design insight can emerge.

Intervening in the pre-existing, the built environment creates new spaces and places that enable living. Architecture determines the qualities of interaction. Not only does it influence a program’s efficacy and the character of the local built environment, it bears directly on the natural environment and a community’s wellbeing, altering them all in some fashion. The physical entity amends the aesthetic tissue; its mass, tectonic and emissions interact with nature and nature’s inhabitants. Recasting the path of natural light and shadow, the emission and reflection of sound, and the circulation of air and rainwater as well as people, this intervention in human ecology is a stimulus for human experience; one that transforms the visual, audible, thermal and experiential order.

Appropriating, adapting and fabricating shelters, we have carved or assembled dwellings from an extraordinary variety of natural and manmade materials such as stone, ice, leaves, thatch, textiles, rice paper, concrete, metal, plastic, earth and glass. Figures 2 through 7 exemplify this broad range.

2. The Dark Church, carved in nature’s envelope, sixth or seventh century, Cappadocia, Turkey. © Bill Caplan

2. The Dark Church, carved in nature’s envelope, sixth or seventh century, Cappadocia, Turkey. © Bill Caplan

3. Dung and branches. Maasai hut in the Tanzania Serengeti. © Bill Caplan

3. Dung and branches. Maasai hut in the Tanzania Serengeti. © Bill Caplan

5. Corrugated metal. Old Kibo Hut at 15,520ft on Mt. Kilimanjaro. © Bill Caplan

5. Corrugated metal. Old Kibo Hut at 15,520ft on Mt. Kilimanjaro. © Bill Caplan

6. Bamboo, limestone, aluminium, steel, glass. Madrid Barajas Airport, Richard Rogers. © Bill Caplan    

6. Bamboo, limestone, aluminium, steel, glass. Madrid Barajas Airport, Richard Rogers. © Bill Caplan


First published in 2016 by Green Frigate Books
Copyright © Libri Publishing Ltd.
ISBN: 978-0-9933706-1-8

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