Preservation of nature, simple technology, conservation, the use of local and environmentally friendly materials, and planning and construction methods aimed at saving energy are the primary things that are associated with ecological architecture. Yet the concept of ecology is very multifaceted and this kind of view of the world also contains within it contradictions and flawed prejudices. It is difficult to speak of ecological architecture as a complete phenomenon that corresponds only to certain attributes. Quite a lot of architecture that has been characterised under this name has uninteresting design and is more an illustration of technological building practice or ideological slogans. There is certainly even more design which reduces effects detrimental to the environment and conserves energy and materials yet does not proclaim ecology as its main theme. Good designers and architects are still the ones who come up with ingenious and intelligent solutions, and are capable of combining ecology and contemporary needs.
If I try to buy goods of local origin, avoid transportation and products produced through great consumption of energy, and make my ecological footprint as small as possible – is there any use in this if as an architect I participate in the construction industry that uses nearly half of the entire world’s energy resources, and I help to expand cities that consume ¾ of the energy produced in the entire world?  Architects truly have very real opportunities for influencing people’s ecological behaviour by their choices. Yet it is very difficult to find out how much the consumption and actions of each person costs and how large a footprint he actually leaves after all. There is no uniformly interpretable and measurable context on the background of which to view ecology – what is ecological on one scale is not necessarily so on a larger or smaller scale, or in another context. Can there ever be sufficient knowledge and skills at all to manage relations between the environment and society in an environmentally friendly way and without errors?
In our bureau, we have worked out a prototype ecological house – built of clay blocks made of wood chips and bulrush wool and simple structural elements made of unfinished wood, but for some reason, we at least have not succeeded in bringing a single project to construction. In struggling with the windmills of Estonia’s growing economy, the daring of people, or reverse conservatism, it is very difficult to achieve the realisation of projects requiring experimentation and risk. Ignorance and the absence of construction guarantees do not allow people to make decisions contributing to the conservation of nature. At least the fact that buildings and design imitating nature are popular, natural materials are used more extensively, and structures good for the health are being spoken of ever more, all speak of a shift towards a more ecological attitude. Yet ecological attitude should nevertheless not be expressed through greater consumption or the use of decorations imitating nature. It is precisely this kind of superficial ecology that is popular, since it often does not touch more serious choices and structural elements. As soon as the question of more permanent solutions arises, people become sceptical and conservative. Economy and ecology can sometimes also be in conflict.
Environmentally aware activity and the use of less energy-intensive materials can be advertised, but at the same time, there is a need to combat the results of much more influential trends in society like wasting energy, wasting space through unreasonable street and road projects, expanding shopping centres and residential construction overflowing onto farm fields, the development of industrial centres with only profit in mind, and the media, where everyone only speaks of vigorous rapid progress and growing individualism.
Ecology is altogether rather often associated with opposition to progress, low-tech, and retrospective old-fashionedness. Radical Greens and conservative movements can always be accused of being opposed to progress. Instead, environmental shaping that pays no attention to sensible design is backwards and foolish. The continual repetition in new situations of solutions that have once been successful cannot be sufficient to resolve relations between society and the environment in the future. An informed attitude towards the environment, at the same time, is not anything new and has not come about at some mysterious point in time. Ecological attitudes have existed together with different cultures throughout history and different cultures have been conscious of it and put it into practice to different degrees. Ecological behaviour is balanced living in accordance with local culture and the environment. And this has to be done every time in one’s own way because time cannot be stopped at one’s own pleasure while simply forgetting cultural context. The imitation of old construction techniques and respect for traditional materials is great, but this cannot be the way to act nowadays in an environmentally informed way. Since both culture and the natural environment are constantly changing, there cannot be one exclusively correct way to achieve balance – taking history as an example is not necessarily the best approach in a different kind of situation. Each society has to resolve its questions of balance anew on its own.
It can be said that nature has been a great example for mankind with its capacity for successfully making do and changing as necessary. To some extent, culture and also architecture are the representation and interpretation of the existing environment and nature. The artificial environment is put in words and transformed anew again and again with the help of new concepts and objectives that arise in a constantly evolving situation. The effects of the environment and of the culture that arises in it are many-sided and complicated. For example, alongside gene and nanotechnology, our values and view of the world also transform nature and materials. To say nothing of the fact that “nature itself” transmutes, for example through processes beyond the control of mankind.
Architecture is quite susceptible to influence by social processes, technology and science. Evolutionary biology, biomechanics, biochemistry, biophysics or “biomimicry” in social sciences are also popular in architecture, design and urban studies. The imitation of natural processes extends from urbanism to design and to the development of structural elements and construction technologies. For example, bionics – the use of knowledge based on natural science, electronics and information technology in new technologies and constructions – has increased in importance in recent years. The use of analogies can lie in the establishment of systems and structures, planning of diversity and aesthetic values. These kinds of trends are not unconditionally referred to as ecological, yet many things and courses of action may be ecological depending on context. Things and courses of action are not so in and of themselves, but still depending on their background and as a part of some process or other. For this reason, it is more proper to speak of ecology as a process, not as substance.
When are our courses of action ecological? Ecological design includes strategies and technologies that help society to function together with nature and use it to construct a new culture and meet needs that have emerged. David W. Orr writes in his book The Nature of Design: “Ecological problems are design errors and failures that have not managed to bring objectives, results and ecological systems into correlation.” Ecological design is first and foremost creative and innovative work because it adapts and places itself on the background of carefully considered processes taking place in nature and the artificial environment. Which strategies are ecological and which are not becomes apparent through experiences and this takes time. Finding ecological balance is an ever more complicated task due to the growing variety of technologies. I very much like David Orr’s treatment of fast and slow knowledge. The author is of the opinion that an increase in information and knowledge also brings with it the more rapid growth of wrong and inaccurate information and knowledge. Based on this idea, some practical skills that are contrary to seemingly unpractical in-depth knowledge prove to be useless and quick decisions pointless vibrations and oscillations. For example, quick solutions in architecture can be detrimental in the long run, like quick knowledge and decisions made quickly can prove to be foolish and detrimental on the way to attaining wisdom. It may sound pathetic, but the basis of ecological design is wisdom, the triumph of which takes time and requires the testing of nonsense. Ecological wisdom could be such that decisions at each level are right and coherent. The objective of wise and ecological design is to demonstrate better, more intelligent and elegant solutions. Architecture and design at their best ordinarily do this.
It takes a great deal of time and thought energy simply to arrive at a good solution. At any rate, planning and architecture, for example, are among the slowest of cultural spheres. If an architect hurries or surfs trends, it can lead to absolute nonsense. But for example, foolish master plans that result from long, drawn-out planning processes that have reduced to mere legal wrangling lead to expanding residential and road construction, and as a result of these, many dwellings with ineffective typology are built. Examples of this fill many farm fields on the outskirts of the city. They are more the symptoms of the unwieldiness of democracy that shirks responsibility than the results of intelligent planning.
The conservative approach – this is how it has always been done – does not always help in seeking new solutions to old problems. Ecological attitude should be expressed in a continual search for balance, even from the kind of place that initially seems to be far from it. Perhaps for example, the use of knowledge and measures obtained from studies of material and genetic technology will someday prove to be sensible in solving the problem of world population and the scarcity of space. For instance, people made smaller with the help of mouse genes start using less energy on construction, or casinos, nightclubs and shopping centres that shun light are placed underground, creating more room above ground for living and moving about? Perhaps the transformation of the world to digital and the rapid development of information technology is our ecological response to the task of finding balance in society, nature and culture.
Architecture can be ecological in very different ways through carefully considered knowledge and practical experience, and not only through the use of environmentally friendly technologies and materials. I only wanted to show how complicated it is to speak of ecology in different background systems – on the background of individual and social decisions, decisions and knowledge that have come quickly and slowly. Problems of different scale and extent from individual and local behaviour through to a global and universal context are so contradictory. High-tech and low-tech, radicalism and conservatism, the research of reality and simulation, and change in viewpoints broaden our understanding of nature and the different environments in which we live. There are very different processes in society. Many of them contradict conservationist and sensible activity, but there is not enough strength to resist some of them. I believe in intelligent design – it is ecological!
- AD 152 Green Architecture: Vol. 71 No. 4 July, 2001 ed. Edwards, B., Wiley-Academy↵
- AD 180 Techniques and Technologies in Morphogenetic Design: Vol. 76 No. 2 March/April 2006 and AD 169 Emergence: Morphogenetic Design Strategies Vol. 74 No. 1 October, 2004, Michael Hensel, Achim Menges + Michael Weinstock, Wiley-Academy↵
- David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture and Human Intention, Oxford University Press 2002, pg. 14↵
- Ibid. p. 35-42↵