The Built Environment

“In nature nothing exists alone.” --​Rachel Carson

What You Will Do

  • Identify the connections between the built environment and the biological environment in your design, and learn how to use those connections to close loops in your system.
  • Explore natural building techniques and learn about where they came from.
Luiza Oliveira building a structure at her site in Switzerland

The built environment is all around us

This section by Heather Jo Flores

In addition to food and shelter, all humans have four basic needs: to learn new things, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to leave a mark on the world, and to care and be cared for. All archetypal studies, from psychology to storytelling to marketing, returns to this assertion, and we see it all around us, especially in our buildings. 

Think about it. What do we built besides houses? Schools, churches, hospitals, theaters. Roads to the wilderness. Fences between good neighbors. It all connects to those four fundamental human needs: inquiry, community, legacy, and connection.

Tuning in to the built environment

The built environment is full of opportunities.

In an ecological design, the built environment becomes the nexus between our own needs and the needs of the other species we have, by our ethics, chosen to protect. As such, it is important that the buildings we create are designed accordingly. Doing this requires a shift in how we look at the built environment as a whole, but this isn’t difficult to accomplish, and the easiest way is by starting with where you live, today, and tuning into the edges, microclimates, and intersections where the human-built space connects to the biological spaces.

Where does mechanism meet organism? Find your design opportunities there.

In a huge way, this could be the first module in our course. As humans, our built environment is in our hands, over our heads, and under our butts all day, every day, and it makes tons of sense that we would start our whole-systems design projects from the built environment as a starting point.

But it also makes sense to learn the other stuff first, to open doors in your designer’s mind, and get you geeked out on plants and seeds and systems for a while…because now you can look at the structures and squares and hard surfaces around you and more easily see what I mean when I say:

​Integrate the buildings with the living systems. Make them a whole.

Study this image of a suburban site. What’s missing? How could the structures in their built environment be more connected to each other, and to the landscape? 


This section by Hannah Thorogood

We talked about using recycled materials, but what about recycling the whole house?

​In an ecological designer’s context, the purpose of a retrofit is to make your built environment more compatible with the whole-system ecological design in which it exists.

In many cases, the most cost and resource effective way to achieve a home that meets ecological goals is not to build something new, but to retrofit an existing structure. The vast majority of buildings standing today will still be around in decades to come.

Generally, unless safety or optimising urban density is an issue, it is far cheaper and better for the environment to improve what is already there than to knock it down and start afresh. This is a perfect example of how we can “produce no waste” in our work with the built environment. 

Retrofitting with small interventions such as blocking drafts, adding pelmets above curtains or adding (or growing) shading over windows, is a great way to get started and works if you rent your home. If you are lucky enough to own your home, upgrading insulation, adding or replacing windows or installing a plumbed grey water system are all good investments.

Retrofitting is about adapting a structure to better fit its environment and function. As the Darwin quote of “survival of the fittest” refers to. He did not mean fittest as in most able to run a marathon, but that organisms who are most suited to, or fit in with their habitat, have the best chance of survival. Structures that are most suited to their environment and use will run more efficiently and provide the space for those within to thrive.

passive solar retrofit image from this awesome case study

Why retrofit?

A significant part of the environmental impact we have is through the buildings in which we live, work and play.

This module introduces a range of potential building styles. These styles, however, are often based on an assumption that we are starting a new build. The reality, for many of us, is that we will not be building our dream home from scratch, but starting with what we have. What’s more, for most of us that may be less than entirely efficient buildings over which we have little or limited control. So what can we do?

How to retrofit.

Firstly let’s look at our limiting factors. The ones many of us will raise in this area are money, time, skills or confidence. I see ecological solutions often fitting onto a sliding scale, with little money but the confidence to have a go at one end, moving along to larger budgets and possibly less time or confidence to do it ourselves at the other end. I’d like to point out here that everything on this scale can still be ecological. The high budget solutions often receive a kind of reverse snobbery that if you haven’t done it yourself with pallets and invention, then it’s less authentic.

Let’s stay grounded in the basics: our goal is to fit within our ethics and apply an ecological design process to projects. We all start from different places and every project, designer and client creates different solutions.

What areas do we need to look at for retrofitting?

  • Light. Natural
  • Temperature. Warmth or cooling, generation and retention.
  • Indoor- Outdoor transition. We can lose so much of our desired temperature inside by opening the door. Designing porchways, wind shelter, lean to greenhouses, etc. can really change the internal temperature.
  • Power. Generation and efficiency. Energy saving measures are often the easiest and cheapest alterations we can make. Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle.
  • Water. Sourcing, use and re-use.
  • Waste. Minimisation and re-use.
  • Function. How do we use the space, storage and flow through a building?
  • Expanding or contracting. Building more space or inviting others in to share the extra space you have.
  • Aesthetics. Buildings can be seen as our third skin, the first layer being our physical skin, the second our clothes, and the third our homes and work/play spaces. These spaces have the potential to really reflect our personality, but how many of them do?

Case Study 1: The Inkpot by Hannah Thorogood

Hannah Thorogood gives us a detailed case study of her community in England, The Ink Pot.

Retrofitting the house at the Inkpot

The house is a traditional Lincolnshire farmworker’s cottage built in the 1850s. It is an 8m by 8m single skin, brick bungalow. This is our small farm house and home to one mum and two daughters currently aged 10, plus dogs and muddy farm boots!

In 2010 when we moved in:

It used to have electric storage heaters, damp, small cracked double glazed windows, poor insulation, concrete floors with light coloured carpets. Its only source of heat and cooking was electricity, which is very vulnerable when you consider the wider surroundings. We live in a hamlet of 4 houses that are miles from anywhere, so our electricity lines are very vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, coupled with the fact that we would be very low priority for repair if/when extremes of weather take out multiple electricity supplies. We all need to be much more self-reliant for essential functions.

Eight years on we now have:

  • Solar PV.
  • Solar hot water.
  • Underfloor insulation.
  • Underfloor heating in the bathroom.
  • New, larger, draft proof windows.Sliding open back doors.
  • Energy efficient light bulbs.
  • Woodfired range and back boiler.
  • Induction hob.Steam oven.
  • No fridge: Here is an interview on a British radio station with Hannah about not using fridges, food preserving, energy efficiency within the household, with photos of building the timber frame, straw-bale, cob building and lie at the Inkpot.
  • Waste wood storage unit.
  • Pallet wood store.
  • Removal of doors.
  • Underbed storage.
  • Small house tricks: Expandable table, dirty laundry drawer in kitchen, kitchen table is the heart of the home.
  • Remote monitoring system of temperature recording and heat controls.
  • Larger, better insulated windows, including a large set of sliding back doors on the South side and a stained glass round window for fun.

But we are not finished. The next steps are:

Finish the bathroom.

  • Loft conversion (underway).
  • Reinstate the rainwater catchment system.
  • Easymaid: clothes air dryer indoors for winter (currently clothes hangers in doorways)!
  • Long-term I’d like to put a timber framed conservatory on the back, South side.

Principles in action:

  • Multiple elements to support important functions: Heating, cooking, hot water.
  • Use and value renewable resources: Solar PV, hot water and wood fired heating.
  • Obtain a yield: Harvesting the sun to produce electricity as heat reduces bills and emissions.
  • Produce no waste: Nearly everything was someone else’s waste.
  • Apply self regulation and accept feedback: Ongoing monitoring of how much ‘stuff’ we have, when it gets too cluttered, donating things we don’t use anymore to charity, repurposing things, etc.

The ethics:

  • Earth care is often the primary reason we think about adapting our buildings: Aim to reduce our footprint, emissions, energy and resource use.
  • People care is a major one here. Having a home that helps us to relax and a place we want to welcome others into is essential to my happiness. When designing your retrofit, carefully consider what it is about a home that really matters to those who live there.
  • Fair share. By reducing our resource use impact we leave more for others both now and in the future. If you are going to outsource work, think carefully about who you can get to do the work. I chose local, small scale individuals, sometimes helping them to get out of a financial tight spot, or giving them the chance to learn new skills.

Case Study 2: ​Here’s an excellent study of a very relatable retrofit project, with Rowe Morrow’s house as the example:

A Good Home Forever

Eco-building for beginners

This section by Pippa Buchanan

​Goals for an ecologically built environment

Currently, mainstream approaches to building and urbanization have tremendous impacts on the water cycle, energy consumption, wellbeing of inhabitants, biodiversity, transport and access to farming land. Whether you are retrofitting, building anew, or (most likely) some combination of the two, the ecological ethics and principles should always be in play. 

From an ecological perspective, when we design for the built environment we should aim to be:​

Safe. Our structures should be free of toxins and robust in the event of a natural disaster.

Relevant. Our designs should reflect the goals and needs of our users, today and in the future.

Cyclic. When we design buildings we can apply the principle of cyclic opportunity in how we manage and optimally use and reuse energy, water and waste. We can use niches in time to stack functions within our buildings. This includes buildings that take advantage of the sun, wind, materials and location to reduce energy demand for lighting, heating and cooling.

Ethically responsible. Our buildings should make use of waste resources, and should contribute back to the resources they deplete.

Earthships use recycled materials such as tires and bottle walls in conjunction with dugout walls. There are additional design components which make them very interesting, such as equator-facing windowed greenhouses and water cycling and storage components.

Siting a building.

​If you have the privilege to build a new structure in a rural area, you’ll have a lot more opportunity to select the best site for your building. The decision about the optimum location can be arrived at through the use of sector analysis, McHarg’s exclusion process and the location of any access roads. If we follow Yeoman’s Keyline approach, the best point to site a new building is at the keypoint on a hill. The benefits of this include reduced exposure to strong winds and fire, less earthworks are required and more fertile and flood prone land in the valley are left clear for growing. Other factors that should be considered in siting a house include solar aspect, soils and geology, surrounding land use, and access to water and energy.

The majority of the world’s population live in cities where they don’t have the possibility or funds to build a new structure. Other people living on suburban or smaller rural blocks may already be limited to the structures on them, or easements and building envelopes that limit construction to a certain area. In this situation the best possibility is to retrofit taking advantage of the solar aspect. I will cover this below.

Integrating the building with the site and your life.

Once you have established where the house will be, you can focus more on how the house will be laid out to support the way you want to live. This means making observations about daily and seasonal behaviours of the clients and analysing these patterns to identify priorities for the home. Role playing and acting out activities such as cooking, doing yoga or carrying heavy loads can help you work out where to place rooms, doors and major furniture.   Making a list of potential functions that you’ll use different rooms for can help you locate and integrate them. Preparing an element analysis for each room or major piece of furniture can help you identify common functions, needs and qualities.

​For example, washing machines require plumbing and can be incorporated into bathrooms or kitchens rather than requiring a separate laundry. Bathrooms can be designed to also act as glasshouses if they are sited at the eastern back corner of a building. Kitchens should be sited to easily access the zone one garden and may extend outside into shaded areas, so that summer canning and cooking activities take place in an outside kitchen.

Log cabin with photovoltaic (PV) panels on roof and a vertical garden that acts as a gray water recovery system on the side.

​Building with the sun: solar aspect

We can maximize our access to the sun and design with passive solar design methods that help us save operating costs by capturing and storing energy. Understanding the cycle of the sun and its relationship to our planet will support your ability to access the energy and gain the benefit. Your implementation of this concept relies on how you wish to use the energy from the sun at different times of the year. Understanding these core ideas will help you work with solar thermal (water) and solar voltaic (electric) panels and to appropriately design retrofits to your buildings.

​Taking advantage of the solar aspect in the built environment asks us to observe and explore, to capture the energy of the sun. It requires us to understand the natural patterns of the seasons and days, as well as the patterns of best practice in architecture and traditional building. We then design a solution that integrates these ideas and applies them in details of construction, aesthetics and use. We only have time in this course to introduce these ideas at a beginner’s level, but the resources linked below help you develop a deeper understanding.

Siting bedroom windows on the East side away from the equator means that the morning sun will greet you, and offices can face to the West so that afternoon sun lights the working space. Sleeping rooms, utility spaces, services and water tanks can be located on the shady, cool side of the house away from the sun.Over the year the earth orbits the sun, different amounts of sunlight hit the earth at different times. How this sun pattern plays out depends on your latitude, the position North or South between the equator and the poles. This is the pattern that informs the seasons and explains why it can be winter in London and hot summer in Cape Town at the same time. 

Intuitively, we recognise these patterns in the changing of daylight hours, average temperatures and the boundless changes that take place in the natural world and our daily lives. Applying it in practice to our homes and gardens is much easier when we know some more technical details.

Many cultures around the world refer to multiplemore subtle seasons. However, I’ll describe solar aspect by referring to the dominant seasons of winter, spring, summer and autumn.

From the built environment perspective, the result of Earth’s orbit is that the sun’s angle hits structures at different angles throughout the year.–Courtesy of the USA Department of Energy.

In winter, the sun’s path has a limited arc between East and West on the horizon and the midday sun is lower in the sky. This results in shorter daylight hours and a limited time for the sun to warm the earth, bodies of water and air. Plant growth is minimal and energy is drawn from the roots rather than gathered through leaves. Animals fluff their fur, reptiles slow down and hibernate and, after daylight has passed, people want to be indoors, close to radiating warmth and artificial light.

In spring, the morning sun appears more to the East, starts to track higher in the sky at midday and sets further to the West. The earth smells different, springtime plants emerge with warmer temperatures and more sunlight. On warmer days, cool-blooded reptiles might appear, basking on sun-facing rocks. Our pets begin to shed fur and we wear less layers. We begin to feel more active and awake, we open the windows, go outside more and wait for the sun to warm our skin, but appreciate being snug indoors.

By summer, the sun is rising early and setting late, appearing to travel in a huge arc high across the sky. The effect of this is heating and drying, but the trees and plants are in full leaf, somewhat shading the soil.  With enough water, annual plants grow quickly to their climax and perennial plants use the leaves from their springtime growth to store energy in their roots. Fruit ripens quickly and spoils just as fast. On hot days when we swim, the water it almost too warm. The sun heats our skin and humans and animals try to find shade and ventilation to maintain a level of comfort.

​​As autumn arrives, the days become shorter and cooler as the sun shortens its arc on the horizon and lowers its path across the sky. Deciduous plants, their roots storing energy from photosynthesis, drop their leaves. Animals and birds grow more fur or fluffier feathers, and we start to wear woolen hats and socks. We spend more time indoors, drink soup and tea to warm our insides, and cook food in the oven so that the kitchen feels warmer. Excited about the remaining sunny days, we know that they will become fewer as we return to winter.

In this image the windows face towards the equator. Eaves block the summer sun at its highest, hottest point but let the winter sun through. The winter sun heats the thermal mass floor material releasing the heat later into the day.

​Passive solar design.

This description of the seasons and the environmental responses introduces some key ideas about passive solar design, or the way we take advantage of the solar aspect.

  • The height of the midday sun at different times of the year and the angle its rays hit the earth.
  • The changing positions and times of sunset and sunrise throughout the year.
  • The winter fluffiness of birds and animals and the use of wooly hats is an example of insulation. In insulating materials air is trapped in the feathers, fur and fibres which prevents the conduction and transference of heat between the inside and outside.
  • The lizard or snake on a warm stone is taking advantage of its thermal mass. Warmed lake or pool water in summer is also an example of thermal mass. Thermal mass materials such as stone, earth and water have particles which are densely arranged and take a long time to heat up and cool down. Thermal mass materials will release their heat into the air, cooling the room they are in.

All this means is that we want to understand the angles and positions of the sun so we can best use or block them, and in the built environment we use different types of materials to help us do this.

In tropical and very hot regions, where the sun is almost always higher in the sky, the most important thing is to block the sun as much as possible throughout the year.

This is done with verandas around buildings. However, in places where there are cooler winter temperatures, the goal is to let the sun in when you want it and exclude it otherwise.

Properly understanding solar aspect is applicable throughout your physical design in the garden, structures and interiors, and has specific relevance to microclimates and appropriate technology.

  • ​On some days the sun just doesn’t make its way through the clouds, or is blocked by other buildings or obscured by polluting smog. For this reason, in many climates we also need to incorporate a heater to warm the space to a comfortable living temperature (16-20°C). In this context thermal mass and insulation is just as important. For example, an interior stone wall can absorb the heat of a wood fired oven and release it within the home, but a strawbale exterior wall will insulate, lowering the amount of heat that is lost to the outside.

As discussed earlier, the angle that the sun hits throughout the year is determined by your site’s location and its latitude North or South of the equator. This video will help you understand this even more.

Winter and summer solar angles from different latitudes

​Natural building materials: an overview

This is a quick rundown of the building materials that are widely considered to be “natural” and “ecological.” However, remember that all new materials are extractive, and our goal is to give more than we take. That said, enjoy this adventure through some gorgeous examples!

This free community bench, library, and rain shelter was built from cob and recycled materials.


​​This simple mix of a clay heavy soil, sand, water and straw is a pleasure to work with and is a versatile building medium that can be used for structural and decorative elements. Cob is a thermal mass material, so it holds heat from the sun or a stove and slowly releases it.

This handbuilt cob structure serves as a multi-room playhouse for children at this park in California.

​Cob construction can be used indoors and outdoors. Smaller projects like stoves or garden walls are a great place to test out the material and develop your skills. However, as cob is effectively dried mud and as such, vulnerable to water, any structures outside should be shielded from the rain with a roof of some sort


Straw-bale walls can be either load bearing, in which the stacked bales bear the weight of the roof or upper story, or they can be built within a frame of wood. This second method has the added benefit that the roof can be installed prior to making the bale walls. Straw needs to be kept dry as when it becomes too damp it begins to rot. Straw-bales are an insulating material, as the gaps of air within the straws reduce the transference of heat between the inside and outside of the building.  Straw-bale exterior walls are often combined with a thermal mass wall or floor. Straw needs to be rendered to protect it from the elements. In our hybrid construction example it can be rendered with cob, or often the exterior is finished with a lime based render and the interior with lime or clay based finishes. While it may seem counterintuitive, a well constructed straw-bale building also has a very high resilience to fire.

this strawbale building at Aprovecho Research Center houses several interns and serves as a central hub for the whole community with kitchen, classroom, storage, and private dorms upstairs. Downstairs opens onto the garden, with layers of microclimates created all around.

Rammed Earth.

In rammed earth construction, a moist earth and gravel mix is rammed (forced) down by hand or with machines into structural formwork. The formwork can be made out of a wide range of materials–think of it like a mold into which the actual wall can be poured, rammed, and squished.

​After completion and initial drying out, the formwork is removed revealing a thermally massive and load bearing wall.  Local soils are normally used, but striped effects like this require the use of additional oxides and soils from off the building site. Some building codes require the addition of cement powder to the mix.


Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that produces building material with high compressive and tensile strength, making it able to bear both heavy loads and remain flexible against forces like wind or earthquakes.

​The diversity of things made with bamboo goes from clothes, rugs, and textiles all the way through to musical instruments, furniture, and stunning architecture like what you see here.


Hempcrete is made of a mix of hemp hurds and lime mortar which can be used as infill within timber frames. Hempcrete provides both insulating and thermal mass properties and helps manage moisture in buildings. Hempcrete can be formed into non-structural bricks or panels, or filled into formwork.

Over time the lime compounds in the material capture atmospheric carbon and offset any production emissions. Hemp hurds are the silicon-rich core of hemp stems and this binds well with the lime. Locally produced hemp hurds are becoming available in more places around the world.

image from this website


Earthbag buildings are made out of earth filled bags laid on top of each other. This approach often makes use of the waste polypropylene bags used to transport grain and other building supplies. The layers are held together with mortar or barbed wire. In many situations that is all that is needed to make a stable wall, but in areas of high earthquake risk they may require extra reinforcement. Earthbag buildings have high thermal mass.

Earthbag construction allows for a variety of wall shapes and can be used to build domed ceilings. Windows and doors can be easily installed and roof beams laid on top of the walls. Earthbag is a simple and affordable construction technique and has been used in many post-earthquake recovery contexts.

image from this article


Humans have been building environments out of stone for many many millennia. We use stone of every shape, size, density, color, and composition, in every layer of every city and town in the world. How will you use the stones on your site? Is stone a good materials for you, or would it be horribly extractive? In some situations, stone is a much more ecological choice than many of the other options on this list.

For a fun exploration of how dry stone walls are used in Welsh landscape and livestock management, check out this case study by PWG faculty member Marit Parker.

Heather Jo’s landlords built this wall from the river rock alongside their farm, and by doing so created a public thruway across their property, allowing for foot traffic to have a lovely shortcut across the river.


Cordwood construction is a great opportunity to use offcut branches from larger timber plantations, and also makes good use of the thinner poles in early coppice trimmings. Cordwood walls can be arranged to have pleasing patterns and recycled glass bottles can be incorporated into the wall to let light through.

In cordwood construction, short pieces of debarked wood and mortar or cob are laid within wood framing to create a wall. This technique doesn’t have particularly high thermal mass or insulative qualities, but insulation can be sandwiched between rows of mortar.

​Reciprocal roof.

A reciprocal timber roof is an elegant way to produce a roof without internal support beams. They are most often used in roundhouse construction. During construction, support timbers hold the initial beams up as they are interlocked over each other.

image from this article


Many of the materials above, including strawbale and hempcrete, require framing either in load bearing structures for walls or to support roofing materials.  

Increasingly, conventional buildings have steel frames. Along with concrete, steel is one of the building materials that has the highest emissions and its production is a heavy contribution to climate change. For framing, we recommend using timber that is sustainably grown and harvested, and milled as locally as possible. Timber is a natural CO2 capture held in your walls.

recycled timber was used to frame this house

Re-Building (using recycled materials).

It doesn’t get much better than this! A house incorporating reused materials is a house you can be proud to include in your ecological whole-system design. Find a junkyard, demolition site, or scrap pile behind somebody’s farm or building site, and turn another woman’s trash into your treasure!

Recycled components such as re-used timber beams, doors and windows, glass bottle walls and reclaimed flooring are not only practical but can be beautifully incorporated into a design. Earthship construction is a great example of using waste such as old tyres in a new way.  Building with reclaimed materials requires more flexibility in your design, time and space, as you need to accumulate and properly store your materials. While you can often save costs and prevent waste working with non-standard materials, it will also take more time.

This neighborhood bulletin board was built by local artists out of recycled materials.
Multipurpose shed built from recycled windows and pallet wood, some of which is old-growth oak!

Tiny houses.

The tiny house movement has given a rebirth to the tiny cottage feel of our ancestors. As more people begin to realize the benefits of “less is more”, the minimalist ideology gives an amazing groundwork to create an efficient space with a low carbon footprint.

a tiny cob addition to an a bungalow style house in Oregon
this 10×12 shanty on an Oregon farm was Heather Jo’s bedroom for eight years.

Living structures

A green roof is a great way to create and maintain habitat for local biodiversity especially if local species, soils and humus are incorporated into the build. Green roofs filter rain water before it goes into your tanks, and help reduce flood risks in urban areas as they help to sink and slow stormwater. As a structural layer they act to insulate the roof.

Depending on the structural engineering supporting the roof base, green roofs can support small shallow-rooted plants like sedum, or can be deep enough to hold garden beds and trees. Green roofs require extra material in the form of geotextiles, waterproof membranes and growing medium to support the roof. While they offset emissions, increase habitat and capture carbon over time, they are relatively resource-intensive at the beginning.

Here’s an article about How to convert a pitch and tar roof into a green roof, by PWG faculty member Maddy Harland. 

Cabin with living roof
The British Horse Society HQ circles an ancient Oak tree and is topped with a Sedum green roof.– Sky Garden Ltd via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond the roof, some buildings have multiple living components.

Which building styles do you prefer? Why?

Web services such as YouTube and Pinterest are a great source of inspiration about natural building techniques such as straw-bale, hempcrete, timber construction, rammed earth or earthship construction. Have a look online to find some ideas and start collecting images that inspire you.

Whichever style you go with, consider building the smallest structure that will still serve the multi-layered purposes it needs to serve. Remember, size matters. Not just in terms of the scale and expense of potential mistakes, but also in terms of long-term environmental impact. Think heating, insulation, repairs, water use, and so on.

Get super specific with your design. Be precise. And think small.

When you next get a chance, take a 20 minute walk around your area to look at the local building style and hunt for resources. What materials, natural or waste are abundant? Have your soil tests revealed clay? Are there trees in woodland or local parks that need to be thinned? Are there salvage yards which provide access to old timber, doors or windows? Even glass, car tyres or plastic bottles can be repurposed into built structures.

Traditionally, people had no choice but to build with  materials that were locally available, whether that was stone, earth or wood. In Iceland, early settlers built with turf and stone and could only access timber in the form of driftwood! These local, vernacular building styles evolved with need and observation, and became a part of the bioregional culture. 

the Acoma Pueblo

​What can we learn from people today who still build traditionally?

Most of the building techniques listed above could easily be traced back to African and ancestral techniques, and we never seem to spend enough time learning about these connections. Before developing this aspect of your design project, look into the local practices where you are from, throughout all of history. What worked and what didn’t? Why?



Homework note for the Built Environment: this is an unavoidable, absolutely integral part of your design and we strongly encourage you to revel in this part of the course for a while. Go through the questions, do the hands-on, and really take time to educate yourself about the structures that define your home habitat. You won’t regret having made the effort.

Questions for Review

  1. How do the structures and hard surface in your home and garden connect to the ecological communities you’re designing and cultivating? Where are the intersections and how can you use these edges as opportunities? 
  2. How will you make sure that your housing, outbuildings, fences, roads, and other built structures don’t use more resources than they provide?
  3. Which ecological principles that come to mind when you think about the built environment? How will you employ those principles on your site?
  4. Which methods are most appropriate for your climate and location? Which aesthetics do you like the most?
  5. How will you use thermal mass and solar aspect in your design? Can you think of ways to improve your use of these concepts, where you live now?
  6. Do some research. Discover the traditional building techniques for the region where you live. What features did those buildings have? What materials were used? How were they heated, cooled, insulated, and shaped?

Recommended Hands-On

These activities are recommended, if possible, to solidify your learning and help advance your design project.

Step 1:

Go to your base map and look at it again. It’s basically a map of the existing built environment, right? Now, add a layer, and start working in the details. Measure everything, and map all aspects of your existing built environment.

Step 2:

Once you’ve got your detailed built environment map finished, add another layer and mark every edge, microclimate, intersection, and opportunity you can find. Mark what’s there, and make notes about what you’d like to create. 

Step 3:

What are you learning about yourself and your home right now? How is this for you? Come and share in our forums, we want to hear your story.

More hands-on suggestions:

  • Walk all around your town and see how many different building materials were used. Were any of them regenerative? Would you choose any of these materials? Why or why not?
  • Go on a field trip to a local farm and/or educational demonstration site, and ask them to give you a tour focused on the built environment. What did you learn? Are their mechanisms connected to their organisms? How would you do it differently?

Here’s a super inspiring case study:

Woman's Magical Cob House Built with Earth & Reclaimed Materials