The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 29 January 2002

Ecological Design

by Sim van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan

It is no secret that the patterns of development and architectural design are generally prone to waste of resources and landscape, as well as contributing to overall pollution of the environment. Suburban sprawl buries fertile farmland. Consumer products are designed for obsolescence, and their packaging so often multiple layers of useless plastics. This book is a response to these trends. It lays out a method of thinking about the world, about the environment, and about things we design, that takes in to consideration the remarkable ecological links that surround us. Van der Ryn and Cowan are suggesting that even the smallest choices play a role in the destruction or sustainability of the world in which we live. Buildings, products, waste disposal systems, can all be better designed, sometimes even linked together in a closed loop of resources. The authors do not belabor the usual alarms of environmental degradation, though that is the main issue here. Instead, this book is a remarkably optimistic assessment of our ability to change the ways we look at design, if only in the smallest ways, that in the long run contribute to a newly sustainable existence. Many great examples are given, from specific buildings to entire communities. There are those that could only work in a relatively small European country. One can almost hear the businessmen's tired complaint that any application of such ideals in the United States would result in economic free-fall. What a shame. Europe seems to be doing OK. Van der Ryn and Cowan have put together a very readable philosophical treatise that can fire the designer's imagination. Broad application of these ideas would fundamentally change humanity's link to the environment in a way that benefits both. The authors offer examples ranging from the Real Goods building in Hopland, CA, to Arcata's water purifying marshland. Throughout, they discuss organizations which are taking on the issues they write about, such as the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, and Architects Designers Planners for Social Responsibility. At the end, they provide a long list of such organizations, and a thorough bibliography. These are not crackpot ideas. This reader hopes common-sense idealism like this will spread. This book could help lay the groundwork.

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