Empowering Learning Through
Natural, Human, and Building Ecologies

Robert J. Kobet, AIA

Most human beings, particularly those living in developed nations, spend ninety percent of their time inside buildings. There is an emerging body of literature and growing number of case studies that indicate, that our ongoing and intimate relationship with the built environment has a direct bearing on our physical, emotional and spiritual well being. This is supported by many professions outside the design community, particularly whose services to and interactions with the built environment and building occupants deal directly and indirectly with those impacts. Among these are clinical ecologists, social psychologists, allergy specialists, and human resource managers. Their interests range broadly: from multiple chemical sensitivities and the causes of chronic illness in the built environment to human productivity and architecture as a means for companies to retain their most productive employees. In school environments, absenteeism, test scores, and teaching effectiveness are certainly influenced by physical factors such as daylight, air quality, acoustics, the psychology of color and views.

It is critical to understand the connections between human ecology and building ecology if we are going to create humane environments that show inspiration and creativity and that also serve our diverse needs. As the number and sophistication of studies examining the relationships between human factors and the quality of our built environments increase, discussion moves from the speculative and anecdotal to the statistically significant and clinically verifiable justification for high performance green buildings. And, while these studies are often controversial, they continue to grow in number and sponsorship, largely because the economics indicate the stakes are high, and the potential losses or gains are significant.

We now have irrefutable evidence that our development and building practices have a withering effect on the natural world and the biosphere that sustains us. Our reliance on an ever-dwindling supply of land, resources and energy supplies to support population increases and attendant development often fuels adversarial dialogue about development paths and resource use strategies. A byproduct of the otherwise industrial revolution was the formulation and distribution of chemicals, materials and effluents that now permeate the natural world. Many of these products find their way into our environment through the design and construction process. These issues were given worldwide attention in 1962 when Rachel Carson published her landmark work, Silent Spring. Her enormous contributions to environmental awareness still form much of the basis of what passes for environmental education today; classical ecology or the study of living systems and their relationship with the environment in which they exist. In it the impact or encroachment of the built environment and other human activity on the natural world is seen largely as negative and often confrontational.

At the same time Rachel Carson was researching and publishing Silent Spring, Theron G. Randolf, MD, a Chicago physician, was treating a growing number of patients who were exhibiting symptoms of diseases he was able to attribute to their home and work environments. His 1962 publication, Human Ecology and Susceptibility to the Chemical Environment, chronicled a litany of negative impacts on human health that are specific to the built environment, including building materials and finishes. His work is not as well known or widespread as that of Rachel Carson, but it could be said that Dr. Randolf is the father of occupational medicine and built environmental education, at least as they relate to the impact of architecture on our health and well-being.

Even though we have a working knowledge of how the built environment impacts the natural world and our health and well-being, our knowledge of the built environment and the resource base we draw from to construct our infrastructure, communities, and buildings is almost absent from contemporary environmental education. To make matters worse, we are subject to national energy policies and conduct that suggest our standard of living and economic security can be maintained only if we continue our current patterns of energy consumption and resource depletion. Our popular culture is driven by an advertising industry that equates success with the ability to live as desired without accountability for the consequences to the environment or future generations.

We are wired to build. It is what we do. Our cities and buildings prove our need to continue to create and construct, but they are also an indication, of our desire to congregate and a reflection of our cultural values. As William McDonough has said many times, if design is the first indication of human intent, our actions are inextricably linked to the consequences of what we do and how we do it. Of the built environment, it has been said we are in a race between education and disaster. As the dominant species and the only one which orders its environment on such a grand scale, we alone influence both the natural world and the built environment in ways that are at once obvious, perceptible, and consequential.

The results of our design decisions are immediate and very often carry global consequences. In the long term they may very well determine if life as we know it will exist in the future. Therefore, it is critical we understand the relationships and interconnections among natural ecology, human ecology, and building ecology. Further, if we are to benefit from an educated citizenry capable of making balanced decisions about the world we will live in, K-12 environmental education should consist of courses, modules, and exercises integrated with a learning environment designed to be an extension of a curriculum that values the symbiosis between living beings and the milieu they inhabit. This premise should not be confused with current trends in high performance school design that advocate attributes like increased flexibility and the ongoing adaptation of appropriate technology that is continually evolving. And it strongly supports the design philosophy of swiftly moving away from the traditional classroom of the self-contained education box and favoring community-based learning, public/private partnerships, shared facilities, and distance learning.


Robert Kobet

"It is critical to understand the connections between human ecology and building ecology if we are going to create humane environments that show inspiration and creativity and that also serve our diverse needs."


Roy E. Walker Elementary School
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"Even though we have a working knowledge of how the built environment impacts the natural world and our health and well-being, our knowledge of the built environment and the resource base we draw from to construct our infrastructure, communities, and buildings is almost absent from contemporary environmental education."

 

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designshare.com | January 2003