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Please use, digest, transfer, re-use, THEN recycle

Authors: Yui Uchimura + Flynn Lewer (students at the Faculty of Architecture, the University of Melbourne). Tutor Beatriz C. Maturana. Find more at:

ESSAY PAPER [predicted process]
1. Read content.
2. Digest content.
3. Throw away physical content into recycling.

_Environmental Design: Building Ecology

Environmental sustainability is currently regarded as a critical issue to be addressed in architectural practice. Whilst the issue of sustainability pertains to a wide field of areas ranging from the technical to socio-political, the prevalent approach – evidenced by the numerous energy assessment tools available – appears to define sustainability as a measurable entity, defined narrowly within the parameters of a building’s sustainable technologies. Whilst the understanding and development of these technologies is important in a move towards a sustainable built environment, it seems to overlook the inherent problem which exists today: the social inertia towards environmental sustainability. Furthermore, it may be argued that over-emphasis on a building’s sustainable technologies has the potential to cultivate a mentality that technology will ‘take care of it’, resulting in a loss of responsibility over our own actions.

The underlying problem in this approach seems to be the lack of acknowledgement that buildings would not exist without its inhabitants; where are the users in these definitions of sustainability? How can we incorporate the use of such technologies where appropriate, without undermining the intelligence, capability, and contribution of the users themselves? Rather than investing sustainability into measurable objects reliant on technology, can we inject sustainability into the processes of a building’s wider ecology?

Perhaps the imperative is in the need to ask where the knowledge or value is invested. In sustainable building technologies and materials, the innovation and sustainable value is contained within the physical object. As such, the knowledge or value dies with the building, leaving behind no knowledge or value to be inherited by the users or future. If sustainability can extend beyond the physical building, its value can also be carried to further boundaries. It is about investing sustainability not into technologies, but into the people and processes, that will allow it to evolve and be passed on to future generations. Embodied through users and process, a building’s sustainability becomes more than an object or product, but an ecology. In achieving such social sustainability, sustainability can be embedded into our intuitive or routine actions, with the potential to be taken and evolved in future generations.

Below, we examine how interaction with a building’s greater ecology can be facilitated and manifested by these processes.

Buildings: Ise Shrine (Japan), Inter-Action Centre (UK) and Djenne Mosque (Mali) with respect to:
- Material cycle
- Seasonal response
- Social interaction
- Knowledge transfer
- User contribution

> see also: seasonal response

In the architecture of the Ise Shrine, the choice of timber as a building material takes on an integral role to the building’s process, environment and meaning. Every 20 years the shrine complex is rebuilt, up to 14 000 Japanese cypress trees are required; equating to 10 000 m3 of lumber. Dimensions of the pillars and columns are predetermined, and require timber members which are up to 1200 millimeters in diameter – a quality which demands at least 400 years for its production.[1]

Whilst on the one hand this may be regarded as impractical or unrealistic, the long production time necessitates an understanding and planning for the future, and invokes the imperative for renewal – short term solutions are not an option. Far from being an ‘off the shelf’ material, it is manifested as an environs to the shrine architecture, a forest of 5500 hectares containing plantations of cedar to sustain the construction of the shrine buildings,[2] whilst simultaneously acting to protect the headwaters of the adjacent Isuzu river, and provide an appropriate scenery.

The reuse of the material beyond the shrine’s lifespan of 20 years also becomes integrated into the process, whereby the shrine is disassembled and redistributed to repair and construct shrines within outer precincts. Though this act of dismantling itself is far from appropriate as an outcome to all buildings, too often buildings are designed as finished products, without consideration of a potential material cycle beyond the its current function.

The integral role of timber as a material is particularly evident when one considers what would have resulted had a different material such as stone been selected.

> see also: user contribution, knowledge transfer

The construction of the Ise Shrine facilitates social interaction via the Shikinen Sengu festival, whereby members of the local community transport timber members used for its construction upstream the Isuzu River, towards the site.[3] Whilst upon first glance this may appear a technically redundant aspect of the construction process, it provides social cohesion between different generations – a premise which is essential to the shrine’s building process which requires knowledge transfer to occur between each generation. The individuals within the local community are provided with a role of active involvement, and consequently participants describe the festival as a valuable experience that they would like to pass on to their children. Seemingly mere sentiment, however emotional and social incentive without which the elaborate building process of the shrine may not be possible at all. Similarly, social interaction is the basis upon which social values are constructed, those values which determine whether we actively engage with the issues of environmental sustainability.

Another notable aspect of this example of social interaction is the heavy participation of children. Despite the undeniable impact of social values that are ingrained in our childhood, and thus become assumed as the habitual actions and mentalities inherent in our everyday lifestyle, few architectural building processes engage this potential with children. Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Westborough Primary School is a rare example which does so – constructed out of recycled cardboard, the responsibility for the collection of material is given to the students,[4] introducing the exponential potentials of an individual’s sustainable actions in a collective environment.

> see also: user contribution

Upon considering where the ‘value’ is placed in the Ise Shrine, it is interesting to note that whilst there is inherent symbolic value in the shrine itself, most of the technical value and knowledge lies not in the building itself but in its process. Whilst some suggest that the period of 20 years is based upon the time required for passing down the carpentry skills,[5] this idea also may be reversed to say that the life span of a building is limited to 20 years in order that technical skills and knowledge must be passed down through each generation. The physical permanence of the building is thus sacrificed in order to transfer the technical value from a static object into a dynamic process, ensuring that the people of every generation are actively endowed with valuable technical skills and knowledge.

In architecture today there appears to be a tendency for innovation to extend only so far as architect’s design of the building itself, rather than the building process facilitating a transfer of knowledge to the users. Whilst the transmittal of knowledge over countless generations as manifested in the building process of the Ise Shrine may be impractical with vernacular architecture, contemporary manifestations of knowledge transfer between the building and users can exist. A relevant example is Osamu Ishiyama’s ‘Open Technology House’,[6] whereby the architect has designed specifically the construction process of the building rather than the product, in order that it may be undertaken by the inhabitants (including primary school children).

see also: material cycle

In the Inter-Action centre, there is a conscious desire to integrate previously produced space into a larger whole. The building is a community centre formed by plug-in units comprised of pre-fabricated houses, containers and industrial materials. It aims to be a ‘value-free and artless’ community centre, dependant on a culture of contribution by the using community in order to function.

By this there is meant a consideration of the building as an agglomeration of parts, of meanings and production processes. The building is dependant on the contribution of these parts for functional space and everyday industrial materials make up the connections between them. It raises the issue of specialised spaces and their production- if you treat them as units they can contribute to a greater whole. That is the essence of this argument, treating a house or a container as a unit of space, like thinking of a bottle as a vase. Essentially when objects are produced they can be adapted for a multitude of different uses, why is architecture any different?
This perspective raises the issue of consumption. We are not currently aware of the implication of our spatial desires and our responsibilities as ‘users of the environment’. The Inter-Action centre has been developed in a way to counter any single unit being used (consumed) in the way it was supposed to, the ‘users’ contribute in making the building as they are responsible for additional units and materials that make up the overall space. Communal spaces, such as music performance rooms, are simply one of these pre-made units stripped down to a simple space so they can function as anything.

Adaptability is an anti-consumerist ideal, the Inter-Action centre advocates a greater awareness of the production of buildings through making various typologies adaptable.

Maybe building a sustainable environment is less about making buildings more sustainable but about adapting the ready made in a manner that exposes the production process itself and exposes the user to their role in this process. Sustainability is fundamentally a resource-loaded debate, so we are only really engaging in a discourse when we become critical of production itself.

see also: material cycle, social interaction

In Djenne, Mali the seasonal cycle of wet and dry periods is associated very closely with the architecture and culture of the community. As the wet season erodes the mud surface of their Mosque, there is a need to constantly repair the damage done. Every spring in Djenne there is a festival in which the whole community takes part, of which the primary objective is to repair the damage done both by the wet season but also cracking from the temperature and humidity fluctuation in the local climate. These buildings have in-built devices allowing for this repair to take place, palm wood ‘ladders’ that allow the men to climb up the facade and smear a fresh layer of mud on the wall. When the festival takes place it is primarily about the spectacle of the young men climbing up the ‘ladders’, as it becomes a race to see who can get to the highest spot. Veterans of past festivals watch from the main square and children participate by playing in the mud mixture, stirring it up for use on the facade.

The festival highlights how the Mosque is a holistic form of community building. Its value to the people is built over time, it asks for a response from the community by eroding like a landscape. The seasonal response thus becomes a community event, bonding the people as well as the facade.
The Mosque addresses interactivity in a meaningful way; the coming together of a community and the shared space between the ladders, having fun whilst repairing the decay, knowing that if they didn’t, the building would surely melt back into the earth.

Maybe in looking at the Djenne Mosque, we can appreciate the opportunities in building with seasonally affected materials. We are so conditioned to building with materials that have little or no effect from seasonal change. What this institutes is a loss of connection to these natural cycles, which ultimately leads to ignorance of such processes even existing.
The notion of community response is also an important one, that by doing small things as a group, larger meanings are addressed; cohesion of community, cultural expression.

We should also ask what interactivity means in this sense, are we merely distancing ourselves from real environmental conditions or are we interacting with an ecology of which we play a vital part in maintaining?


1. Kumi Nanri, ‘Ise Shrine – Japan’s Sacred Forests’,, Tokyo 2005 [29 April 2009]
2. For a period the capacity of rebuilding the shrine from the shrine plantations was lost; recently plans have been re-implemented to sustain
rebuilding materials from the shrine forest. Kumi Nanri, ‘Ise Shrine – Japan’s Sacred Forests’,,
Tokyo 2005 [29 April 2009]
3. Martin Frid, ‘Sustainable Design – Ise Shrine’,, New York 2009
[29 April 2009]
4. Phyllis Richardson, XS Green: Big Ideas, Small Buildings, p 94
5. Arata Isozaki, Japan-ness in Architecture, p 120
6. Osamu Ishiyama, Self Build, p 87
- Arata Isozaki, Japan-ness in Architecture, Cambridge [Massachusetts] 2006
- Cedric Price, Re: CP, Basel 2003
- ‘Great Mosque of Djenne’
- Jeffrey Perl, ‘Devalued Currency’, Common Knowledge, 14(2) (Aril 2008), pp 208 - 220
- ‘Jingu’,, Iseshima 2002 [29 April 2009]
- Kumi Nanri, ‘Ise Shrine – Japan’s Sacred Forests’,, Tokyo 2005 [29 April 2009]
- Martin Frid, ‘Sustainable Design – Ise Shrine’,, New York 2009 [29 April 2009]
- Osamu Ishiyama, Self Build, Tokyo 2008
- Phyllis Richardson, XS Green: Big Ideas, Small Buildings, London 2007
- Royal Australian Institute of Architects, ‘2007 RAIA National Architecture Awards: Jury Citations’,, Melbourne 2007 2005 [14 May 2009]


Tulio Mateo said...

I have been surprised by the layouts achieved with mud bricks in very rural areas in Africa. Houses are built and the communities arrange the regular, seasonal maintenance -linking neighbors and earth. However, national building standards down here do not always support these traditional technologies. For decision-makers in governments, it is mostly seen as a "deep, rural" practice, despite most towns are built like this.

Beatriz Maturana said...

Bamboo construction faces a similar situation. Fortunately, after years of conversations, it appears that there is a draft for an international building standard for bamboo. The idea behind a building code/standards is to facilitate knowledge transfer, it could also offer bamboo a status that today does not enjoy among the general local populations. Other advantages are of course that it is a building material that grows fast, of great structural qualities and can be produced locally.

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