Site-Specifics & Ecological Engineering

TL; DR: Small scale ecological engineering projects that are designed specifically to the local conditions have the most benefit for both humans and the environment. They consider the physical and cultural requirements of the site. Sir David Attenborough is awesome.

Engineering design is typically based on two questions: What is already here? And, what is possible for us to do here? The solution is typically the simplest and cheapest way to answer these two questions. “Ecological engineering is the design of sustainable ecosystems that integrate human society with its natural environment for the benefit of both” (have a read of this for a brief eco-eng history). So, an ecological engineering approach considers 3 questions:

  1. What is here?
  2. What does nature permit us to do here?
  3. What will nature help us to do here? (Berry, 1987)

The first two are very similar in each case though it is clear that the intentions are different. Ecological engineers have the explicit belief that humans are not separate from the environment. Check out this link for more info and examples.

Continued below

The diversity and complexity of life on Earth is amazing. If you’ve ever watched a Sir David Attenborough documentary and not been at least a little awed or impressed by nature, well, maybe you’re just a product of our disconnected society. If you are an avid Atten-bro fan – like a normal person – you will have been excited by life’s diversity and complexity, and know that ecosystems change wildly with from location to location. This is the cornerstone of Design for Site-Specific Context.

“…Every system and location is different.” (Bergen et al., 2001)

This principle is critical in ensuring sustainable, intelligent design that benefits both humans and the natural environment, together.

It’s important to consider both the physical and cultural contexts for site-specific design. The physical context refers to all the physical factors that define a location, as well as the physical impact a design will have – from sourcing materials to construction, use, and end-of-life – on a local, regional and global scale.  The cultural context includes stakeholder values and objectives for that location. The design must be physically appropriate, as well as be appealing to the community and other stakeholders.

The high spatial variability of ecosystems means that designs have to be small scale to be site-specific. If we design a regional solution to a regional problem, variability of the environment within that region may cause inefficiencies, or even damages to local ecosystems that are incompatible with the design. Basically, blanket solutions don’t really work: we need to apply specific knowledge of an ecosystem to design a solution for that ecosystem only.

Ecosystems are designed to work. Nature works. The more we want to deviate from the natural conditions, the more energy we need to input into the system. Air-conditioning is a good example. Many people turn on the AC to avoid the heat on forty degree days. This requires adding energy to the system in the form of electricity. The great thing about site-specific design is that solutions are tailored to each location. This means they use the existing natural processes to just work, requiring minimum energy input from humans. For example, using inspired HVAC solutions and trees to minimise heat in urban areas and reduce the need for aircon. How cool is that? 😉

“Standardised designs imposed on a landscape without consideration for the ecology of a place will take more energy to sustain.” (Bergen et al., 2001)

Nature is connected, not to the mafia, but interconnected to itself (Todd and Todd, 1994). Much like the number of neurons in a brain, ecosystems are stronger for the more connections it has between trophic levels – the more biodiverse it is. Any design we implement will have an effect on these connections, so it is important to consider our design’s upstream and downstream effects. Upstream considerations include materials required for construction and maintenance – what they are, where they came from, etc. The downstream refer more to how the local ecosystem, region, etc will be impacted – eg pollution, invasive species, physical alterations to landscape, etc. A good design succeeds, not by impeding natural processes or ecosystems but, based on the extent to which it allows nature to do its thang. To do this, we need a great deal of site-specific ecological and other knowledge.

Often the knowledge required for meaningful site-specific design is already held by the community. Workshops and consultations promote the sharing of information, as well as community engagement and, eventually, buy-in.

If the community rejects a project, it is destined to fail. Stakeholder buy-in is essential to the success of any design and site-specific designs provide opportunities for maximum community engagement. Do yourself a favour and watch Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (if you haven’t already). It’s an entertaining example of how a community rejects an exciting project because they’re not engaged by the developers from the concept stage. By allowing a community to actively shape the design based on their needs, values, and objectives, we promote a unique community identity for each site, as well as a sense of connectivity between community and environment.

This is all good in theory, but people don’t always see eye to eye. It’s a good idea to monitor group dynamics to mediate and diffuse conflicts and make positive progress. People need to feel like their voice is being heard. Mechanisms like consensus (instead of majority) are good ways of decision-making to ensure individuals are, and feel, valued. This is possible with small scale projects!

Cherish the natural world - DA
Click here for image source

If you take anything away from this, I’d hope it’s that localised ecological engineering design solutions are far better than standardised solutions imposed on a landscape. The project should include the community in the conversation from the very beginning, with the aim of integrating human society with the natural environment.




Bergen, S. D., Bolton, S. M., & L. Fridley, J. (2001). Design principles for ecological engineering. Ecological Engineering, 18(2), 201-210. doi:

Berry, W., 1987. Home Economics. North Press Point, San Francisco.

Todd, N.J., Todd, J., 1994. From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of ecological design. North Atlantic Books, Berkely, CA.


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