Ecosystems Shelters and Societies March 1983



  1. APROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY, ENERGY AND RESOURCES – technological change, energy and resource availability, effects of practices – political, chemical, pollution, resource depletion, eco1ogical.

relationships, environment, ecology as a science and a social science, human activity is ecological

population and exponential growth

ecological approaches – resources – passive solar design

  1. relationships – Greentown.

B) Shelters


Passive solar design – principles

energy use and occupation

Types    (1) Direct gain system

(2) Conservatories

(3) Trombe Walls – Example

(4) Roof space collectors

Example – A home for all seasons

passive solar design – constraints, design criteria,

climate and site, objectives, double envelopes

infiltration and ventilation, implications

C          SOCIETIES


EXAMPLE – Statement of aims of Greentown.

Introduction. Ecological relationships and implications.

Greentown development proposal.

– site layout – example

– energy systems – example

– local energy groups

– recycling

principles behind Greentown, decision making, community, education,

health – example

VI         Conclusions.

– All human activity is ecological

– constraints and limits

– passive solar design

– present building practice

– limitations of passive solar

– design and practice, implications

– Greentown

VII Appendices.

a) Methodology, research methods and sources

b) The low energy house, Machynlleth

c) The solar heated exhibition hall, Machynlleth

d) References

I           PREFACE

This project is a study of the implications of an ecological perspective on housing design and communities. Two aspects of an ecological perspective are emphasised – that of resource

use and that of relationships. The objectives of the project are to:

1) discuss the meaning of ecology and its implications for housing.

2) give an example of building design using ecological perspectives.

3) give an example of how a community might be formed using ecological principles.

The areas of study are ecology and appropriate technology, passive solar design and the Greentown Group. Because the subject is new and relatively unexplored, the project should be seen as an

introduction to the principles of an ecological perspective. Interested readers are referred to the references for further detail and background.

It is not easy to discuss the implications of this perspective, because it may fairly be termed radical. Several local authorities, housing associations, co-operatives and private individuals have and are

building dwellings using these principles. Whether they become more widespread is dependent on knowledge about them, variations in economic costs and availability of fuel and other resources, and

governmental support or discouragement. The Greentown example may revolutionise thinking about housing, as the Garden City Movement did at the turn of the century.

The main recommendation would be to keep watching!



The term “appropriate technology” is often used to summarise the concepts of this project. It involves concern about achieving technological and social ways of being that are sustainable over very long periods – thousands of years, and an understanding of the social implications of technology. Schumacher “small is beautiful” is an important source of the concepts expressed in this project.

Technology may be understood as the application of scientific knowledge to manipulate resources and energy to human, social ends. Stone axes, computer languages, roads, factories, and bureaucracies may all be understood as examples of technology. The ability of humans to manipulate and control their environment -, from the discovery of fire, the wheel and

agriculture to micro-chips, is one of our major distinguishing features

from other life forms. Technology is part of the human condition. 

Human history can be seen to be intimately related to technological questions about resource and energy availability and use. The Roman Empire was forced to first import wood from the Crimea in the first century A.D when Italy had been almost completely denuded of forest, and then move industry like metal smelting to the forests of Germany in the second and third centuries A.D. to ensure adequate resource and energy supplies. 

The Southern United States, from California to Florida experienced a similar energy problem at the turn of the century. Then population expansion and resource depletion meant firewood was in short supply and expensive, having to be transported vast distances. The solution used was not to use the technology of transport, as in Rome, to solve problems, but a technology that used the sun. Solar water heating was extremely widespread because it was efficient, cheap and reliab1e, and the alternatives were either unavailable or very expensive.

Technological change again altered this situation. Natural gas was discovered and technologies developed to exploit it. Solar remained in use for probably forty years after the introduction of gas, but when the heaters eventually rusted up or burst, they were not replaceable because the engineers and plumbers were building gas systems, not solar water heaters. (4)

In the United Kingdom, there have been two major recent changes in energy use and related technology. The first was the switch from coal and coal gas for domestic heating and cooking, to natural gas for both, with the parallel change in technology from chimneys and fire places to gas boilers and radiators.

The second, which has only just begun, is the move towards conservation of energy, including new technology of loft insulation, draught proofing and changed building regulations about the insulating properties of walls and roofs. The renewed interest in energy sources like the sun to heat

homes, is part of this technological change. 

Energy and technology are crucial components of human history.

Energy as used by human societies is available from a variety of sources. Firewood has historically, and stilI is in major portions of the world one of the major sources. Extremely poor peoples of the World burn cow dung when firewood supplies fail. This means their lands are not fertilised, and their problems are compounded. 

The wind was the major energy source for long distance sea going transport. Human energy built the pyramids. Animals have ploughed fields and ground corn for millennia. Water has been used for pumps and wheels for thousands of years. The sun is used in the Middle East, with a special building

technology to cool buildings by creating draughts of air over pools of water.

As past societies can be shown to have had to adapt because of changes in energy and resource availability e.g. Rome, so can present day twentieth century industrialised societies be shown to be affected by the same factors. One of the major distinguishing features of present day industrial societies is their greatly increased scale of energy and resource use, and the many areas of great wastage and lack of concern about the effects of energy and resource exploitation.

These practices have already been shown to have many side effects. The dependence on oil, imported from certain countries of the World to others’ means considerable political thought is given to ensuring the supplies are reasonably stable, and this is a major consideration behind the

diplomatic and military stances of the major powers.

The act of using energy sources like coal, gas and oil results in chemical changes that, produce heat and other bi-products – plastics, drugs, synthetic fibres, soot, smoke, exhaust gases and pollution. These bi-products have further side effects. Pollution in rivers destroys marine animal and plant life, car exhaust fumes are changed by sunlight into the Los Ange1es smog, dangerous chemicals like Dioxin have major health effects. 

A recently noted problem is acid rain. Sulphurs in exhaust gases from cars, power stations and industry combine with water vapour in the atmosphere to create dilute sulphuric acid. This then falIs as rain on major areas of the world – acid rain, and has been shown to make lakes sterile and causes stone and concrete to crumble. The Taj Mahal has been severely damaged this century by acid rain. 

Because the energy and resource sources on which industrial societies are dependent are limited, the continued extravagant use of them has to have further side effects in the future. These resources water, metals, wood, rubber, land, the seas, oil, coal- and gas are all finite. Once they have been used up, there is no more. It is estimated, for example, that lead will be uneconomic to mine by as early as 1990. That will mean either: any articles requiring lead will become prohibitively

expensive, or technologies will have to be developed- that do not require it. (rz)

The other major effect of our industrial- practices is on the planet itself. Problems of energy and resource use are not confined to homosapiens – they are in fact basic problems for all of life on this planet – the differences are of scaIe, not kind. Life, as a biological process, is dependent on energy and resource use to sustain itself – as are human societies. This dependence is so basic that, for example, Iife would not exist; without the energy input of the sun and the availability of natural

resources, especially trace elements, the soil, the land, the water and the atmosphere

These problems are the subject matter of ecology.


Ecology is the study of the relationships of living organisms – including humans – to each other and their inanimate environment. There are many possible kinds of relationships between organisms (plants, animals and other living things like viruses) and that part of the non-living world in which

they occur. An extremely important relationship is; who eats whom and 

another, perhaps equally important is who breeds with whom. 

The concept of the environment covers just about everything associated with organisms and includes other organisms and the non-living part of the world in which life occurs. The weather, the physical and chemical composition of the soil, and seasonal changes in the length of daylight, are all part of an organism’s environment, and the word therefore has about the same meaning as


No organism exists without an environment; organisms and the environments in which they live constitute an extremely thin layer on the surface of the earth, often called the biosphere. The many varied and complex relationships between organisms, other organisms and their respective environments almost defy comprehension, but careful analysis reveals order and regularities as the basis of these ecological relationships. The patterns, webs and balances of nature are not chaotic, but amendable to scientific and mathematical analysis. We are intricately related to all other life and to the environment.

Oikos is Greek for home, or locality, a place with which one is familiar. Thus, ecology means the study of an organism and its home, and economics, the study of the finance of the home and its surroundings.

Ecology has two major complimentary facets. Ecology as a science involves detailed and painstaking measurements of population sizes of plants and animals, birth and death rates and the supply and use of energy and resources in the environment. Ecology as a social science is concerned with the place of humans in nature and the results of human action on nature. Man is a large and abundant animal living in almost every part of the worId.

For our size, we are easily the most numerous and successful species. Our use of technology and our obvious effects on the world, are of such a scale that ecology is unable to ignore us. It is probable that there are now very few, if any, natural habitats that have not been affected in some way by human activities. It is thus rather academic to consider ecology as something apart from man, and then assess man’s impact on the ‘natural’ world. Rather, human activities like building, operating nuclear power stations and factory farming should be considered as an integral part of the complexity of the living world and are just as ‘ecological’ as a fen or a forest. Ecology is an interdisciplinary study which links the natural and social sciences. (f5)

Ecologists are thus able to take an all-inclusive approach to the world’s problems, in contrast to the traditional segmental approaches of scientists, economists and politicians. People have a very interesting relationship with their world.

Ecology uses several concepts like population; a number of organisms of the same species living and breeding together, and. exponential growth to explain how and why populations change or remain stable. Exponential growth is well explained by the following example. 

A population of water lilies is growing on the surface of a pond. The population is doubling in size each day and is allowed to increase unchecked until after 30 days it completely covers the pond to the exclusion of all other plants. For many days, the lilies are quite inconspicuous, and no attempt is made to restrict their growth until they cover half the surface of the water. If the population doubles daily, the pond is half covered on the 29th day. There is thus only one day to do anything about the problem.

Exponential growth – doubling in a given period of time, is characteristic of all living species, from the division of cells resulting in the growth of an adult from an embryo, to the multiplication of yeast cells in a fermentation process, to the increase in a population of animals or birds when conditions are right. 

Exponential growth is also characteristic of most human activities, including population growth and use of energy and resources. The practical result of the operation of exponential growth in human and ecological affairs is that, if any problems do arise, they arise quickly. The change from the stability of a normal cell to the rapid multiplication of cancerous cells is a dramatic

example. If action is not taken soon, problems become uncontrollable.

It can be shown that many human activities are problematic in that they have major effects on the bio-sphere. The necessity for early action to prevent problems becoming insoluble is the major reason for ecologist’s emphasis on concepts like conservation, using renewable resources, and the importance of understanding and respecting the interdependence and relationships of life

on each other and the environment. Prevention is far simpler than cure. 

There are various actions that may be taken to create conditions which are more ln harmony with the constraints imposed by the physical limits of the planet and the extreme fragility of life in relation to the planet earth.

These include studying how, why and where energy and resources are used in our societies, and the relationships between these practices and the structures of our societies. As energy resources and technology can be shown to affect, the history and politics of our societies, they also affect the shape of our societies and how things are done. Thus approaches that are ecological in

nature might include studying the technology of resource use, and looking at

ways to achieve lower energy usage, and studying the relationships of our societies that lead to and are dependent on present energy use, and looking at ways of relating that, use less energy and resources, and respect the constraints of this finite planet.

The next sections give one example of a technological approach intended to minimise energy and resource use and an example of a social structure designed to be harmonious with ecological principles. The technological example is of how the sun can be used as a major source of

heat for buildings, including housing- passive solar design.

The social example is of a new town, at present at the final planning stage, due to be built starting this year in Milton Keynes – Greentown.

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