Blaine Brownell A concept envelope that uses reclaimed wood to support animal habitats is a sample outcome of refining design concepts to better serve the natural environment.

The climate deal reached earlier this month in Paris marks an unprecedented milestone, with 195 nations committing collectively to preventative measures that stand to scale back behaviors facilitating climate change and mitigate some of its most adverse effects, such as resource depletion. The landmark achievement inspires us to consider what goal we might attain in the design disciplines. What similarly ambitious objective could we address, and could we do so in a more collaborative fashion than the way in which we currently operate?

In a recent article, I shared examples of radical innovation in sustainability based on familiar targets such as net-zero energy consumption and the elimination of red-list chemicals. Although these individual goals are important, it is crucial that we contextualize them, and the concept of natural capital provides such a framework. Coined by the British economist E. F. Schumacher in 1973, the term natural capital refers to a method of ecosystem evaluation that considers the earth’s natural resources as the basis for economic viability—in other words, the health of our forests, air, and water is directly linked to that of our market. A forest, for example, includes short-term provisions, like lumber, and long-term benefits, like air and water purification. Global standards such as the United Nations’ System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) exist to keep our natural capital in balance. SEEA is divided into ecosystem services, which are the measurable benefits provided by natural ecosystems.

From an architect’s perspective, an aspirational environmental goal would be to apply natural capital thinking comprehensively to a project. Such an approach would require project teams to think beyond the pure economics of a job to plan and build within a holistic system that considers a site’s natural value. The latter necessitates interdisciplinary cooperation, since accurate ecosystems accounting and the generation of innovative design ideas require close collaboration between the architect and design team.

The United Nations' Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) offers some guidance. Launched in 2001, the multinational endeavor was developed to analyze humanity’s environmental impact and help to better understand the depth and breadth of ecosystem services. The MA outlines four categories of ecosystem services: provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services. I will briefly describe each here, with examples of how design teams might use innovative approaches to address each category. I have attempted to order the categories from easy to challenging, revealing the wide gap between what we know and what we still need to learn.

A rendering of the proposed Garden Bridge shows green space and a pedestrian walkway.

Cultural services are intrinsically understood by architects and designers. According the MA, these are non-material benefits obtained from ecosystems in the form of spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and other aesthetic experiences. Nature provides inherent benefits in terms of inspiration, cultural heritage, knowledge systems development, recreation, and sense of place. Architects strive to harness this value in their own contributions to the built environment. One recent example is London-based Heatherwick Studio’s proposed Garden Bridge, a 366-meter (1,200-foot)​ public park spanning the Thames River in the city. Conventionally, bridges are designed without landscaping but the architect’s novel proposal offers new, culturally significant green space in the midst of a dense city—all without removing existing structures.

Petr Novikov/Stone Spray A concept bridge from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, in Barcelona, uses oil-based spray-deposition with soil and dirt sourced onsite.

Provisioning services are products such as raw materials, water, food, and energy that we obtain from ecosystems. They are well-understood by a typical design team, with the exception of one aspect: resource life cycles​. Although we generally recognize the importance of being environmentally resourceful—using recycled products, conserving energy, and so forth—adopting a natural capital framework to a project site brings an intensified focus to provisioning services. This focus suggests a more aggressive approach to preserving and re-using onsite resources, which we might categorize in terms of existing versus generative provisioning services. For example, the visionary adaptive re-use project Courtyard House Plugin, from Beijing-based People's Architecture Office, makes enlightened use of crumbling hutongs, or narrow alleys, transforming dilapidated housing into useful contemporary habitats with minimal additional resources. On larger jobs with accessible earthen materials, onsite fabrication processes like this sprayed stone from 2012 (shown below) or WASP's mud-extruding 3D printer enable the construction of building components from hyper-local provisioning services. On the generative side, design teams should also consider replenishing or augmenting sites with provisioning services for future use, such as planting trees or constructing wetlands for onsite water storage.

The responsive façade of HouMinn Practice's prototype Cloak Wall adjusts to changing temperatures to improve the building's thermal performance.

Regulating services are fundamental natural processes yet they are frequently missed design opportunities. These services are benefits received from ongoing monitoring and maintenance of ecosystem processes, such as air and water purification, climate regulation, storm protection, waste treatment, and pollination. Landscape architects could lead a collaborative effort to identify a site’s regulating-service potential and develop creative design strategies with measurable outcomes. Such strategies often represent disciplinary overlaps—for example, green roofs and vertical gardens support many important regulating services. Innovative material approaches may also be utilized to maintain service goals such as climate regulation. For example, the carbon-negative Ferrock cement is stronger than the Portland​ variety and sequesters carbon dioxide as it hardens. Another example is the use of thermochromic paint on building envelopes—as seen in Houston- and Minneapolis–based HouMinn Practice’s Cloak Wall, the façade of which automatically adjusts to seasonal changes to improve building thermal performance and reduce urban heat-island effect.

Blaine Brownell A student assembles a third-nature project at the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture.

Supporting services are the least understood of ecosystem services, and they reveal the largest disconnect between conventional design practices and ecological thinking. These services function as the necessary foundation for all other ecosystem services and include primary production, nutrient and water cycling, oxygen production, soil formation, and habitat provisioning. These services are the most difficult to pin down in time and space because, according to the MA, the impact of supporting services on individuals is indirect or occurs over an extended period of time, while the other categories’ impacts are more direct and occur in the short term. Nevertheless, there are design examples that address these services. For example, Philips Design’s 2011 Microbial Home is a cradle-to-cradle nutrient management system and includes a bio-digester for the anaerobic fermentation of food waste; although the concept project is designed as an interior kitchen, the strategy could be expanded to include site-based soil formation and food harvesting. Designers are also increasingly paying attention to habitat provisioning, with building envelope strategies that support local as well as migratory wildlife. One example is Loom Studio’s Egg Block, a masonry unit with protrusions that support bird nesting. Another is a collection of so-called third-nature projects—such as envelope systems made of reclaimed industrial wood that support bird and insect habitation and developed by University of Minnesota architecture students in a studio that I co-taught with Sheila Kennedy, FAIA, and Frano Violich, FAIA.

Project-based ecosystem services accounting has its limitations, however. Ecological systems boundaries do not end at the property line, so in a given project, design teams can only address a narrow and artificially imposed section of an ecosystem. Another challenge concerns the complexity and inscrutability of ecosystem dynamics, especially regarding the supporting services that underpin all other ecosystem services. Still, there is merit to using ecosystem services to shape the built environment. First, a natural capital-based framework pulls together conventionally disparate concerns like energy, materials, and indoor water quality, and reveals how they are interdependent. Second, employing such a framework in the design process requires interdisciplinary collaboration, since disciplines also represent artificially imposed boundaries in ecological terms. Third, adopting ecosystem services as project-drivers shifts our thinking from dichotomous notions of natural versus artificial, whereby all environmental benefits come from the preexisting landscape, towards integrative concepts in which new buildings and landscapes serve as platforms for ecological enhancements—particularly within degraded sites.

Adopting a natural capital framework in design will enable a more inclusive and realistic project outlook. It will expand the notion of a site’s highest and best use far beyond the vagaries of real estate economics to include more enduring and relevant ecological accounting. Design teams could begin each project by conducting an ecosystem service assessment, and could then create a portfolio of ecosystem service strategies to direct that project’s development. This road map would shape design decisions and provide a measure for a project’s ultimate success. Appropriating such a holistic framework for design commissions will require significant time, effort, and collaboration—but if the nations of the world can come together for the sake of the environment, then so can architects.