Design for Ecosystems—Framework for Design Excellence
Good design mutually benefits human and nonhuman inhabitants. What we design has a direct impact on the ecosystems in and around the site. Understanding the site dynamics will allow us to be more conscious of our impacts.
Framework for Design Excellence: Design for Ecosystems
- How can the design support the ecological health of its place over time?
- How can the design help users become more aware and connected with the project’s place and regional ecosystem?
- How can the design build resilience and support adaptation to climate change through nature-based solutions.
- How can the project support regional habitat restoration?
- How can the project support equitable access to nature?
- Environmental limits of the site: Land, water, & atmosphere
- Reduce human impacts: Light, noise, & heat
- Nature-based solutions
- Biodiversity and regenerative design
Design for Ecosystems toolkit
If you can do only one (or a few) thing(s)
- ZERO-CARBON: Consider manufacturing, construction, and end-of-life when selecting materials, along with the impacts on source and site ecosystems.
- RESILIENT: Assess the attributes of the predevelopment condition, ecosystem services, and the capacity to adapt to a changing climate. Understand the ecosystem and site dynamics, which can help the project adapt to changing climate conditions and impacts.
- EQUITABLE: Research the history and culture of the land to understand its development over time. Incorporate restorative strategies like enhancing the urban tree canopy in areas of historic disinvestment, reducing the heat island effect, and regenerating soils.
- HEALTHY: Identify the most consequential strategies that reduce negative impacts on the ecosystem, improve human health, and eliminate chemical toxicity.
Nature is a broad term that encompasses a variety of ecosystems on a multitude of scales. To design with nature, we need to understand how ecosystems function and what they need to thrive. Humans ARE nature—not separate from it—and we are completely dependent on the biodiversity of nature to survive. To truly design for well-being, you need to design to support ecosystems.
Land, water, & atmosphere
Analyzing the geography of the site is not a new concept, but understanding site dynamics is critical to creating a truly responsive design. Projects impact their sites just as much as the sites impact the design; this equilibrium is key to designing with nature, not against it. A highly responsive design is more resilient to change and healthier for all inhabitants in and around the site. Before beginning design, take some time to understand the local ecology and ecological services that are available on-site and throughout the bioregion. Developing the site in a way that protects or restores these ecological services links the land with its ecological history. Site analysis considers impacts to the land, water, and atmosphere:
Land and eco-regions host different species that have evolved to thrive in specific and often difficult conditions. Understanding the geology and soils of the site is important to not only establish a lasting foundation but to predict future movements and disruptive forces such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Water and its movements also influence the terrain of a site, shaping topography. Understanding the hydrology of a site is critical to enhancing resilience and supporting living features. The presence of water on a site affects human health from the watershed to the downspout.
The atmosphere, climate, and weather have an impact on sites. With the effects of anthropogenic climate change becoming more frequent and intense, it is important to anticipate possible hazards and plan adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Evaluate the different geographic conditions on-site. Assess the attributes of the predevelopment condition, quantitatively and qualitatively. For land, consider geology, geography, terrain, topography, and ecoregions; for water, consider watersheds, movement of water, water bodies, hydrology, flood plains, and stormwater; and for atmosphere, consider climate, weather, wind, and solar.
Redeveloped sites may have specific environmental concerns inherited from previous site functions: soil and groundwater contaminants and hazardous materials in buildings which may require remediation. Recognize the potential for environmental concerns and work with specialists on abatement strategies.
Land: Conserve soils & habitats:
- Determine the soils and rock formations on-site. The site terrain offers clues to the dynamics of the site and the movement of nature upon it. Soil types offer clues to the permeability of soils that can aid in rainwater management planning and other LID (low-impact development) strategies.
- Minimize land disturbance to not only save money but preserve the natural topography of the site and reduce impacts to existing ecosystems.
- Plant more and pave less. Replace high-embodied carbon infrastructure with green alternatives—aim for 70% softscape and 30% hardscape, or better.
- Minimize demolition of sites and buildings. Reusing materials on-site immediately reduces our carbon footprint and our impact on a changing planet.
- Build soil carbon by maximizing the planted coverage of the land. Leaving woody debris, snags, brush piles, and leaf litter also increases organic carbon in soil. Explore opportunities for on-site soil remediation and aeration.
- Improve site biodiversity, connect to and expand regional habitat corridors, and increase site permeability and vegetated area compared to predevelopment conditions.
- Remediate any brownfield sites in order to create the best long-term economic value for the community and future generations.
Water: Preserve & restore waterways:
- Understand the hydrology of the site. Identify flood plains and use data to best predict how they will shift over time, especially in coastal communities threatened by sea level rise. A FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) is a good place to start.
- Evaluate adjacent water bodies—where they originate and where they flow. Determine if there are any existing wetlands on-site; if so, determine how they function, where the water comes from, and where it goes. Determine the threats if adjacent water bodies overflow or dry up.
- Identify how the site reacts to precipitation and its natural and climate-accelerated cycles. Determine where stormwater naturally travels on-site and how much can be expected during a precipitation event. Design the project to minimize contamination entering groundwater or released from the project site.
- Reconnect hydrology wherever possible to restore ecological integrity, and provide capacity and conveyance for stormwater.
- Maintain buffers to sensitive areas such as rivers, coasts, wetlands, and steep slopes to insulate highly productive ecosystems from damage caused by construction and occupation activities.
Atmosphere: Work with the microclimate & reduce contaminants:
- Analyze the climate of your site. Know the temperature and humidity ranges as these will impact the thermal comfort and mechanical system requirements as well as effective passive design strategies.
- Evaluate the potential severe weather impacts to the site such as fire, storm surge, and extreme wind. Use a vulnerability assessment to identify potential hazards and prioritize resilient design strategies.
- Determine the prevailing winds for the site annually and by season. The wind often changes direction throughout the year. Determine the velocity and temperature of the prevailing winds to determine if the natural flow can be used for energy production or ventilation, or if it needs to be blocked to protect the building.
- Determine the sun path across the site throughout the year. Azimuth and altitude are useful for determining effective shading strategies as well as potential renewable energy production.
- Leverage solar and wind resources to reduce energy use and produce renewable energy. Prevailing winds provide natural ventilation or extreme cold. Solar insolation provides free daylighting and passive heating.
- Design to minimize changes to the microclimate of your site.
- Design to minimize emissions and airborne particulates by reducing vehicle miles traveled in materials sourcing, construction, and maintenance activities. Improving the tree canopy has multiple benefits for reducing airborne particulates as well as improving sun shading and stormwater management.
- Request and require Environmental Product Declarations that disclose the global warming potential of the greenhouse gas emissions for specific products. Select materials with low global warming potential.
Light, noise, & heat
Understanding how human interaction has impacted local ecosystems—especially light pollution, noise pollution, and the heat island effect—helps architects address the causes of these problems thereby enhancing both human and ecosystem health.
Prevent light pollution & trespass to preserve dark skies:
- Nighttime light pollution can disrupt neighbors' circadian rhythm and is detrimental to sleep cycles, both human and nonhuman. Maintaining dark natural environments is a major consideration for exterior lighting design. Reference the outdoor maximum illuminance guidelines from the Dark Sky Society’s “Guidelines for Good Exterior Lighting Plans.”
- All exterior luminaries should be fully cut off and aimed toward the surface that needs to be illuminated. Every effort should be made to keep the light source out of everyone’s line of sight.
- Site lighting should be scheduled to turn on at sunset and turn off by the time the occupants have left the property or retired indoors.
- Site lighting that remains on all night should be avoided. If nighttime site security is required, a combination of night-vision cameras and motion-activated lights can be used to keep the site both dark and safe.
- After following all the best practices above, consider computer simulation to verify that required night lighting remains out of the line of sight of windows.
Reduce noise pollution:
Noise pollution can cause health problems for people and ecosystems. Loud and persistent sounds can cause hearing loss, stress, and high blood pressure. The design team has less control over other acoustical sources, such as highways or flight paths.
- Shape the building or other site elements in a way that shields the occupants and their neighbors from site noise.
- The most effective way to control environmental noise is by physically blocking the source with a solid barrier. The barrier should be placed as close to either the source or the receiver as possible. Shielding noise sources with plantings is significantly less effective.
- The amount of sound that can travel through the air is determined by the air’s density. Air becomes denser as it gets drier or colder, which creates more acoustical challenges.
- Use sound-masking strategies, including water features, wind features, beehives, and pollinator gardens.
- Consider the source of construction noise pollution and minimize these processes whenever possible.
- Some site elements, such as compressors or chillers, create unwanted site noise and vibration. Specify quieter equipment and place these elements away from spaces used by people or animals.
Mitigate heat island effect & extreme heat:
Climate change is causing a rise in the frequency and magnitude of extreme heat (heat waves). According to one recent study in 2022 and another study in 2020 respectively, heat waves can interact synergistically with the urban heat island effect to create localized overheating (urban heating) exceeding 10°C (18°F) above ambient temperatures. This can cause serious impacts to cooling energy consumption, peak electricity demand, heat-related mortality and morbidity, urban environmental quality, local vulnerability, and comfort.
Today, more than 50% of the world’s population resides in an urban area, and this is projected to increase to 70% by 2050. In an urban context, heat is especially acute in areas where temperatures are higher relative to their surroundings; these are called heat islands. In the U.S., the heat island effect increases daytime temperatures by 1–7°F and nighttime temperatures by 2–5°F compared to outlying areas, according to a recent study on local urban climates.
Surface heat islands form because urban surfaces such as roadways and rooftops absorb and emit heat to a greater extent than most natural surfaces. On a warm day with a temperature of 91°F, conventional roofing materials may become 60°F warmer than the air temperature, as found in the Fourth National Climate Assessment in 2017. Surface heat islands tend to be most intense during the day when the sun is shining. Dark roofs elevate temperatures in the surrounding air by 52%, raising cooling costs and energy consumption, while blacktops intensify runoff and flooding.
Extreme heat can increase the vulnerability of a community. Research has established a positive temperature-mortality relationship, and its effects are exacerbated in highly vulnerable communities, which include low-income, Indigenous, and isolated island communities. Extreme heat can trigger fatal heat exhaustion or heat stroke or kill by exacerbating underlying conditions, such as cardiovascular or respiratory disease. In the summer of 2020, over 25% of the U.S. population experienced heat-related symptoms, and among all socioeconomic groups, those who were most vulnerable were women, those in low-income households, those who were unemployed or on furlough, and people who identify as Hispanic or Latino or as other non-white census categories (including Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and multi-racial U.S. residents). These communities historically have limited access to air conditioning, cooling facilities, or naturally shaded areas.
- Use pervious surfaces to manage stormwater on-site. Pervious paving materials have interconnected air voids and, therefore, have a lower capacity to absorb heat. Pervious materials include specially designed pervious concrete and asphalt, open-grid pavement, and open-graded aggregate materials.
- Provide shading to reduce the heat absorption of hardscape (driveways, parking lots, bike paths, walkways, courtyards, and plazas), roof surfaces, and wall materials. Expand tree-canopy cover for streets, sidewalks, and parking areas. Trellises and other such structures can support vegetation to shade walkways and plazas. For some climates, deciduous trees may be used to allow solar heat gain during the winter months when outside temperatures are colder and as shade during the summer months when shading is required.
- Reflective surfaces heat up less in the sun. Reflectivity measures how well a material bounces back radiation, but since all surfaces absorb some heat, emissivity, or how good a surface is at radiating heat back out into space, also needs to be considered. The “solar reflectance index” (SRI) incorporates both reflectivity and emissivity. The combination of reflectivity and emissivity means that light-colored, low-emitting surfaces perform better than darker, high-emitting surfaces. Effective paving materials should have a minimum SRI of 29.
- Similar to site hardscape, roof surfaces can either absorb heat or reflect and emit heat. Required SRI values for roofs are based on whether the roof is low-slope (less than or equal to 2:12) or steep-slope (more than 2:12). Roofing products include white thermoplastic or PVC membranes, white metal roofing, and selected roofing shingles. It is important to confirm a product’s SRI with the product manufacturer. In lieu of a roof with an SRI value, a vegetated roof will not only reduce heat island impacts but also reduce stormwater impact by absorbing rainfall. A vegetated roof also improves air quality, absorbs ambient sound, serves as a thermal insulator, and provides cooling by evapotranspiration (ET).
- Increase green space, with particular emphasis on areas of historic disinvestment.
- Build climate resilience hubs—places where residents can cool off when temperatures soar. Design these with renewable energy sources and backup power for continuity of operations.
- Design solar canopies to cover parking areas and charge electric vehicles.
- Heat islands have often been an issue related to equity, as some vulnerable communities have historically had less investment in landscape, tree canopy, and rights-of-way large enough to mitigate street heat, noise, and pollutants. Recognize climate injustices and unearth community knowledge. Consider how each project can address decades of disinvestment and restore ecosystem balance.
Nature-based solutions are sustainable planning, design, environmental management, and engineering practices that incorporate natural features or processes into the built environment to promote adaptation and resilience. Nature-based solutions can help reduce the loss of life and property resulting from some of our nation’s most common natural hazards. Nature-based solutions reduce flood risks, improve water quality, and protect coastal environments. Aim for multiple layers of protection with diverse, scalable elements to adapt to changing climate conditions. The benefits include environmental, economic, and social advantages such as avoiding losses, a cooler micro-climate, better public health, and increased property values.
- Support managed retreat strategies to protect human life and investment by not placing structures in harm’s way.
- Maintain undisturbed floodplains to reduce erosion, store floodwaters, filter water pollution, and provide habitat for marine and terrestrial species.
- Restore and protect wetlands along rivers and shores to provide buffers against flooding and wave action. Healthy wetlands filter, absorb, and slow runoff.
- Capture, use, and harvest stormwater through landscape catchment, aquifer recharge, and water management.
- Improve water quality through infiltration and phytoremediation strategies.
- Use green roofs to reduce runoff and heat island effects, insulate the building, and reduce energy costs.
- Measure and improve the carbon footprint of projects. Eliminate emissions from site impacts and operations and commit to zero emissions by 2040.
- Incorporate food production in projects. Use projects to address food scarcity and food deserts. Partner with local community organizations to support equitable distribution of resources.
- Create a publicly accessible network of connected green space and waterways. Conserve land for greenways, stormwater parks, and recreational space. Interconnected open spaces sustain healthy and resilient communities by linking habitats, allowing movement of water, multiple species, and humans.
- Design rain gardens and vegetated stormwater conveyance in tandem with streets and roadways to divert rainwater from storm sewers and encourage infiltration. Use plants to capture pollutants and sediment and support an expanding tree canopy.
- Protect and restore healthy shorelines: Dunes, living shorelines, maritime forests, reefs, wetlands, and parks.
Biodiversity & regenerative design:
Biodiversity is crucial to maintaining functioning ecosystems that support life on Earth—including human life. Architects and landscape designers can support the design of thriving and biodiverse landscapes through intentional planning at the site and regional scale.
- Protect existing ecosystems and plant communities from construction disturbance and development impacts. Identify and protect the fauna and flora species of the site.
- Restore disturbed landscapes, regenerate soils, remove contaminants, and establish healthy microorganisms to support local ecosystems.
- Preserve all on-site mature trees. Trees help sequester carbon, removing CO2 from the atmosphere while also providing habitat. Work with a landscape architect or arborist to assess existing tree health and appropriate building standoff distances. Establish and carry out a protection plan during construction. If a tree does have to be removed, consider opportunities to use the salvaged wood.
- Enhance the urban tree canopy, especially in areas of historic disinvestment.
- Remove unnecessary paving and replace it with native landscaping. Advocate for reduced parking requirements and narrower streets.
- Design landscaping composed of 100% endemic and native plantings, especially species that attract pollinators. Native plants have evolved to thrive in their local environments without irrigation or soil treatment.
- Cover as much of the nonbuilding area as possible with a broad diversity of native plantings to create a comfortable microclimate. Every bit of habitat counts, even if the only possible intervention is a small one.
- Diversify plant selections to avoid diseases and pests. Work with a landscape architect and/or ecologist to create a native species palette that allows each species to flourish.
- Design to eliminate turf grass.
- Design to include food production on-site.
- Conserve and protect water-based ecosystems, including wetlands and water-based habitats that provide critical ecosystem functions for fish, other wildlife, and people.
- Collaborate with the local community and Indigenous people to learn cultural knowledge systems and practices of care.
- Consider how climate change is reshaping plant hardiness zones and plan for the next 50 years. Facilitate species migration by extending green corridors.
- Know your ecoregion and what plant species thrive there. Visit epa.gov to learn more.
- Design landscaping to sequester carbon. Increase carbon sequestration through nature-based solutions and commit to doubling sequestration on projects by 2040.
- Enhance the urban tree canopy, especially in areas of historic disinvestment.
- Use landscape elements to preserve or create habitat for local flora and fauna. Simple urban examples include birdhouses, bat boxes, and native plantings that support pollinators. Larger and more rural sites can create and preserve habitats for a wider range of species.
- Manage invasive species. Avoid using known invasive plants and ones that have a high potential for becoming invasive due to climate change.
- Use landscaping as part of a natural pest-control strategy. Plant species that repel mosquitoes and other pest insects. Maintain appropriate clearances between landscaping and the building to protect less durable building materials.
- Consider insect ranges and how they may affect occupant comfort and the building life cycle. For example, termite ranges are expanding to areas of the country that do not commonly specify treated wood.
- When specifying materials research, consider the impact of material sourcing on ecosystems; for example, source wood from forests that are not being clearcut, or source wood from forests that are managed to reduce wildfire risk.
- Include fire risk planning in areas near the wildland-urban interface.
- Design for bird safety and integrate bird collision deterrent strategies. Hundreds of millions of birds die every year in North America by flying into glass. Some experts estimate this loss to be 10% of the annual migratory songbird population—and the trend is only increasing as we integrate nature further into our urban environments. Strategies that help reduce collisions will protect birds and the many ecosystems that depend on them.
- Design landscape habitat to support birds. Birds play a critical role in both traditional and regenerative agricultural activities (pest control, seed dispersal, soil fertility, pollination, and several other ecosystem services). Bird collision deterrence is therefore connected to food justice and human health and well-being issues. The Bird-Friendly Building Design guide and LEED v4 Pilot Credit 55 offer project teams the latest guidance.
- Include bird-friendly design solutions in documentation and presentation graphics to keep all stakeholders informed of this goal.
- Consider the impacts on source and site ecosystems from manufacturing, construction, and end-of-life when selecting materials. Do materials require highly toxic treatment? Does the harvest or fabrication process create contaminated water or soil? Does it deplete a very limited natural resource?
- Design with materials that eliminate chemical toxicity and mitigate hazards to the communities where they are harvested, extracted, manufactured, transported, and disposed. Environmental injustice disproportionately burdens communities of color and low-income populations.
International Dark-Sky Association is the go-to source for appropriate outdoor lighting levels, dark sky–approved lighting fixtures, design strategies, research, and educational materials.
The Bird-Friendly Building Design guide from the American Bird Conservancy outlines many strategies to protect and support birds in urban environments.
Originally conceived by Denver Water, the Seven Principles of Xeriscaping have since expanded into simple and applicable concepts to creating landscapes that use less water.
Although located in central Texas, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a great resource for looking up native species in any region.
Climate Positive Design recently launched a Pathfinder tool for assessing carbon in-site design.
LEED v4 Pilot Credit 55 – Bird Collision Deterrence provides an easy-to-use indexing system to evaluate threat factors when developing bird-friendly building design strategies.
Design excellence case studies
Explore four COTE® Top Ten award recipients demonstrating successful ecosystem design.
Albion District Library
Vancouver, Canada | Perkins+Will
The Albion District Library includes a community garden that allows for food production and a habitat for butterflies and pollinators as well as reducing the overall permeable surface present.
Arizona State University Polytechnic Academic District
Mesa, Arizona | Lake|Flato, RSP Architects
Arizona State University was able to impressively reestablish the native landscape and habitat and reduce outdoor potable water usage by 51%.
Center for Sustainable Landscapes
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | The Design Alliance Architects
The Center for Sustainable Landscapes includes open meadows to oak woodlands, water’s edge, and wetland plantings. A range of ecosystems are represented on a site that had no existing natural land covers or ecosystems to preserve or protect.
Georgia Tech Engineered Biosystems Building
Atlanta, Georgia | Lake|Flato, Cooper Carry
The biosystems building took a previously underutilized grey field and established ecology as the centerpiece for this new district on campus.
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