What is Ecoempathy?

In recent years, “sustainable” architecture has successfully entered the mainstream, and large, highly publicized building projects have been outfitted with resource-conserving features and constructed “green” elements. As our buildings are automated and standardized for environmental performance and cities invest in ecological infrastructure based on parameters and metrics, there is an important element largely missing from the discourse: the human beings!

Ecoempathy is an approach to architectural and urban design that has as its very core those elements that make us conscious selves: the ability to experience emotion and beauty, and to use empathic cues–conscious or subconscious–to comprehend and navigate our human habitat.

The Ecoempathy Project is an attempt to discover an alternative approach to “green” architecture: one that creates an empathic connection to nature through design. While scientific understandings of ecology and metrics-based performance may be unintuitive and even invisible to an urban dweller or building occupant, ecoempathic design translates ecological processes and natural features into a more legible architectural form, encouraging a deeper emotional and physiological connection to nature.


Just as clock towers were once dominant urban features, designed for the purpose of translating time into physical form and sound, we can imagine a new kind of architecture designed to empathically render the natural processes present (though largely invisible) in an urban environment: tides, nutrient cycles, weather patterns, animal migrations, pollution, and more. Just as architectural ornament once served to highlight key tectonic and socially significant spaces, we can imagine a new kind of ornament designed to call attention to ecological features and ground architecture in place. And just as vernacular builders for millennia have responded to our innate biophilic (1) tendencies, today we can use new insights from neuropsychology to channel nature’s complexity, fractal structures, and systems of centers and wholes into an architecture of healing.

This kind of work isn’t just science fiction: it’s already being done today, and is the subject of the Ecoempathy Project’s weekly features and essays.


Ecoempathy has four broad and overlapping “petals,” general concepts that help to define the relationship between ecology and design:

Ecodynamism recognizes that the built environment, far from being a static assemblage of parts, is inevitably part of the dynamic processes that define ecology. All of the natural features that surround us are the results of self-organizing processes; they are ever-evolving artifacts of the battle that life wages against entropy. An architecture and urbanism that is able to embody this quality of negentropy (negative entropy) must channel generative natural processes. This can happen in several ways:

  • Buildings can legibly reflect the influence of natural processes in their form, in the same way that an eroded rock in a riverbed is a record of millennia of erosion or moss on the side of a tree is a record of solar exposure.
  • Buildings can harness the scripts of emergent phenomena for their generation (a tweaked parametricism, such as in The Living’s projects) or even the actual tools of bottom-up self-organized systems (such as in Neri Oxman’s silkworm-built structures), resulting in a design that is not simply biomimetic but the result of a natural process.
  • Buildings can themselves become dynamic and responsive, changing with seasonal, climatic, or programmatic changes: this can involve metamorphic and self-healing skins, and can be done by the occupants (as in many vernacular dwellings). In their effect on inhabitants, dynamic buildings are the opposite of the consistently lit and conditioned spaces of industrial architecture. A dynamic building can even make room for the unexpected, allowing plant life or erosion to create an unplanned design.
  • Buildings can be conceived of as open-ended, ever-evolving entities that respond to user needs; as in Hundertwasser’s buildings, where users are given agency over their environment while being made to feel that they are part of a larger adaptive ecosystem.

Ecointegration involves building habitats and ecosystems into architecture and urbanism, from living walls to urban forests. Thanks to new biological editing technologies, this can even involve engineering new organisms for urban environments. It is not enough for ecoempathic design, however, to simply install a strictly performative sidewalk wetland or attempt to faithfully recreate a “natural” habitat in a garden. As landscape architect Joan Nassauer writes, these constructed ecologies need to have “cues to care” that can alert the human inhabitants to the importance of the services they perform and the maintenance that they require. Narrative ornament and architectural features can help to tell these stories in an empathically moving way. In Hundertwasser’s apartment buildings, for example, “tree tenants” are given special spaces to grow (2).

Ecoimpact is the category closest to traditional metrics-based LEED architecture, covering those building features designed to minimize impact on the local and global environments, but with a critical caveat: they cannot achieve their full potential unless the occupant interacts directly with them, and can be made to feel this impact. In achieving this goal, the location, design, and visibility of key controls and switches–window hinges, light switches, water faucets–becomes critical. As Pliny Fisk writes in “The Greening of the Brain,” by relating the cycles of resources through buildings to our own circadian cycles, we can begin to create an empathetic connection to building systems that, in turn, can change user behavior. One need only look at the incredible effectiveness of “these come from trees” stickers on paper towel dispensers to understand how powerful connecting building elements to their natural sources can be.

Ecomorphism refers to two key aspects: First, it entails the adaptation of the form of human habitat to the ecosystem it is sited in, much like an ecomorph of a species is physiologically adapted to its niche. What makes historical cities so special is the way in which ecological, cultural, and technological influences have blended to create unique and locally-specific design languages and typologies. Ecoempathic architecture engages with the language and vocabulary of a region, as well as its biological and topographical features, in order to create an emotional bond to place. While a high-design example might be the regionally-specific Prairie House designs by Wright, with their ornament based on local plants and horizontal features mirroring the landscape outside, a more performative and bottom-up case study can be found in the climatically-adapted dwellings documented by Bernard Rudofsky and Christopher Alexander.

The second important aspect of ecomorphism is the use of natural forms that resonate with what E.O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert call our innate biophilic tendencies. Thanks to new neuroscience research and experimental studies, we are now able to see how large an influence naturalistic form holds over our well-being. Rather than limit architectural possibilities, these new insights are allowing us to create an architecture in touch with our primal emotional selves, one free from the straitjacket constraints of Classicism, which was an attempt to encode an architecture with proven empathic effects, but also more rigorous than the formal free-for-all that has defined the last several decades of architectural production.

(1) Biophilia, the innate tendency of humans to seek connections to nature and life, was first popularized by E.O Wilson and has since become a design buzzword, gaining fame with the publication of Biophilic Design in 2008.
(2) Hundertwasser coined the term ‘tree tenant.’ According to him, trees were equally valuable tenants and humans were meant to share their house with them. “They are a gift of the house to the outside world.”
See: http://www.hundertwasser-haus.info/en/blog/2011/07/18/the-tree-tenants/


Partial List of Further Readings

Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

Timothy Beatley, Biophilic Cities

Tom Bender, The Heart of Place

Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore, Body, Memory, and Architecture

Bradley Cantrell and Justine Holzman, Responsive Landscapes: Strategies for Responsive Technologies in Landscape Architecture

Andres Duany and Emily Talen, eds., Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents

Jan Gehl, Cities for People

David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments

Justin Hollander and Anne Sussman,Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment

Friedrich Hundertwasser, “Mouldiness Manifesto”

Stephen Kellert, Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador, eds., Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life

Stephen Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis

Branko Kolarevic and Vera Parlac, Building Dynamics: Exploring the Architecture of Change

Sean Lally, The Air from Other Planets: A Brief History of Architecture to Come

Sang Lee, ed., Aesthetics of Sustainable Architecture

Lewis Mumford, “The Case Against ‘Modern Architecture”

Sarah Robinson and Juhani Pallasmaa, eds., Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design

Richard Register, EcoCities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature

Terrapin Bright Green, “14 Patterns of Biophilic Design”

Theodore Roszak and Mary Gomes, eds., Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind

Nikos Salingaros, A Theory of Architecture

Paolo Soleri, Arcology

John Turner, The Extended Organism: The Physiology of Animal-Built Structures

Sim Van der Ryn, Design for an Empathic World: Reconnecting People, Nature, and Self

Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan, Ecological Design

Sim Van der Ryn and Richard Olsen, Culture, Architecture and Nature: An Ecological Design Retrospective