Space for living, particularly in urban areas around the world, is at a premium. New York City’s first micro-unit apartment building seems to be working out well. The 55-unit building was assembled from prefabricated sections and provide occupants with 250 to 370 square feet. Furniture makers, such as Resource Furniture, are responding in kind by developing space-saving, multiple-function solutions for small spaces. Designed to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing, these new options provide people with many of the amenities found in much larger spaces. College dorms and school classrooms are also exploring changes in size and modulatory. These developments are indicative of the changing relationship between nature and shelter.

People are quite resourceful when finding new spaces to inhabit. Iwan Baan, an architectural photographer, discussed ingenious uses of space from around the globe. Making use of existing space in the heart of an already dense city, the people of Caracas, Venezuela took over a partially completed and abandoned 45-story skyscraper. The residents fashioned unique living spaces within the skeleton. Looking outward to a seemingly unbuildable landscape, the people of Lagos, Nigeria have created an informal settlement called Makoko that hovers over the water. The buildings stand on stilts while the people make their living from the water through fishing. In both of these cases, people recognized available space and transformed it into home. We are being forced to push higher into the sky and outwards across the water.

With the world’s population growing at such a rapid pace, we need to find ways to live more harmoniously with nature. Architects are beginning to recognize the importance of understanding nature as a guide to building smarter. Known as biomimicry, an interdisciplinary field that draws inspiration from nature to solve some of our most intractable issues, architecture can play a powerful role in changing our relationship with nature. One example comes from the architecture firm HOK. They mimicked the manner in which rain forests reject heat while returning water to the atmosphere. The team at HOK believes:

Ultimately, the goal is to shift our designers’ perspectives from self to place.

Our shelters can be designed to work with nature either passively or actively. In a strikingly beautiful example, the Hudson Passive Project aims to coexist with nature without trying at all. It is virtually air-tight, allowing the sun and its inhabitants to heat it. The project is the first of its type in New York State. Taking a more active role, our architecture can also change the environment around it. One example uses a cement laced with titanium oxide to neutralize carbon dioxide. Another aims to restore the sparrow population through a simple yet elegant replacement of exterior bricks. Each of these examples explores how our homes and offices can influence nature for the better.

Why stop at the interface between natural and human-made environments? Nature can be brought inside, blurring the lines between inside and out. There is a trend to bring items traditionally found outside into our living spaces. But I was struck by the eerie beauty displayed in the photographic series ‘Abandoned America‘. Some people might see ruins being slowly overtaken by weeds, but I see nature trying to tell us how we might design with — rather than against — her. We could bring living trees inside, creating interior “walls” that are both beautiful and cognitively beneficial. Water could be encouraged to flow through, instead of around, our buildings. Rocks can form the foundation of new buildings. Although the idea of using natural materials to build is not new, I am suggesting here that we look at how nature reclaims our creations to better understand how we might use the ever-constant force of nature as a building material and source of energy.



Photo credit: Keith R Bujak


(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)