NOTE: This article was first written in 2006, so some aspects have been updated to reflect current realities.
Biomembranes is a term I’m borrowing from biology (the structure bounding a cell) to describe the outer skin of future self-sustaining buildings. I have stated elsewhere that I believe that for the built environment – and therefore our societies – to become sustainable, every building and community must deal with its own wastes, generate its own energy and provide nourishment – both physical and emotional – for the occupiers. Only by the creation of truly independant, carbon neutral buildings can we achieve this.
This would be a subtle and far reaching art, not easy to achieve but I believe that the rewards would be many, not to mention necessary. In this respect, the science of biomimicry will play an important part, for example, in developing paint-on polymers that photosynthesize energy, or tensioned fabric five times stronger than steel or kelvar, made with no heat or pollution, just like a spider’s thread. Whilst we haven’t perfected those products yet, let me list some of the benefits we can look to achieve in the near future:
horizontal and vertical skins of living plants that insulate, filter the air of dust and pollution, dampen noise and attract wildlife. Current living walls are used sparingly as art pieces.
composting and filtration systems that clean the building’s waste and return nutrients and water to the biomembrane and surrounding landscape.
Algal biofuel production using building wastes.
interior landscapes that provide internal cleansing and beauty.
blurring of internal/external space.
energy generation as integral with the building fabric as passive solar/pv/wind.
pedestrianised streets as wooded valleys or urban forest gardens.
SUDS drainage to filter excess water straight back to the local water table.
pedestrian/bike/electric vehicle shared surfaces removing car domination.
increase of social space by good design.
Some of these ideas are becoming well established, such as green (or living) roofs and walls, others are being played with by a few, but as yet, no one is trying to pull all these things together into a cohesive whole system. I am thinking of concepts such as combining vertical greening with greywater filtration, active cooling systems, air purification and algal biofuel from building wastes. I have recently been inspired by the work of the world-renowned architect Ken Yeang (Llewelyn Davies Yeang) based in London and Malaysia. Ken has worked extensively on the concepts of bio-climatic buildings and so his ideas are very close to my heart. Furthermore, one of his main concerns is the organisation of internal space by social structure, rather than by economic return on investment. This very much reminds me of the work of Christopher Alexander (see Pattern Language); despite apparent differences of style, the underlying philosophy is similar, Ken’s work placing it into a modern urban context.
There is a lot to do but the future will need autonomous
bio-buildings that take care of themselves without external input, other
than sunlight and human organisation. The main challenge is then to
retrofit these systems to existing buildings, which will always be the
large majority of available building stock.
Meanwhile, take inspiration from the work of Hundertwasser (top right) and Ken Yeang (bottom right). The application of green technology, biological water filtration and the use of every surface to create living, breathing buildings shows that humanity can and will grow up and see beyond the profit line, which so dominates and limits current thinking.
The maintenance of ponds is the one thing that people seem to be the
most uncertain about – it seems shrouded in myth and confusion.
Some of this is basic ignorance of simple biological structures but this is enhanced, in my view, by the profession’s over-mechanised solutions to obtaining clear water. There is also a tendency to think that a bottle of some substance can perform miracles and solve unclean water problems – but it can’t.
First lets be clear (pun intended) there is a difference between clean and clear water. A pond’s biological functioning might be quite happy with water that is healthy but carries an amount of suspended solids. The health of water is far more dependent upon keeping levels of Nitrites, Nitrates and Ammonia low; these have nothing to do with water clarity.
Our aesthetic taste demands clear water, however, and it
is certainly true that pure, clean water is always the most beautiful to
To obtain and keep clean and clear water, we must keep the pond in balance, so a simple understanding of water balance is useful. This involves two things; mechanical filtration to remove solids, and bacterial action to remove pollutants.
First, let’s dispel a few commonly held myths:
You need a magic filter box with lots of plumbing entrails
You need something called an Ultra Violet filter
You need to test the water frequently
You need to change a percentage of the water at intervals
A filter box gives some mechanical filtration of solids and creates a home for micro organisms to do their work. It is these bacteria that convert Ammonia into Nitrites then into Nitrates, and they are naturally existing in any aquatic ecosystem. Thus it is not the filter box that does the majority of the work but bacteria already present in the pond.
An Ultra Violet filter kills algae, which cause green water. Algae feed on nutrients available in the water – remove the nutrients and you solve the problem at source. This may be an oversimplification, but it is fundamentally true. A UV filter is therefore treating the symptoms, not the cause.
I have rarely found a situation where tests have told me anything that my eye has not. That’s not to say that tests do not have their uses but I would suggest that you can observe when a system is out of sorts. Nature is incredibly good at correcting imbalances, given a chance.
Ponds are an open system and will always lose water through evaporation, so some new water is always going to be added via the garden hose or a top-up system, preferably from harvested rainfall. Water change regimes are quite unnecessary and probably unhelpful to establishing a balanced system, which has to start again each time this is done.
It is true, however, that small garden ponds are often unstable in terms of quarter quality, for the following reasons:
The water body is too small to maintain a stable and permanent ecosystem
Water levels and temperatures fluctuate widely – small isolated ponds would naturally dry up
Fish stocking levels are usually too high, creating biological overload
There are insufficient plants and bacteria-rich medium to ensure a healthy biological cycle
All this adds up to one thing: excessive nutrients in water, leading to algae growth, lack of oxygen, cloudy water – in the end this leads to eutrophication.
You have to remember that the average sized garden pond is a mere puddle in Nature’s terms. Ponds of that size would likely be impermanent and support little life, other than in a temporary or cyclical manner. In summer a small pond would dry up unless it were fed by a stream or high water table. If it were fed by a stream, then the pond wouldn’t be a pond – it would be a bulge in the water course.
We must accept, then, that the garden pond is a highly
artificial environment, which needs some help in order to remain
attractive to us, and to its inhabitants. What form should that help
take? Where space is severely restricted, a filter box may be the answer, for it crams a lot of bacterial housing into a small space.
The same can be done, however, by the use of natural biological
filtration, which is designed to be an attractive feature of the water
garden itself, rather than a utilitarian box than must be hidden. In its
simplest form, this can be no more than a gravel filter bed built into a
stream which feeds the pond. Planted with suitable aquatic plants, this
can be a major feature and is also good where hungry fish tend to
devour plants placed in the main pond.
How big should such a feature be? Natural filtration is
an inexact science, so the bigger, the better. A surface area of one
quarter to one third of the pond surface area is a good guide. A more
intensive system uses a vertical, rather than horizontal flow. These
have a much higher cleansing rate and so can be made smaller, thus
saving space. However, they are somewhat more complicated to construct.
These operate on a similar principle to the plastic filter box but
again, they have a huge aesthetic advantage.
I have hardly scratched the surface of this fascinating subject, but the main point is that you are helping Nature to do what she does already, rather than taking control with technology.
Water in its purest form is the most simple of compounds – two atoms
of hydrogen to one of oxygen – yet it is possibly one of the least
understood “elements” on this planet. Strange, when it covers 70% of
the globe and our bodies are 70% water. We take it for granted now,
when once we considered it sacred. There is little appreciation of
water; we no longer walk to the well, there is no effort involved and
seemingly no end to its availability – except there is, but that’s not
what this article is about.
I want to try and inspire a deeper appreciation of this element
(not used to describe its chemical properties, for it is, as stated
above, a compound), we need to reconnect with it as the source of life
and spirit. I’ve worked with water for many years, building ponds and
experimenting with biofilters and natural cleansing methods. I work
intuitively, not scientifically and am the first to admit to large gaps
in my knowledge, with a path of learning ahead of me that still looks
impossibly steep! Yet the more you explore the qualities of water, the
more you get drawn in: the secret of life itself lies in there. To that
end, I have recently gone back to building new water features and
greywater systems myself, for there is no substitution for hands-on
experience and observation.
That water has properties “beyond the obvious” is a no-brainer –
you can observe many of these for yourself. Understanding what exactly
they are, how they are generated or destroyed, and just how far they go,
is another matter altogether. You cannot investigate water for long
without coming across the name of “Viktor Schauberger” an Austrian
forester who investigated/discovered/rediscovered the more mystical
properties of water during the first half of the 20th centaury.
So where do we begin, on a journey to a greater understanding of water? That’s difficult, but let’s start with what we can see: the way that water moves. Our mathematical minds tell us that the quickest way from A to B is in a straight line, but water doesn’t move like that, even when it could (in fact, nothing in nature does). Water moves in a never-ending series of spirals and vortices. Why? because that way water is energised; it generates or attracts minute electrical charges and controls it’s temperature, moving as close to the optimum of 4° C, when it is at its most dense (it expands either side of this point). This vortical movement causes the winding motion that we see in rivers once they reach the valley bottoms and plains, and the eddies and swirls you can plainly see in any moving body of water.
Vortical movement is centripetal, rather than centrifugal. It uses the force of implosion, rather than explosion. This form of movement gathers force and energy, rather than dissipating it outwards. Straight away this seems odd to us, for we are used to a science and technology based solely on the force of the centrifugal, explosive, dissipative; which inevitably must lead to loss and entropy. That Nature uses a different form of energy seems unreasonable to the scientific mind. It has been said that there is endless energy that can be captured from the movement of water (not from hydro-electric use) and if we could efficiently split water into oxygen and hydrogen by electrolysis then we could capture energy with water as the only emissions; but I do know that the way that water moves is strongly bound up with its health, and so the health of all life, and that is an area that interests me greatly.
Schauberger states that water tries to maintain itself at its greatest density of 4°C; then it has greatest energy and the water is at its most “enlivened” state. The problem with this is that it is difficult to measure or assess by conventional scientific means; this does not mean, however, that it is cannot be true. What we can say, however, is that water in its most natural state is the most healthy, and so at its best for both ourselves and the environment.
Water may also carries memory, which accounts for whether it is in an “enlivened” state or not. In homeopathy, a benign substance is diluted to the point where it is chemically nonexistent, but potentially very active, and this is based upon the latent memory of water. This is also true of pollutants, whose influence can still be there even once the source has been removed. Fortunately, water will self-heal if only allowed to move in its natural rhythms. The design of Flowforms is one response to this, allowing water to regain it’s own energizing movement, and other devices, such as spiralled copper coils and units containing pre-energised water are all said to effect and energise water that flows past them. I have no particular view about this, but then, I haven’t done any tests on such devises and of course, knowing how to measure potential results is always the problem. In pond ecosystems, health can be largely determined through observation and I prefer this approach, where the results of alteration can be seen in biological response.
There are a number of issues I have experimented with at times: enhancing the natural rhythms of water movement, enhancing biological activity in breaking down pollutants, and incorporating ornamental pond systems with purification of household greywater discharge, rainwater harvesting and garden irrigation. All these things require biological understanding and observation but to my mind, they most of all require an open mind and a sense of respect, an acknowledgement that water is in fact precious and scared.
I live in an area surrounded by intensive agriculture, which extracts groundwater to irrigate vast monocultures of salad crops. This is the worst kind of abuse of water, treating it as an inexhaustible utility, to pollute with herbicides, insecticides and fertiliser runoff. Mankind’s ignorance and lack of respect for the most fundamental and vital element on this planet can only lead to exhaustion, depletion and pollution on such a scale that the very existence of all life is put under threat. We need to look for the highest potential of life, not the lowest common denominator. Time to get critical in our thinking, and get connected back to deeper understandings.
The most exciting thing is that understanding water truly can reveal the secrets of life. Through appreciating this simplest, yet most profound element, I believe that humankind can come to a greater appreciation of himself, and his place in the Universe.