Building an Ecologically Balanced
Living Space

Barbara Mannion
1991 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute

Canopy photosynthesis Transfer of leaf nutrients to litter Dormant period Rapid growth of understory plants
Understory photosynthesis reduced Fruit drops (food for consumers, seed dispersal Nutrients in storage as leaf litter, fruit, and animal fat Release of nutrients from litter (bacteria,fungi)
Transfer of nutrients to leaves Indirect consumption by carnivores Respiration exceeds photosynthesis 
Conversion:of leaves into biomass  Understory microclimate variable 
Understory microclimate fairly uniform     


Students design and build an ecologically balanced living space based on the principles of an old--growth forest.


A stable ecosystem is dependent on the balanced interactions of fungi, bacteria, humans, animals, land, atmosphere, housing industry and humans Such a system can be designed taking the following principles as guidelines:
  1. Living responsibly
  2. Perpetual agriculture
  3. High yields
  4. Stable land
  5. Low maintenance
  6. High profit

The main features of this program are taught at the introductory level by David Laffie, THE ENVIRONMENTAL SOCIETY P.O. Box 5 COLOANE, MACAU, and is referred to as "permaculture." The principles of permaculture, based on the work of Australian scientists Bill Mollison and David Holgren, were utilized in an actual design project by Max O. Lindegger in his Crystal Waters Community project in Australia.

The model for this revolutionay design is based on the structure of old growth forests. This natural system has developed of millions of years and results in stability and yields which surpass those of agriculture. The main characteristics in the yearly cycle of a typical deciduous forest is shown in the diagram on the second page.

The interface between one cycle and the next is the leaf litter on the forest floor. Here the fungus and the bacteria decompose the the litter formed in one cycle (leaves, animal waste, and dead animal bodies) into nutrients for the next. The litter supplies the earth beneath with nutrients. The earth itself is a living substance (an investigation of the Gaia hypothesis may be a good extension at this point) which further transforms the nutrients into usable substances. The root sytem transfers the nutrients from the soil back into the vegetation in preparation for the next growth cycle. (Other forests, such as the coniferous forests and temperate rain forests follow similar cycles of decomposition and regeneration of nutrients.)

I discussed this information with my students and their learning about ecosystems conceptualized. After an in--depth study of the forest cycle, students made the important connections between the interactions of biological, physical and chemical parameters which lead to the stability of this balanced system. Placing humans,their industry and housing into this scenario shows how this self--sustaining cycle can quickly disintegrate with catastrophic environmental consequences. The idea is therefore to use the forest cycle principles in the actual design of housing and industry.


I asked my students to take just one part of a house (or structure in the community) and redesign it according to the principles of the forest cycle. (I use teams of three and required a spending limit of $3.00 for new materials for which they had to show receipts, no limits were placed on used materials).They had access to resources within the building (AG teacher, drafting instructor, a computer CAD-system). Outside the building I arranged for architects, farmers, university extension services, engineers, plumbers, electricians, irrigation specialists, etc. to come in for brainstorming sessions. Another important resource are our own students from diverse cultural backgrounds who were able to discuss "ecological" designs of houses which have been used in their countries for centuries (just without the label.)

The insights the students made during the project brought the realtiy of the ecosystem to them. No longer were they (man) outside observers but they found themselves intricately interwoven in every aspect , every cycle, every dimension of their planet.

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