Natural Life Magazine

John Todd Demonstrates Ecological Design

Ecological Design with John Todd
Photo © John Todd
Imagine a waste-water treatment plant in a greenhouse filled with plants and fish. Imagine a lake being cleaned of pollutants by a windmill-driven, floating island of plants. Imagine a cathedral celebrating the diversity of nature. John Todd has imagined all those things, and more. He's also designed and built them.

John Todd is a Canadian-born ecological designer whose creations reflect his vision. His work began in the late 1960s when he founded the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1980 he founded Ocean Arks International, a non-profit organization for research into the protection and restoration of water. Ocean Arks is based in Falkland, Massachusetts. Today, Todd is perhaps best known as the inventor of the solar aquatic system which uses the properties of natural systems to clean waste water.

John Todd spoke and showed slides of his work at the Designing for the Environment Symposium of the International Interior Design Exposition in Toronto, Canada. Here's some of what he said.

“What is ecology? For me, it is the story of relationships over evolutionary time. These are the relationships between different types of beings in the inanimate world and the dynamic processes that are ongoing over long, long periods of time. Therefore it can be argued that ecology is the story of relationships which are able to persist in a world in which change is constant.

“So then, what is ecological design? Ecological design is, in my view, the application of these relationships to human need and to the integration of humanity with the large natural world that surrounds us. In other words, the intelligence – or the wisdom, if you will – that occurs in a forest, or in a lake, or a river, or a rich meadow.

“What is intrinsic to these systems about cycles, about nutrients, about time, and pulse, that allows them to span great periods of time and still have the ability to restore, to self-heal, to carry on? What are the instructions to these systems? What do they know that we don't know? The decoding of that information is ecological design. And its application in the real world of supporting the human family also is an example of ecological design.

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A Living System in Action

“Then, next – I use the word a lot – living machine. I'm often asked, what is a living machine? Well, it's very different than a dead machine! And those differences are really rather extraordinary when you start to think about it. A dead machine, over time, will wind down and wear out...although some people working in intelligent machines are trying to find machines that don't do that. But, ironically enough, they're looking back to nature to figure out how to do it.

“In its essence a living machine is a machine that's self-designed, that self-repairs and in theory has the possibility of being almost immortal. It is also solar powered; in other words, a living machine derives its fundamental energy from light in the sky.

“The other things about living machines which make them different from dead machines – or from machines that use organisms like fermenting machines or some sewage treatment machines – is that living machines have all forms of all levels of life, from microscopic bacteria up through to the algae, the higher forms of life, the snails, the clams, the fish and so on up through the vertebrates. The reason a living machine – if it's a mature one – has this vast ecological diversity in it is because, over time (say a half billion years roughly) each of these levels has a key role in self-regulation of the whole and we find when we design to serve human beings, the same thing seems to be true.

“The final thing about living machines is that they are designed to do work. And by work I mean to grow food, to generate fuels, keep cool and regulate buildings, treat waste, and integrate all of the above.

“One of the interesting things that we're beginning to discover, in both theoretical studies and actual studies, is that system-centred design in the image of nature using processes that are intrinsic to the workings of the forest can be orders of magnitude more efficient in terms of energy and nutrient than anything that contemporary human engineers can build today. In other words, the underlying possibility, in an age of ecology, is that we will be able to support the human family on roughly one-tenth the footprint that is required today. For those of you who are lovers of wild systems that basically means that 90 percent of the planet might have a chance of being given back to itself.

“So today, when I show you 20 years of various kinds of experiments, I'd like you to keep in mind that you're basically looking at UNIVACs. These were the 1955 computers where they knocked out the sides of buildings so that the computer could fit in to run the insurance company. And keep in mind the laptop of today and the great differences of only a few decades. What I'd like to do now is take you through a series of stories and experiments and show some of the possibilities that are able to transform the built environment.”

John Todd shows the first slide, of an early project, the Cape Cod Ark.

“This is a 20-year-old experiment in ecological design. The idea was to see if it would be possible to create a barn of the 21st century which was powered by the sun, augmented by the wind, and which would contain ecological cycles that would produce, without the recurring use of fossil fuels, significant amounts of food for human beings in a year-round setting.

“In its essence, a living machine is a machine that's self-designed, that self-repairs and in theory has the possibility of being almost immortal. It is also solar powered; in other words, a living machine derives its fundamental energy from light in the sky."

“It was built in the side of a hill with multiple dimensions. It was able to capture its own rainwater, which it brought inside, in which fish were cultured. The building stayed warm, without any external fuel and in fact ripened bananas throughout the winter season. The three- dimensional light environments were very highly productive and, in order to increase their productivity – in this case with fish – the water was circulated through the root complexes of higher plants. Here the terrestrial component is purifying the aquatic component and the aquatic component is feeding the terrestrial component.

“This, in 1976, seemed like very quixotic technology, but in the subsequent period it has become one of the dominant producers of protein in New England in the winter months. One of the facilities now produces 35,000 pounds a day of fish alone. This concept of ecosystem food production is becoming a very important part of the emerging agricultural ecology in the region. There are a number of examples of hot new companies which grew out of this tiny structure.”

Todd moves to a series of slides of The Ark, developed in 1976 in Prince Edward Island as an experiment in sustainable living.

“Now we're moving a little north to Prince Edward Island. Here the idea was to take the concept one step further into a more rugged climate and incorporate into it the idea of housing, food production, and create a structure which would be the epicentre for ecological restoration. It was designed to be not entirely unplugged, but along the way.

“The rainbow trout were cultured indoors in the fall and winter, and were acclimated to the seawater in the spring and caged out in the ocean nearby in the summer and fall. Work that went on in that building is really one of the impetuses to P.E.I. being a very important centre for aquaculture.

“There was also the idea of the basic unwritten law: If you generate waste, do something with it. Here, all the organic materials and cuttings and everything else were internally composted within the facility. The other idea was not to be electrically independent but electrically co-generated. We put together a team of engineers and developed a technology called hydro-wind, because it used hydraulics for the transfer of energy. This system was operated successfully. Alas for Prince Edward Island the whole team was taken away to California.

“This experiment didn't last a long time but it produced an extraordinary group of people who have gone on to do exceptional things, both in the international community and throughout Canada.

“By the early to mid 1980s we began to start to lose close friends to death by cancer and it really shook us. The question was, why? One of our quests took us to the quality of water. Basically what we found was that, at least in some of the towns we were involved with, the situation was terrible.”

Another set of slides, this time of a highly polluted pond site in Harwich, Massachusetts.

“This is a pit in the ground, in a small, innocent New England town. In that pit are all of the priority pollutants; it's where cesspool wastes and wastes from small industry were dumped. That pit, in coarse sand, was 25 feet above the water table of that town. This is a story that is happening all over the continent. It isn't just Harwich, Massachusetts. And looking in that pit, I'm asking the question: Why aren't these pits being cleaned up... and quickly? And the answer was this stuff is fairly nasty. It's 35 to 100 times more concentrated than sewage. In the case of this pit, it had very high levels of heavy metals and all of the priority pollutants – those that are considered dangerous to our health.

“The answer I got was, it just costs too much. The second question was, why don't we take it to our sewage plant? And the answer was we do, but sewage plant operators don't want it any more than anybody else. And so, thinking of the friends who were ill, I began to try and conceive of ways in which these wastes could be treated.

“This is the first experiment. What you have is 21 giant aquariums connected on a hillside. The waste is pumped into one end and flows out the other. The retention time is 12 days. Basically, you're looking at an extraordinary range of life forms, well over 1000 species. I went to many different aquatic environments – at least 20 – and asked them to contribute their organisms and their lifeforms for this system, because what we had in those tanks, with that waste, was an ecology that the world has never seen before. What you had to do was basically ask thousands of actors to come into this ecological play because those actors in some strange and new combination would break down compounds that are normally not breakable.

“And it worked. All of the priority pollutants were 100 percent removed but one, which was 99.9 percent removed; heavy metals were sequestered in ways which were meeting drinking water standards, and nutrients were removed to a large degree and human pathogens were down to well below swimming water standards.

“What that experiment told us is that life has capabilities and capacities that need to be re-engineered and reorganized and if we re-engineered and reorganized them, then we have the possibility of cleaning up rogue molecules, many of which we aren't even aware of because they're not on the lists.

“That was 1988. By the next year a commercial facility was built inside a greenhouse because it was year-round. It treated all of the town's waste in the fall, winter, and spring and a quarter of the town's summer volume. After an intensive period of time, that technology was validated by the state of Massachusetts for septage treatment.”

Learn More

From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design by Nancy Jack Todd, John Todd (North Atlantic Books, 1994)

Learning a Lesson from Nature - John Todd's Living System in Action from Natural Life Magazine, July/August 1996

This article was published in 1995.

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