• Axonometric drawing of Multispecies Lounge - image by Double Happiness (Nerea Feliz and Joyce Hwang, AIA) with Michelle A. Franks

Nonhuman species are critical to our existence. How can we better consider them in our work?

From the onset of a project, the amount of analysis and stakeholder input an architect must manage is staggering. Not only do design teams have to meet clients’ needs and expectations, but projects must be designed and constructed on time and within budget, all while ensuring the safety and wellness of future occupants. Not surprisingly, considerations for nonhuman life are mostly absent from programming meetings and user interviews. Design teams conduct early site analysis to determine nature’s impact on a project, but this is primarily focused on studies of wind and solar patterns, availability of natural resources, and the geological characteristics of the site. (Larger, federally funded projects are the exception and may require more in-depth environmental impact statements that detail a project’s potential effects on wildlife habitats and endangered species.) Typically, nonhuman life is seen as a nuisance to development and is carefully controlled on a project site, but in fact it is key to humanity’s existence on this planet. So how can architects design the built environment to be friendlier to nonhuman life? 

The Impact of the Built Environment on Wildlife

Texas’s continued urbanization has been well studied and documented in recent years. The state’s considerable population growth has caused urban sprawl, driven by thousands of construction projects that have contributed to wildlife habitat loss. This, in combination with severe weather events, limited water sources, and the introduction of invasive species, has brought about numerous ecological imbalances that jeopardize native flora and fauna. The loss of these key species threatens not only the environment but, for example, the livelihoods of farmers, who rely on insect eaters to reduce pesticide use in agriculture, and even the general food supply, which is made vulnerable as pollinators decrease at an alarming rate.  In addition, biodiversity loss threatens the production of many medicines as well as materials used for clothing and building that are derived from natural sources.

It is critical that architects begin to consider how mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects can become stakeholders in our designs. Why should they do this? Ned Dodington, AIA, founder of The Expanded Environment, a nonprofit organization dedicated to demonstrating ways to integrate nonhuman life into the built world, comments: “From a moral and ethical standpoint, it’s a positive and good thing to design for others and it’s good for biodiversity. There’s an argument to the benefits of biodiversity—immune system improvements, psychological well-being, and production of urban agriculture.”

Even the “pests” and misunderstood creatures like raccoons, bats, snakes, and bees have roles to play that create economic impact. The different regions in the state grapple with their own range of wildlife, including prairie dogs in the Panhandle, bats and white-tailed deer in the Hill Country, mountain lions and black bears in the Big Bend area, and migrating birds in South Texas. Prairie dogs, often regarded as pests due to their constant burrowing, are considered a keystone species as they affect nearly 150 other species through their role in transforming grasslands, building habitats, and serving as prey. Bats play an integral role in pest control and crop pollination, saving the U.S. agricultural industry more than $3 billion per year through the prevention of crop damage and reduced pesticide costs. Several species, including deer, mountain lions, and birds, have created conservation or hunting tourism for the state that is worth millions of dollars. 

Encounters with wildlife have become almost unavoidable as foxes roam cities and suburbs throughout the night and feral hogs invade 253 of 254 counties in the state. Joyce Hwang, AIA, an architect and professor at the University at Buffalo in New York, states that wildlife “is part of the planet that we live on—the more you ignore the fact that we share the planet with other species, the more you’ll have to deal with the consequences later.” 

In recent years, strange occurrences and large-scale events involving wildlife have garnered media attention. Texas Tech University added animal service staff to its football games in 2017 after multiple instances of foxes running onto the football field. Central Texans were shocked to discover thousands of dead bats on the streets that had frozen to death during Winter Storm Uri in 2021. The city of Seguin experienced a power outage in 2022 when a raccoon struck a major transformer. Simply put, humans are increasingly encountering wildlife as we encroach upon their habitats, and we need to learn how to better live with our nonhuman neighbors.

Ned Dodington acknowledges that “most architects design for one species.” He says, “It’s a detriment since there’s obviously other animals and beings living around our buildings.” Dodington began his work studying how animals and architecture collide while in graduate school at Rice University in 2005. (The September/October 2014 issue of Texas Architect featured his project PURCH [Positioned Urban Roosts for Civic Habitation], which included a series of bird feeding and nesting structures proposed throughout Houston.) Dodington is now an architect residing in Minnesota, and his work focuses on providing a space for creatives nationwide to share their ideas and prototypes. He notes that many of the projects featured on The Expanded Environment website “focus on the three Bs—birds, bats, and bees, [which] makes sense because it gets a little bit harder for folks to design projects for rats, pests, and [other] animals that people don’t think are pleasant.” 

Cohabitating with Other Species 

Projects featured on The Expanded Environment website include several by Joyce Hwang, who formed an architecture and research practice that creatively interacts with nonhuman life. One of her early projects, Bat Tower, is an outdoor sculptural installation in Buffalo, New York, that provides space for bats to roost and plants to attract insects. Hwang’s work brings visibility to a species that is being dramatically affected by white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease that is decimating bat populations throughout the country and was first detected in Texas in 2020. Perforated stained wood panels shade the upper portion of the tower, which is comprised of 400 milled wooden ribs that form twisting triangles. Bats feed on mosquitos at the adjacent pond and enter the tower through wooden ribs. 

Hwang has continued to build awareness of bats and their habitats through other projects, including Bat Cloud and Habitat Wall, and her habitat prototypes extend to various species of birds as well. Bower, a collection of bird nesting boxes attached to a structural wood frame, was built in Lewiston, New York. Set in a densely wooded park, its design intends to promote awareness of local bird species and the threat that glass windows pose to birds in general.

Hwang collaborated with University of Texas at Austin architecture professor Nerea Feliz on Multispecies Lounge, a public furniture installation in Toronto comprised of towering bird perches and nests that are set above gabion seating filled with concrete debris in hopes of attracting local insects and snakes. The architects carefully considered how birds and insects would view the structures and incorporated UV-reflective graphics. They also created videos that capture the “voices” of local species and explain what life is like for insects and animals in an urban environment. When discussing cohabitation with other species, Hwang explains: “A lot more work is happening at a larger scale in Europe. Full-on buildings have habitat walls. [There are] bricks that have bird cavities, bat bricks…. [There is] a more readily available stock of materials that allow habitats to take place.” 

The Expanded Environment also features designs and prototypes by Sarah Gunawan, an architect and educator in Los Angeles. Gunawan’s work focuses on engaging humans and animals in a typical suburban home through her series of designs that she terms “prosthetics” for cohabitation. Compost Chimney is a bird-dwelling chimney that provides a food waste chamber with a soil aeration device operated by hungry raccoons. The chimney is meant to be added to a house with minor modifications beyond a trash shoot for food waste. Extended Eave replaces a roof’s gutter system with eaves that function as a large bird bath and that integrate nest cavities along a modified downspout. Habitat Dormer is another home extension that creates wall cladding for bat roosting and a barn owl cavity that keeps the oversized birds safe from human harm. Small prototypes of Habitat Dormer and Extended Eave were created for Gunawan’s thesis, “Synanthropic Suburbia.” This thoughtful design, intended to encourage suburban homeowners to interact more with other species, makes one wish that Compost Chimneys was already constructed and tested rather than purely theoretical so that we might learn how raccoons, opossums, and other species would react to being welcomed by humans.  

However, designs that consider other species in the built environment are not primarily abstract. Designers across the world are pushing to incorporate the needs of other species into architecture and infrastructure. Landscape architects often advocate for native pollinator gardens and work with transportation departments to create wildlife passages near highways. Engineers are considering how to incorporate bat-friendly designs into new bridges. Even experimental facades and material designs are pushing the boundaries through green walls that incorporate insects and other wildlife. While there is still much research needed to understand how humans can better live with different wildlife species, one area in particular that has received considerable attention is bird-friendly building design.

Bird-Friendly Building Design 

In 2017, nearly 400 migratory birds were killed in a single night in Galveston after striking a 32-story skyscraper. Houston Audubon and the building owner, the American National Insurance Company, launched Lights Out Texas to respond to the catastrophe using science-based methods. Several preventative measures were implemented weeks after the event, including turning off floodlights during the spring migration period, installing green safety lights along the top of the tower, and the utilization of BirdCast migration maps to forecast flight patterns. BirdCast, a group of interdisciplinary researchers dedicated to studying and monitoring bird migration, reports that an estimated one billion U.S. bird deaths occur annually from collisions with buildings and other structures. Lights Out Texas is now operated by Audubon Texas and has engaged communities, universities, and businesses statewide to commit to small measures that save birds—and protect a crucial piece of the Texas economy. The Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute reports that in the Rio Grande Valley alone, “nature tourism—which is dominated by bird watching—contributes $300 million to the economy and supports 4,407 full- and part-time jobs annually.” 

Architects can take meaningful steps to help bird populations, reduce nighttime light pollution, and protect nature tourism. The New York City Audubon chapter and the American Bird Conservancy have published a guide entitled Bird-Friendly Building Design, which provides solutions that can be applied to existing buildings and new construction. Connie Sanchez, the Bird-friendly Buildings manager for the National Audubon Society, says research shows that Lights Out efforts are working. Multiple studies in Chicago and Philadelphia found that since implementing Lights Out programs, buildings are experiencing a 60 to 70 percent reduction in bird collision deaths. “Light is only part of the problem,” states Sanchez. “There is so much more to be done as we think about bird-friendly building design and retrofits on glass, which can help even more to reduce bird collisions.” Chloe Saucedo-Crumley of Audubon Texas engages with design teams across the state and highlights that “with new buildings in our major cities and along the coastline, it is imperative designers and architects consider the impact the design can have on the one billion birds migrating through Texas annually.” 

The building design guide outlines several initiatives available to designers, including pursuing the USGBC LEED credit for bird collision deterrence, which requires developers to quantify the threat level that different materials and design details have on birds and to adopt specific lighting types. One of Audubon’s focuses is on ways architects can reduce the amount of glass on a facade, as studies show that more glass on a building leads to more bird deaths. In addition to reducing glass, says Sanchez, designers should consider adding “decorative screens, solar shades, window films, and bird-friendly glass, such as patterned glass, acid etching, decals, stained glass, and frosted glass.”

Design features that are often harmful to birds include mirrored glass, plantings on setbacks and rooftops, and confusing glass walkways and atriums. Additionally, the building design guide provides owners with information on how to select better light fixtures, implement light schedules, retrofit windows on a budget, and monitor bird collisions. Sanchez notes that contrary to common belief, “most collisions are happening in low-rise buildings,” which goes unnoticed as “predators take birds and birds often fly into homes and die elsewhere.” Audubon Texas and its Lights Out program encourage homeowners to turn off all nonessential lights from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., limit or remove landscape lighting on trees, and consider dark-sky friendly practices for essential lights (for example, aim lights down, use shields and motion detectors, and close window blinds). With the in-depth design guidelines and awareness provided by Lights Out programs, architects and building owners can take immediate steps to prevent bird deaths.

Understanding that nonhuman life is integral to humanity’s survival on Earth is key for this generation’s designers, engineers, builders, and creatives. Once we see other species in this way, we understand the need to consider them in the built environment. Hwang believes that “as designers, we should accept it’s part of what we design with, just like the sun and water—when we do site analysis, you have to look at life, including flora and fauna as part of the context.” When beginning any new project, consider discussing how birds will interact with the building envelope or glazing types. A more daring challenge is to find ways to truly integrate habitats by inviting nonhuman life into the project. Like it or not, architecture will someday be forced to adapt to coexist with other species—our own existence depends on it. 

JuanRaymon Rubio, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at Architexas in Austin, where he works on historic preservation projects across the state.

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