February 07, 2011

An Interview with Josiah Cain of Design Ecology

by: Taz Loomans


Josiah Cain and his firm Design Ecology, based in Petaluma, California, do something I had never heard of before.  They design living built environments.  The work they do includes things like living roofs, living walls, rain harvesting, natural swimming pools, graywater recycling, stormwater management, urban agriculture and sustainable landscapes.  Josiah and his multi-disciplinary team are breaking new ground in adding to the things we build an element of natural nourishment, whereas traditional buildings normally deplete their natural environment without giving anything back.  I’m so excited to hear Josiah speak at Rogue Green this Thursday!  See the end of this post for more information.

Below is my interview with Josiah:

Blooming Rock: What is Design Ecology?

Josiah Cain: Design Ecology is our firm name and it is also our approach, which we are very passionate about. We are an interdisciplinary group of designers, including landscape architecture, architecture, and civil engineering. By integrating these in a collaborative environment, we are able to connect things in ways not always possible in a conventional design process. As the name suggests, we create living ecological spaces that are restorative and regenerative, ultimately becoming part of the functional ecology of the planet. Design Ecology is an ecological process designed and built by human beings.

Blooming Rock: What are some of the cool projects you’re working on?

Josiah Cain: We are very excited about a wetland interpretive center we are working on in Huntington Beach, with the architecture firm ZGF. The project includes over 15,000 square feet of living roof, 160,000 gallons of rainwater storage and reuse, and a series of landscape elements that filter stormwater from the surrounding area. This idea of protecting adjacent wetlands from pollutants in urban runoff by creating constructed natural filtration systems is consistent with the idea of Regenerative Design. This also provides habitat, and is a Net Zero Water project, meaning the site will generate at least as much water as it uses. The project is owned by a non-profit wetland group, and they are seeking funding to implement construction.

Another project we are excited about is a large LEED platinum residence in Malibu, another Net Zero Water project. We are recycling sewage on the property for subsurface irrigation, the first permit for this we know of in that city. We figure using an additional 20,000 gallons of rain storage will allow us to irrigate, top off fountains, and keep the swimming pool full without using any potable water. I should mention on the residential front, we also recently designed and installed a gorgeous living wall for Charlize Theron in Hollywood and we are working on a vegetated retaining wall for a long driveway in Marin County.

We are also working on several large urban redevelopment mixed use projects, designing living roofs, living walls, rainwater catchment, graywater, and infiltration gardens. One of them has several hundred feet of streetscape as well, and we are trying hard to green the street edge with natural stormwater capture and so forth.

As for up and coming (projects), we have recently been asked to assist in designing a vegetated wall air filtration system for a large office tower, and also to design a 4-story urban agriculture greenhouse for food production.

Blooming Rock: How do you think smart ecology design will change the world?

Josiah Cain: Well certainly landscapes are becoming more functional. We are seeing design for performance, rather than the traditional pastoral or anthrogenic aesthetic. Landscapes are becoming more than a place to relax, recreate, or take in the view, these spaces are becoming building and infrastructure integrated spaces that solve major problems in our cities. These solutions include preventing overheating, air and water filtration, pollinator habitat, stormwater management, reducing energy use, reducing water use. Virtually every aspect of the modern city operates more efficiently with ecological integration.

Blooming Rock: How much do you rely on and learn from nature in your ecology design?

Josiah Cain: Completely. Our designs rely on assessing conditions on the site, understanding the natural systems we are engaging with, and designing at a scale that can be integrated. So there is the scale of local ecology, and there is the functional processes that are occurring. It is our goal to design projects that do not interrupt natural systems and processes. Sometimes that requires extra technology, to reduce impacts to a level that the environment can metabolize them.

Blooming Rock: What are some of the cool new technological innovations that are helping you fulfill your mission at Design Ecology?

Josiah Cain: There are so many great things going on right now. Certainly some of the biological fixed media sewage treatment systems are exciting, that are able to convert sewage to irrigation in an underground box. We are using a biodegradable foam material to create living walls, and these are supported by very sophisticated irrigation technology that can inject specific amounts of nutrients, compost tea, minerals, and other plant support additives. We are working with a floating island system that can be planted, created from recycled PET. They have created vegetated habitat islands for otters, terns, turtles, and the like, and with a simple solar powered aeration disk, these plastic islands become high-rate water filtration systems that use plants and microbiology to clean up polluted water bodies.

Blooming Rock: What one piece of information do you want to leave us with regarding ecology design?

Josiah Cain: Urbanization is a process of Geomorphology; we are reforming the surface of the planet at an alarming rate. If you take a look around, it doesn’t take long to notice that nearly all natural morphology includes a living epidermis, that not only supports life but also handles nearly all of the problems we are struggling with — polluted water and air, stormwater and flooding, carbon sequestration, temperature modulation, food production, support of animals for food. Everything we know is part of this superficial membrane that covers the earth.  We are just beginning to understand the process of designing such an integral, living, high performance epidermis onto our built environment.

Don’t miss your chance to hear Josiah speak this Thursday, February 10 at Rogue Green, 6-9pm at PURL.  And it’s FREE admission thanks to the sponsor of the event Emergency Restoration Experts.  And also thanks to Stacey Champion and Keep Arizona Beautiful for making this event possible.

Photo credit: The Tempe Transportation Center’s roof garden.  Architect: Bonnie Richardson in partnership with Architekton, Landscape Architect: A Dye DesignPhoto from Parsons.

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3 Responses

  1. Elizabeth says:

    That is very cool. I love to hear about things like this: cool + great for the environment.

  2. And it was possible to keep the event FREE thanks to our wonderful event Sponsor, Emergency Restoration Experts – erexperts.net

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Josiah Raison Cain and Heather Gadonniex, Rogue Green. Rogue Green said: http://bloomingrock.com/?p=1848 […]

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