Creature Comforts

A landscape architect and a biologist team up to counter urban biodiversity loss.

By Nate Berg 

Image by Sophie Jahnke.

A hawk glides overhead. An egret perches alongside a pedestrian walkway. Butterflies flutter in the foreground. From across the spectrum of the animal kingdom they appear in the drawings and renderings of modern architecture and landscape projects, hinting at a harmony between the designed space and the natural world. The projects, these animal cameos suggest, are not just urban developments, but healthy and diverse habitats.

“I won’t say it’s a lie, but these are big promises,” says Thomas Hauck, a Berlin-based landscape architect and a professor at the University of Kassel, in Germany. Hauck understands these images are meant to be aspirational, to show an idealized version of the designs they represent. But, he argues, sometimes too many illustrative liberties are taken “without evidence,” especially when urban development is more likely to destroy animal habitat than create it.

Hauck isn’t saying the animals should be taken out of the renderings. Rather, he wants to ensure animals actually show up once the project is built. To make that happen, Hauck has teamed up with a biologist from the Technical University of Munich named Wolfgang Weisser. Together, they’ve developed a theoretical design approach called Animal-Aided Design that seeks to counteract the ways development harms urban biodiversity by deliberately designing projects to accommodate animal species from the start. Through the careful targeting of species most likely to inhabit a given area, their approach provides the habitat requirements those species need to thrive throughout their life cycle.

“People hang up nest boxes and wonder why they’re empty,” Weisser says. “It’s because everything else is missing.” Viable habitats, he says, must simultaneously include spaces for breeding, sources of food, places to nest, and a quantifiable list of other species-specific essentials.

He and Hauck are now creating a set of design standards to accommodate animals. Through a study they’ve conducted with housing associations across Germany, and in conjunction with two public housing agencies in Bavaria, they’ve begun testing their ideas on real projects. They hope to show that small additions to a design early on can allow an urban ecosystem to thrive. “Architecture, landscape architecture, all the professions that are using the urban spaces, they also can be producers of urban habitat,” Hauck says. “You can create it on a microscale on artificial areas like roofs or in the courtyards of houses. Every space is more or less a potential area that you can develop into a habitat.”

Hauck and Weisser met at the Technical University of Munich in 2013. Hauck was then a professor there teaching landscape architecture seminars, and Weisser had just moved from another university to take a chair position in the department of ecology and ecosystem management. An entomologist by training, he had gathered some acclaim for running one of the world’s largest biodiversity experiments, testing how varying amounts of species affect a meadow’s ecosystem.

After the move to Munich, Weisser was assigned to teach a class on ecology to landscape architecture students. “I had no clue what this was, to be honest,” he says. As he taught the course material he was surprised to discover that the students, though versed in planting design and botany, knew almost nothing about animal biology. “At some stage I asked them, ‘Where are the animals?’” Later, at a faculty meeting, he asked if any of the landscape architecture professors would be interested in a design approach that focused on animals instead of plants. Hauck was the only one to raise his hand.

The two professors were soon co-teaching a seminar that asked students to consider animals as a design issue, reimagining the grounds of a typical housing complex as an urban habitat. They realized that the students, already versed in plant selection, would need to be just as knowledgeable about the life cycles and living requirements of the animal species likely to exist on their site. Combining Weisser’s biological knowledge and Hauck’s design experience, they developed detailed profiles for several birds, bats, and insects, outlining biological needs throughout their life cycles and critical habitat factors that could be designed into a landscape or building facade. Targeting only a few species made it easy for the design students to plug in things such as nesting structures and bird boxes as well as the types of plants that could provide them food. The students used these profiles to redesign their site’s courtyard as a place that would lure and sustain the target species.

Hauck and Weisser saw the potential for this approach to be integrated into traditional development. They began drafting a manifesto, laying out the case for using development to fight back against urban biodiversity loss. With a few sample animal life cycle diagrams and three design examples to show their approach applied in Munich, Berlin, and London, they turned this manifesto into a pamphlet titled simply AAD: Animal Aided Design. “It’s like computer-aided design,” Hauck says. “It’s a little bit of a joke, but we thought, okay, architects understand that.” They printed out a few hundred copies and mailed them to cities and housing associations across Germany, asking if any would be interested in applying their approach. A few of the pamphlets also made their way to the press, and soon there were articles about Animal-Aided Design in mainstream news publications such as Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung. Their theoretical approach was getting the attention they thought it deserved. But what they really needed was a chance to show that it could work.

Out of the hundreds of cities and housing organizations that were mailed the Animal-Aided Design pamphlet, two expressed interest in giving it a try, one in Munich and the other 50 miles north in the city of Ingolstadt. Both organizations are state-owned housing providers and offered as testing grounds modest housing projects that were in the process of being developed.

Swallow nests on a building in Ingolstadt. Image courtesy Gemeinnützige Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Ingolstadt (GWG), Ingolstadt, Germany.

In Ingolstadt, the project is a newly built 161-unit housing complex spread across five buildings with a courtyard in between. Hauck and Weisser worked with the housing company, Gemeinnützige Wohnungsbaugesellschaft, or GWG, to adjust the project’s design to target three species: the house sparrow, the European hedgehog, and the red admiral butterfly.

“They told us what they would like and we’re doing it, one to one,” says Rudolf Wittmann, the head of the landscape department at GWG, speaking through an interpreter. The interventions include designing drainage areas where rainwater can collect, adding sand areas where sparrows can bathe, and affixing dozens of commercially produced bird and bat boxes to the building facades and roof areas. They’re also changing the routines of their in-house gardeners so that the green spaces have more of what these species need to thrive.

“These are quite simple things to do,” Wittmann says. “It’s sometimes about not mowing the meadow too often, just twice a year or once a year, even. And also allowing things like nettles to grow instead of getting rid of them, leaving piles of wood. It’s like wilderness. Organized wilderness.”

Hauck says simplicity is key. By narrowing in on only a few species and identifying the basic elements each requires in places such as a building’s roof or a courtyard, designing around animals is less about creating habitats from whole cloth than simply checking a few boxes off a list.

GWG has already begun adding elements of the Animal-Aided Design approach into other housing renovation projects and expects to begin planning new projects with animals in mind, Wittmann says. Residents seem to like the change as well. “We haven’t had any complaints about too many bees or too many flowers or too many butterflies,” Wittmann says.

Thomas Hauck, left, and Wolfgang Weisser. Photo by Robert Bischer.

In Munich, the project is a 99-unit expansion of an existing housing development, to replace what was once a tree-lined open space with three five-story apartment buildings. Working with the state-run housing provider GEWOFAG and its contracted designers, Hauck and Weisser have integrated bird and bat nesting spaces into the building facades and roofs and adjusted the planting plan to create more insect habitat. They’ve also helped design drawer-like nesting habitats for hedgehogs, an 18-foot sculptural bird and bat nesting pole, and a rooftop array of plantings that will test the habitat potential for insects with different soil depths and surface features. Like Weisser’s previous meadow experiment, each section of green roof will be monitored over time to determine the ideal conditions. Construction is nearly complete, and residents are expected to move in later this year.

Stefan Feller is leading the project for GEWOFAG, and he says implementing all these measures adds only a small fraction to the project’s overall multimillion-euro cost—about €15,000, which was diverted from its marketing and public relations budget. He says the costs could have been even lower if the Animal-Aided Design measures weren’t added on after the design was mostly finalized. The construction timeline, he says, allowed for only so many changes. “It’s normally very strictly and tightly planned,” Feller says, through an interpreter. “To build a house is difficult even without Animal-Aided Design.”

Despite a nearly complete design, integrating Hauck and Weisser’s suggestions “wasn’t difficult at all,” says Katrin Hauth, an architect at Munich-based Bogevischs Buero, the project’s architect. She says it was fun to find new ways of adding animal-friendly features to the project, such as the tiny crevices they opened for bat nesting spaces beneath the roof’s ledge. It will be up to future clients whether these measures can be implemented in other projects, Hauth says, “but from my side, obviously yes, I’d be glad to do so in the future.”

These positive first project experiences have validated Hauck and Weisser’s ideas, but they’ve still faced skepticism. Weisser says some traditional nature conservationists were not particularly welcoming of the idea when they mailed them their pamphlet. “They think it’s too artificial, and they think nature is basically where there is no human, and therefore it is impossible to combine conservation and humans,” Weisser says. “For them, anything that’s designed is not nature.”

Image by Rupert Schelle.

But many groups have come around to the idea. A bird conservation group in Bavaria, the Landesbund für Vogelschutz, helped advise on the Munich project, and Hauck and Weisser have received funding from Germany’s federal office of nature conservation, the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, to conduct a nationwide study of housing associations to gauge the feasibility of expanding Animal-Aided Design to new locations. Hauck and Weisser have been steadily expanding their Animal-Aided Design tool kit, creating more than 40 species profiles that designers can use to understand the life cycles and habitat requirements of the urban animals their projects might otherwise displace.

At this point, Animal-Aided Design is still an experimental idea. Only after years of monitoring these first built projects will Hauck and Weisser be able to confirm that their design interventions have indeed created the urban habitats they envision. But they remain confident. “I’m sure it works,” Weisser says. “It will be interesting to see to what extent it works.”

The lack of concrete proof isn’t stopping them from trying to spread their idea as far as they can. The two recently started their own design consultancy, Studio Animal Aided Design, and are now applying their design approach to a large-scale urban development project in Berlin that may one day replace a soon-to-be-decommissioned airport.

They are using their first projects to create a simple collection of design interventions and techniques that architects and landscape architects can add to their projects. “We want to produce specific design solutions and ideas, but also standard technical solutions that you can use,” Hauck says. “Because otherwise you always have to start new.”

Installing commercially available bat boxes. Image courtesy Gemeinnützige Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Ingolstadt (GWG), Ingolstadt, Germany.

It’s important to make it simple for designers to accommodate the needs of animals, Hauck says, because habitat and biodiversity are still somewhat fringe concerns in the big business of urban development. He and Weisser hope that someday Animal-Aided Design, by that name or not, becomes standard practice for designers, and that urban animals are able to coexist with urban development.

“If you just rely on animals coming,” Weisser says, “you’ll be disappointed.”

Nate Berg is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

2 thoughts on “Creature Comforts”

  1. I like the way these landscape architects and clients are moving forward to fill ecological gaps with solutions that may (or may not) work. Environmental fragmentation will not be totally eliminated, but genetic biodiversity may be bolstered when any site success happens.

Leave a Reply