Animal House: Thoughts on Cross-Species Design Collaborations

Dog-houses and bird-houses have always made me somewhat uneasy. They are strange products and additionally strange terms. What does "house" mean to a bird or a dog? Moreover, what business do we have building homes for another species? What determines the correct design parameters for another animal — i.e. if you could interview a canine or avian client, what would they require in their so-called house? More light? A better view? Perhaps, like most humans in America, they mainly want more closet space. Of course, there are some specific design criteria that will determine the success and failure of an animal habitat (size of entrance, protection from heat and cold, protection from predators), but overall, will your dog prefer a gabled roof, or a flat roof? Does the local blue-jay like white or red exterior paint on his feeder? Does it matter? Probably not. So when we speak of a dog-house, what are we really talking about? And more generally, when we speak of architecture and animals and architecture for or by animals, what can-of-worms are we opening (figuratively, though maybe also literally, speaking)? 

These are exactly the questions that are posed, examined, discussed, and re-posed on AnimalArchitecture.org, a web-based platform dedicated to an ongoing investigation into the performative role of design in ecology. The project operates on the edge between humans and our surrounding "others" — illuminating alternative ways of living with nonhuman animals, discussing cross-species collaborations, and defining new frameworks for biologic design. Since its inception in 2008, Animal Architecture has juried two international competitions, posted over 180 different projects, reviewed texts, generated unique content, participated in exhibitions, received coverage in local, national and international press, and released ground breaking work in the field of biologically-open architecture. Through the years, Animal Architecture has been able to amass a critical number of projects that have begun to coalesce into a significant body of work, and in many circles, Animal Architecture has become a resource on radical ecological design strategies. 

Most basically, Animal Architecture is interested in answering the two questions posed above: "What does architecture mean to another species?" and "How does that new understanding reshape our own human architectural practice?" We go about investigating these questions by examining the field of cross-species design. On AnimalArchitecture.org one can find projects about bat towers, bird bricks, insect hotels, oyster reefs, wildlife preserves, living structures, and even a guesthouse made by a cow. Each of these projects reflects a growing movement within the design world that seeks to reinvent our own sense of humanity and reinterpret the way we humans interact with our companion species. Taken as a whole, 

Animal Architecture presents publicly, for the first time, a curated, organized collection of works demonstrating powerful collaborations between human and non-human architects. More than simply an exercise in design, however, these project have the potential to redirect how we build and live in a dynamic and diverse world. 

What would this world look like? True, there’s an underlying utopian view to many animal architecture projects. And there's also no denying that the urge to romanticize the past, when humans lived in a closer relationship to other animals, is very strong in many of the projects. But overall, in surveying the nearly 200 animal architecture projects online, the vast majority present a kind of alternate-reality or near-reality world-view. The projects suggest that not much of our world would need to be altered to effect significant positive change in the lives and habitats of our eco-cohorts. But what's the benefit? Why should we actively engage animals in design? 

Firstly, this is a logical next step in the larger environmental movement. After decades of energy and environments, animal architecture invites designers to become pro-active, shifting language to "engaging" and "activating" those environments and the biological agents within them. Clearly, there are design strategies that can serve as inspiration for architectural endeavors, but our interests lie in the benefits of partnering and co-opting the design practices of our cohabitor species, exploring resilient structural systems, redefining sustainability, and looking at soft-systems of cohabitation. There are some symbiotic health benefits as well: mosquito-eating bats keep malaria at bay; bees that pollinate crops increase urban agriculture yields; and urban predators (owls, eagles, and hawks) keep other smaller rodent animal populations in check without chemical or mechanical means. But largely, the work of Animal Architecture is about recognizing that we are not alone in the world. This planet that we are so desperately trying to save from ourselves is not only ours — the lives of billions of other animals are entwined with our own story. As global resources for much of life — water, food, and clean air — become more scarce, and as global environmental changes become increasingly catastrophic, it would seem that an attitude of "we're all in this together" might do us some good. Ethically, the message is about coexistence and tolerance; in practice, it’s about expanding "architecture" to no longer address only one species of life, but to encompass the global needs of the humanimal population. 

Visit AnimalArchitecture.org to see what we find out. 

Ned Dodington, Assoc. AIA, is founder and director of Animal Architecture. The gallery of images for this article consists of projects submitted to Barkitecture Houston doghouse design competitions.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect November/December 2013.