Four-Dimensional Eco-Design

“If you want to build a better future, you must believe in secrets.”

This is the provocative sentence that greeted me when I clicked on the page for Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future. Written with Blake Masters, it has been favourably reviewed by a number of sources and made its way to The New York Times Best Sellers List.

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I first became aware of the book a couple of months ago while listening to a radio interview. The phrase that caught my attention at the time was, “How do you develop the developed world?” In my opinion, eco-design is key to answering this question.

Eco-design has secrets that must be believed. It is inherently holistic, dynamic and future-focused. One of the things I love about eco-design is that it evolves alongside changing conditions rather than remaining static. I refer to this as four-dimensional design as mentioned in last week’s column about food forests.

Time – the fourth dimension – is an integral part of eco-design in two primary ways: 1) repeating cycles such as day and night, or the changing of seasons; 2) progressive change over time such as ecological succession.

In either case, eco-design is dynamic enough to adapt to the conditions whatever they may be. From this perspective I would suggest that eco-design inspires a level of confidence in that it involves feedback loops and is always open to adjustments. This quote from Martin Luther King Jr. sums it up:

“Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.”

I have faith in eco-design.


OK, enough with the flowery language. Let’s get to some examples.

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Passive solar design makes homes warmer in winter and cooler in summer while cutting operating costs. The main factor in this win-win-win system is seasonal sun angles. A passive solar home is designed to welcome low angle winter sun while excluding high angle summer sun – all with no moving parts. The structure itself is built for seasonal change and day-night cycles.

Another example of four-dimensional design is the lazy conversion of lawn into vege garden.

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By taking it step-wise over time, the total amount of physical labour is minimized by letting nature do most of the “heavy lifting” although in this case it’s digging/tilling.

With heavy, compacted soils like we have on our property, a good way to decompress the earth is to plant potatoes. At the same time, adding organic matter helps to lighten clay soils by increasing biological activity. As the potatoes grow taller, we mulch them with more organic matter, which gives us a larger harvest of spuds while contributing even more organic matter to the new garden bed.

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Preparing the beds.

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Sprouting spuds.

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Garden taking shape.

Another aspect of holistic eco-design comes into play when assessing a potential garden area for low-maintenance and high-productivity. The design of our new kitchen garden concentrates fertility where we want food to grow (the beds) while removing it from where we do not want weeds to grow (the paths).

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One final note of four-dimensional design: Three weeks ago I mentioned a project being undertaken by my friend in Ladakh, India, called the Ice Stupa Project.

It was my intention to share this amazing project with the Whanganui community by giving a short presentation. That does not look like it is going to happen, but I urge you to check out the Ice Stupa Project on the internet and to watch the inspiring short film on Youtube, “The Monk, The Engineer, and the Artificial Glacier.” Screen shot 2014-12-06 at 7.14.28 AM

This project represents a gold standard of eco-design and could be the most inspiring thing you see all year. The crowd-funding page for this project on is called, “Ice Stupa Artificial Glaciers of Ladakh.”


Peace, Estwing


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