4.406 | Spring 2007 | Graduate

Ecologies of Construction


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1 hour / session


We are living in a time when it has become clear that the relationship between human (anthropogenic) activities and the encapsulating health of the biosphere is intimate and increasingly dysfunctional. That is, anthropogenic activities are, on balance, compromising the health of the biosphere and contributing to a growing specter of climatic, and therefore social, economic and political uncertainty.

It has also become clear there continues to exist a substantial unwillingness, disinterest and outright opposition to act to improve the situation or avert outright catastrophe. Without reference to the deep political differences that substantially modulate this situation, we must acknowledge that part of the reason for inaction stems from the natural tendency to hesitate when confronted by such overwhelming global challenges without clear solutions. Is this hesitation also a result of the emerging understanding that current levels of affluence are not sustainable?

This course offers an opportunity to address these topics with specific strategies applied to real-world scenarios. We will focus on the built environment, but will not segregate this sector of society and industry from the larger Web of resource exchanges and social, political and economic relations.


Ecologies of construction examines the resource requirements for the making and maintenance of the contemporary built environment. This course introduces the field of industrial ecology as a primary source of concepts and methods in the mapping of material and energy expenditures dedicated to construction activities.

To accomplish this task, it will be useful to examine and discuss the resource consumption, environmental impacts, ecological footprint, and other ramifications of a variety of other industries as well. Also, it will be useful to place these studies within a much broader context that extends well beyond “green” buildings and sustainable design. By beginning with the IPAT equation, we can bring more precision - and ultimately be more effective - in assessing and developing strategies for a “resource-lean” society.

A Sustainable Building Environment

The immutable and timeless responsibility of sheltering human activities is the fundamental mandate of architecture. Doing so in ways that fulfill the diverse needs and infinite desires of contemporary society often requires the consumption of enormous quantities of material and energy resources; extracted, processed and aggregated by a variety of heavy industries. The processes of construction employed toward these ends is only one stage of the complex flow of resources from natural capital to anthropogenic stock - from ore mines, forests, oil reserves to aluminum extrusion, structural frames, buildings and cities.

This course is offered as an opportunity to examine the material and energy networks currently utilized to transfer resources from the natural world to the built environment. Through this examination the theories and tools of industrial ecology will be used to reveal opportunities for creating ecologies of construction; that is, mutually beneficial relationships between distinct components of the industry of construction that may be made to act symbiotically. Both the production and consumption of the architectural artifact will be reviewed using tools of analysis that physically account for the flow of materials into and out of various spatial and temporal scales and boundaries. Material flow analysis (MFA) and Life cycle analysis (LCA) will be used to establish benchmark quantities such as the Total material requirement (TMR) and the Materials intensity per unit service (MIPS) of whole buildings and individual building systems while concepts such as resilience and adaptive capacity will delineate the most promising corollaries to natural ecologies. A resultant “State of the Industry of Construction” will implicate various paths for improved design and technological innovation for a more responsible use of our natural resources.

Course topics will include:

  • origins and theories of industrial ecology
  • natural/industrial ecology metaphor
  • IPAT equation, MIPs, ecological footprint
  • production and consumption of resources
  • industrial symbiosis and exchange networks
  • physical accounting (MFA, LCA, TMR etc.)
  • complex systems and natural analogs
  • biomimetic design and engineering
  • anthropogenic stock assessment
  • design for the environment (DfE)
  • green buildings, LEED, USGBC
  • sustainable cities and the future of architecture


This course is a focused introduction of the field of industrial ecology. The format of the course is a seminar-type gathering in which lectures, presentations, discussions, reading synopses and other forms will be used to examine this diverse field. In the spirit of a seminar, the quality of the discussions will be highly dependent on careful reading of assigned papers and thoughtful discussions. The term schedule has been formatted to reflect the primary topics of the course. Therefore, the term is generally organized into three phases, 1) Origins and Theory, 2) Production and Consumption, and 3) Applications and Case Studies. We will diverge from the constraints of this organization at many points and at the service of the topic at hand. In addition, each phase will necessarily contain topics that are primarily addressed in the other two phases. This will be done purposefully to help guide the fluid presentation of topics and providing sufficient background for productive investigation of the term project.

Invited Guests

We will have seven guests joining us this term.

  • Tim Gutowski: A professor of Mechanical Engineering and a leading researcher in the area of the resource efficiency of industry. He is currently the Director of the MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity.
  • Randy Kirchain: Prof. Kirchain conducts research concerning the resource intensity of material economies, including the robustness of material recovery infrastructures and instruction of engineers in technology decision making, especially in assessing the economic and environmental consequences of such decisions. Prior to joining the DMSE faculty in Fall 2002, Prof. Kirchain served as Associate Director of MIT’s Materials Systems Laboratory. Kirchain is also a member of the Engineering Systems Division at MIT.
  • Paolo Ferrão: Portuguese Director of the MIT/Portugal Program, Prof. Ferrão is a world expert on the resource consumption of various industries. Recently has been instrumental in developing the emerging field of urban metabolism.
  • Doug Meffert: Deputy Director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities in New Orleans, Meffert is expert on the interaction between natural and human systems especially with regard to the interface between cities and their surrounding natural ecologies.
  • Lorenzo Rosado: PhD candidate at the IN+, Center for Innovation, Technology and Policy Research, Instituto Superior Tecnico (IST) in Lisbon, Rosado was lead researcher in the Materials Matrix of Lisbon, a full-scale accounting of the resource consumption of the city and its effect on the surrounding regional economy and environment.
  • Christopher Carbone: SMBT ‘04, MIT. Chris has been working with Bensonwood Homes (BH) of New Hampshire, a company that has been a vanguard in the use of green materials in premanufactured building construction. Also, BH has been collaborating with Kent Larson of the MIT Media Lab in developing open source building systems for flexible and resource-efficient buildings.
  • Michell Apigian: March ‘05, MIT. Michell is a local architect that has been working in the field of green buildings.


The primary medium for learning about industrial and construction ecology will be assigned readings. Additional or alternative readings may be provided during the term.

Study Topics

During the term you will have the opportunity to focus on a set of topics most closely aligned with your interests. That is, I will ask you to define an area in which you are most interested. This topic should be chosen on the merit of three criteria:

  1. a personal passion quotient,
  2. some familiarity with the basics (that is, you understand the topic) and,
  3. the topic provides an opportunity to engage in real-world impact.

During this course, I will serve as lecturer, instructor, host to guest lecturers and, more importantly, as advisor in your pursuit of all relevant, current and useful information in your topic areas.


Grades will be based on four components:

Attendance and active participation during class 20%
Midterm essay (1500 word essay = 300 double-spaced words/page x 5 pages) 20%
In-class essay (1 hour essay) 20%
Term project 40%

The midterm essay will treat a subject that has been discussed during class. You will be asked to review the readings once again and pursue additional sources of information regarding that topic. Especially important will be to identify examples of the topic in the world.

The Term Project may consist of a variety of project types. As a paper, the Term Project may be used to do an in-depth investigation on a subject that interests you. On the other hand, the Term Project could also be a review of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative with the purpose of proposing an appropriate and effective plan for the MIT campus. I will be soliciting proposals for the term project by the second week of March. Term projects may be done in groups.


Attendance is mandatory. Discussions during class time are fundamental to the experience and central to the value of this course. Three unexcused absences will lead to regret at having diminished your opportunity to change the world.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2007
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments