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Artecology: new habitats for freshwater art and science

May 23, 2017
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New life springing from an Artecology earth-cast pool. Image: Artecology

We’ve heard how aquatic habitat quality and connectivity is a key factor in supporting diverse and healthy ecosystems a number of times (here and here) in recent weeks.

So when we heard about a new British company drawing from artistic and architectural practices to create unusual and beautiful constructions which act as new aquatic habitats, we were intrigued.

We spoke to Artecology founder Ian Boyd to find out more.

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Tell us about Artecology: what do you do, and when did your work start?

Artecology is a new company, created in 2016 through the merging of an ecological consultancy and an arts collective (as the name suggests).  Artecology is all about bringing biodiversity to the built environment.  Sea walls and piers, bridges, tunnels river channels and roads; shops, schools, industrial units and housing estates; town squares and city rooftops – the world of ‘grey infrastructure’ is our speciality.

We design and manufacture building ornament, renders, cladding, tiles and finishes, each with a pattern and texture tested for its potential to generate and support nature. We combine our built installations with specialist planting, creating hotspots of wildlife activity, providing life-cycle resources for birds, mammals, invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians, fish and marine ecology. This is what we call Urban Rewilding!

Artecology is about communities too. We believe in the health benefits of wildlife encounters. We believe in the right to excellent public spaces that add value to urban living. Artecology brings the public realm to life with an architectural quality, ornament, landscape and design that is good for people because it is good for wildlife.

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Creating creative habitats. Image: Artecology

One of your more intriguing projects involved the construction of an ‘Eelevator’: what is this, and what does it do?

The ‘Eelevator‘ was installed following essential repairs to a road culvert near the headwaters of the Holbrookes Stream, which initially left a ‘step-up’ obstruction into the culvert for any aquatic wildlife moving upstream. We saw an opportunity to not only fix the culvert step, but also to more significantly reconnect water levels with downstream reaches.

Eel migration is of course a high priority objective in UK river management and this was our focus too. But we wanted to move away from standard ‘eel-only’ fixes and try instead a new way to retrofit structural improvements that could rapidly and cost-effectively facilitate physical connectivity within the stream but, crucially, deliver new, useful and permanent built enhancement to the habitat quality around the culvert for as many species as possible. And so the Eelevator was born!

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The ‘Eelevator’ which provides passage over step obstructions in the stream bed. Image: Artecology

The Eelevator is a tiled system, retrofitted directly onto the existing infrastructure, consisting of a steel-framed ramp lined with the eel tiles, joined to a kerbed 3-tile-wide pavement running up and into the culvert mouth. The ramp and tiles were made in the studio and installed on site over two days.

The design is intended to provide flow-control and textured purchase for eels to move upstream, combined with a very large surface area folded into the tile array, creating great surface complexity with abundant niches and micro-sites for colonisation and wildlife activity. And it looks amazing too! This is really important – creating new ornament in a public space, which makes it a better place for people as well as for wildlife!

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Installing the Eelevator. Image: Artecology

Another of your freshwater-orientated projects involves creating miniature earth-cast freshwater pools: what is this work about?

These are very simple bowl-shaped pools used to encourage wildlife encounters in urban environments, with the potential to build up high densities of ecological activity in small spaces through the use of folded cast surface textures.

The idea behind the pools isn’t  really ‘biomimicry’ as such – which involves replicating naturally complex textures such as tree bark or bone matrix  – instead a move towards human artistic responses to folded and intricate space. The pools themselves are therefore based on forms and shapes not necessarily found in the natural world at all.

The pools are portable and designed to be grouped and nested in sites where space allows. They are cast over earth-mounds in such a way that they come out lined with projections of various sizes and shapes boosting the colonisable surface by 20% or more, and creating a network of vertical spaces for flora and fauna to exploit. It’s fascinating!

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Detail of the portable earth-cast pools, which create instant aquatic habitats in urban environments. Image: Artecology

Your work is grounded in interdisciplinary collaborations between ecology and art. Can you tell us a little about the promises and pitfalls of such boundary-crossing work?

There is beautiful book called ‘The Grammar of Ornament’, published in 1856, and written by architect and designer Owen Jones. It is a global and historical sourcebook of pattern and design, tremendously influential in its day and is still a reference work of importance. It is striking how dominant natural forms are in his book and Owen Jones develops this theme further in his commentary, encouraging further exploration of the natural world for inspiration.

We are, in a way, working at a ‘New’ Grammar of Ornament by designing beautiful and complex textures and patterns that are biologically favourable, that make the built environment more useful in ecological networks, make wildlife encounter more likely in public places, and add species richness to urban infrastructure.

Origami techniques can create amazing templates for cast concrete; folded fabrics lining moulds can deliver intricate pleated structures; and earth and sand-casting techniques can make beautiful hollow, perforated and stromatolitic objects for built and urban habitats. There is so much collaborative learning and experiment to take place, the only pitfall we can see is the vast excess of opportunity over time!

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Geometric patterns on a ‘BioArmour’ tile developed with Glasgow University for installation on esturine sea walls. Image: Artecology



What can such interdisciplinary practices ‘do’ in the world, and who (and what) benefits?

One of the great advantages of interdisciplinary research and development for us is its appeal to academic institutions. We are currently working with undergraduates, MSc students and PhD researchers from six different universities in England, Wales and Scotland. This exposes us and our work to a fantastic pool of expertise, creativity and curiosity, new minds prepared to challenge what we do and work with us on better solutions and faster innovation. The STEM agenda in education is strongly supported by colleges and schools, and its extension to STEAM is building a strong constituency of support.

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BioArmour tiles installed on an estuarine sea wall to encourage ecological colonisation. Image: Artecology

We want Artecology to play a part in this essential blurring at the edges of specialisms. Our experiences with groups as diverse as young carers, probation teams, NEETs and school groups of all ages has been quite amazing. The power of making and the thrill of seeing your creation adopted and used by wildlife is tremendous.

For us this is at the very heart of our work: the connection between people and wildlife, between communities and the environment they share with the natural world; this is human ecology. Interdisciplinary practice enables us to integrate a common purpose and a shared objective into every partnership we build, to shape better places for people and wildlife.

There are benefits too for the world of industry and development. Artecology combines environmental compliance with ecological ‘net gain’, community engagement and landscape design – a very potent mix for companies and partnerships building infrastructure, homes, factories and schools, and looking for efficient and distinctive solutions. One of the most interesting ideas we’re currently working on is the rethinking of construction sites as generators of ecological and community ‘meanwhile’ benefit inside hoardings, to be redeployed outside in the host environment once the site is handed back, as a permanent legacy. Could be fascinating!

Are freshwater ecology and art particularly fertile meeting points for collaborative practices?

Yes, I think you’re right to suggest that freshwater habitats offer a particularly rich source of collaborative potential. Artecology is all about texture and surface complexity, and in water the interface between hydrodynamic processes and ecological responses is densely populated with ecological activity in a way that is more intense than terrestrial environments.

We’re still very interested in the power of Artecology to alter and direct air and heat flow right up to the Planetary Boundary Layer, but rivers and ponds are more accessible! And of course our freshwater (and estuarine) projects have forged a close working relationship between Artecology and the Environment Agency. This collaboration continues to be of the utmost importance to the development of useful applications and meaningful solutions to the practicalities of managing the many competing interests in the water environment.

Find out more about Artecology’s work here.

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