Designing with the environment: the role of more-than-human subjects in Design

March 17, 2021

Whether it’s a city tower or an artificial coral reef, design has the opportunity to enhance experiences for all living creatures. Melbourne Design Week features several events that display how designers are working with nature in their latest projects — and why empathy for our natural environment is the way forward.

Nature can inspire contemporary architectural projects. But what about designing for nature as a client? For architects Rafael Contreras and Monica Earl, it was this unique challenge that provided an opportunity to create something that will be a world first. The project is still in early stages of funding, but will one day be home to 800 different species from across the planet in a bid to preserve and protect them against the effects of climate change. 

The Biobank was designed by Australian architects Contreras Earl Architecture in collaboration with sustainability consultants Arup and Werner Sobek for the Great Barrier Reef Legacy. For architect Rafael Contreras, this was a ‘profound responsibility’ for not only his firm, but the construction community at large.

“As one of the world’s major contributors of CO2 emissions and associated climate change, it is essential that the construction industry be encouraged by architects towards carbon neutrality,” says Rafael. “This project is an opportunity to set a global benchmark for sustainable outcomes and zero carbon goals, as well as creating a world-leading conservation and education facility.”

Renders of the entrance lobby, and viewing areas of the proposed Biobank. ©Contreras Earl Architecture

Like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, the Biobank is an investment in the future. Designing such a space provided an unusual challenge to the team at Contreras-Earl: how do you create a space that’s home to coral, as well as humans?

“The brief for “The Living Coral Biobank” called for a building focused on how to keep corals comfortable, in order to preserve them for future generations. When designing the building, we thought first about the corals as the ‘user.’ This was a very interesting brief, as most buildings are designed with the human-user in mind,” says Monica Earl.

“At the same time we designed a building for the human-user to best engage and understand the intricate details and sensitivities of the living organisms on display. In this case as designers we searched for a way to display the small natural objects (coral fragments) in a way that created a stunning experiential outcome.” 

Book tickets to the Contreras-Earl live discussion event at Melbourne Design Week, here

And the visitor experience is certainly at the heart of this project located on the shores of Port Douglas trees. Circular, white, with large gills protruding from its edges, the Biobank is designed to resemble a mega-sized lump of mushroom coral. Inside, Monica describes the design as a ‘theatre of science’, where human and non-human beings share and mutually benefit from the space. 

“The illumination [of the coral banks] generate a surreal atmosphere through the building’s levels much like the depths of the sea,” describes Monica. “At lower levels, brightness and colour is introduced through reflections from the wet lab tanks, while cool light emanates from aquarium tanks positioned at upper levels. The fluorescence of the corals also contributes to the experience.”

The Biobank would sit on the shores of Port Douglas, Queensland. Image courtesy Contreras Earl Architecture

Rafael is not the only designer who has looked to nature for inspiration in the built environment. Chairperson of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects Cultivate Committee Virginia Overell is a Melbourne designer with a keen desire to unearth the hidden ecologies of urban spaces. For Design Week 2021, the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) is hosting a long table event that will explore this through the lens of “queering” as a conceptual framework to rethink landscape architecture.

“Instead of working within normative paradigms, which protect and reinforce the ‘straight’ status quo,” asks Virginia, “could we instead harness queering to imagine alternative modes of landscape practice?” Here, not only does “queering” suggest challenging binary understandings of gender and sexuality in how one constructs the world, “queering” here could also be a method by which to make the landscape architecture profession more welcoming to the LGBTIQ community in both the workplace and their built projects. 

For their long table event, AILA has gathered experts from a variety of disciplines including art, curation, landscape architecture, and design research, and is giving them a simple question: how can we be more empathetic in our design processes towards other narratives? 

Book tickets to the AILA long table event, here.

The long-table event will be catered by Jia Jia Chen and Claire Lehmann, founders of Melbourne creative studio Fluffcorp. They’ve partnered with AILA to cater a lunch with a menu of ‘gender-fluid food’ designed to complement the day’s discussion.

Guests can look forward to a thought-provoking lunch to accompany the AILA talk. Image courtesy of Fluffcorp

“Our menu will be thematically designed around monecious (dual-gendered) plants and animals, incorporating native ingredients and drawing from ancient recipes that predate Western civilisation,” says Jia Jia. The meal includes ingredients such as corn, pumpkin, cucumber, zucchini (all dual-gender vegetables) and barramundi — which morphs genders depending on age, size and environmental conditions.

AILA hopes that the lunch will encourage wider thinking about designing with some of the same principles of nature. Like Rafael and Monica with their Biobank, it is the inherent flexibility and adaptability of our natural world that provides the most inspiration. “Eco systems and ecologies are dynamic, constantly moving through cycles and loops,” says Virginia. “They are not closed,  stable systems – so it stands that our design thinking should embrace this complexity and flux as well.”


A more-than-human approach to design is a major focus during this year’s Melbourne Design Week, with a number of exhibitions connecting to plants, animals and other living matter. From Other Matter’s algae-created dinnerware to Joost Bakker’s Greenhouse, designing for and with the environment exemplifies the Melbourne Design Week pillar of ‘Care’: a direction that could enact very real change on how we connect with the world around us.