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Book Review: Designing for Biodiversity: A technical guide for new and existing buildings (2nd ed.)

Kelly Gunnell, Brian Murphy and Dr. Carol Williams

RIBA Publishing, 2013.

The first thing I did before reading this book was to search for existing reviews for it and if possible speculate on the profession of the reviewee, if it was a name I didn’t know. This immediately told me two things; people who are in the conservation and ecology field respect this book and find it a useful and valuable addition to their libraries and those who are in a different but related field (e.g. the building trade) do not. I fall into the first camp, being a professional ecologist specialising in birds but also having an interest in bats. However, I am no architect and useless at DIY so I was worried that when I did get to the technical bits it would be full of jargon that was incomprehensible to a mere ecologist. 

The book starts with easy-to-read introductions to all the fauna and flora that are likely to be encountered in an urban and suburban landscape and the authors are up-to-date with the latest research – if the causes of a decline to a particular species (e.g. House Sparrow) is anecdotal they say so, rather than make sweeping generalisations and assumptions.

It continues in much the same vein with chapters on Legislation (both on a national scale and differentiating between the UK principalities), Designs for New and for Existing Buildings, Built Developments and ends with a short chapter on Engagement and Monitoring, so that people can record what they see following any positive biodiversity modifications to their house or local area as well as general citizen science, schools and community projects and how these can feed into national monitoring schemes (the Big Wildlife Garden project run by the Wildlife Trust and Royal Horticultural Society).

The bulk of the book is predictably about building new or modifying existing buildings to benefit wildlife and in this respect it does exactly what it says on the tin.         

There are a number of useful case-studies which profile different species or groups of animals and show how various designs and products are incorporated into new and existing builds.

The plethora of tables give excellent summaries for a variety of topics from legislation and regulatory requirements, to species and build requirements  via many topics in-between including  project planning, climate-change considerations and comparisons of available materials, both specialist and commonplace.

The book also covers species less frequently encountered within the urban and suburban landscapes (e.g. Barn Owl) and this is helpful for mitigation purposes on projects such as barn conversions in a more rural setting.    

Throughout the book is littered with useful references, both internet and literature-based. These give an excellent starting point for further information and research, websites for conservation organisations, and links to monitoring schemes.

The many photographs are excellent and are would make for a good coffee-table book, if used on their own. However, this is clearly not a coffee-table book; the well-designed layout adding to the readability with an air of a DIY manual, which of course it is in part. There are 17 very good technical drawings showing how the various bird- and bat- friendly structures can be incorporated in new builds or modifications.   

The index is reasonably well cross-referenced with each “target” species appearing under its own heading as well as within the relevant indices (e.g. Swift appears under “nesting requirements”) and also under proprietary branded designs of specialised bricks and boxes.

My one concern is that if there are changes to building regulations or legislation, this book may very soon become out-of-date. This could be a problem for some ecologists or consultants who rarely deal with such situations or may not be up to speed on recent changes in planning or building requirements, but use this book for a particular contract in the future. Likewise as new environmental building products become available on the market they will not be covered. Still, third edition, here we come.

In short, this is an excellent one-stop-shop of a book, if you are thinking about encouraging biodiversity into your new build or modifications of your house. I daresay that all the information is out there from other sources but this gives the majority, if not all, the information that you need in one place and I would vouch that it is a highly useful book for ecologists, architects and urban- planners alike.

Oh, and I need not of worried about the technical wording – there is a “jargon-buster” at the end.

Bill Haines Ornithologist in RBKC

06/06/2014

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