Increased student interest in sustainability coupled with a rising public policy commitment to green design and increasing energy costs augurs for greater involvement of design schools and the profession in teaching and research related to ecologically sensitive design.

Increased student interest in sustainability coupled with a rising public policy commitment to green design and increasing energy costs augurs for greater involvement of design schools and the profession in teaching and research related to ecologically sensitive design.

Sustainable design, according to Wikipedia, is “the art of designing physical objects and the built environment to comply with the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability … [and is] a growing trend within the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, urban planning, engineering, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, and fashion design.” According to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment, “Sustainability envisions the enduring prosperity of all living things, and sustainable design seeks to create communities, buildings, and products that contribute to this vision.”

Industrialization and Modernist design often substituted active technological devices for previously accepted passive environmental symbioses. In the 1960s and ’70s, baby boomers rediscovered environmentalism in texts ranging from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to the Farrallones Institute’s The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City. The United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report emphasized the need for an integration of environmental, economic, and social aspects of development processes that could take into account the effects of current consumption behaviors on long-term resource sustainability.

Nonetheless, relatively little environmentally sensitive design emerged from American schools and practices after the decline of the 1970s environmental movement. Eco-friendly designers and metrics became more evident in the design press and on campuses as it was realized at the start of the 21st century that in the United States alone, buildings account for 65 percent of electricity consumption, 36 percent of energy use, 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent of raw materials use, and 30 percent of waste output (136 million tons annually).

Implementing Strategies is a Challenge

Current efforts to align education and professional practice around sustainable principles are intended to reduce negative environmental impacts from the fabrication and production of building components and the construction of buildings and interiors through the entire life cycle of the building. Nearly 90 percent of American voters believe that energy conservation should be incorporated in homes and buildings even if it costs more, but widespread sustainable design remains elusive. Designers have struggled with the metrics of demonstrating how passive and active sustainable strategies can provide significant long-term economic benefits to commercial clients and real estate developers. As American tax laws have provided economic incentives for rapid depreciation of real estate, commercial owners have often sold their properties before the long-term economic benefits of achieving lower energy costs have accrued. Thus, universities and other nonprofits holding long-term fixed capital assets have tended to be more interested in developing sustainably.

Despite high student interest, sustainability remains a fringe subject at many design schools. Many schools’ curricula lack foundation-level integration of design disciplines. Teaching green principles is rarely integrated across curricula and in studio courses. Client-centered life cycle analyses of a building’s impacts have traditionally not been included in curricula.

There is also a dearth of knowledgeable practitioners teaching pragmatic sustainable strategies in design schools and a concomitant inertia among many faculty members toward incorporating new sustainability information into established curricula and syllabi. Architecture schools with no connections to landscape or urban design programs can undervalue basic siting solutions, and architecture programs separated from interior design can easily overlook the value of natural lighting, passive heating and cooling, and materials selection.

Although many schools use new sustainability texts to enrich individual courses on passive approaches to green design, there are currently minimal specific National Architectural Accrediting Board requirements mandating sustainability education, which tend to concentrate on assuring student knowledge of technological solutions to environmental problems. Accrediting teams have commented on the absence of student knowledge of basic principles of passive green design techniques, in siting, building orientation, and efficient placement of mechanical systems. A lack of general knowledge of the basic principles, tools, and techniques of sustainable design and building, little knowledge exchange between schools and practitioners, and the absence of a single repository of research data on what has worked effectively place a premium on the value of new research and information sharing.

Sustainability Across Higher Education

Degree and certificate programs focused on sustainability are beginning to emerge at a handful of design schools. According to employers queried by DesignIntelligence, the best sustainable design program is at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, which offers a Master of Science in sustainable design intended to prepare graduates for careers that support sustainable environmental design. The University of Oregon, Virginia Tech, Auburn, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia are also ranked for their sustainability programs. Boston Architectural College offers an online certificate in sustainable design, and a Bachelor of Design Studies with a concentration in sustainable design. Philadelphia University introduced a Master of Science in sustainable design in 2007, focused on interdisciplinary work. The Minneapolis College of Art and Design offers an accredited online sustainable design certificate program that is not exclusively targeted toward architecture, and the University of Texas at Austin offers a master’s in architecture with an emphasis on sustainable design. Clemson, Tulane, Auburn, and Western Washington University offer courses on sustainable design.

Cross-departmental and interschool research and teaching collaborations are proving useful in addressing sustainability as design programs seek knowledge of engineering technologies, air quality analyses, public health, or landscape and horticultural assessments of green design approaches. Programs such as Wayne State University College of Engineering’s master’s program in alternative energy technology, North Dakota State University’s emerging programs in electrical and mechanical engineering emphasizing renewable energy sources in Brazil, and the Shasta College Economic and Workforce Development Center’s online classes on alternative energy employment using solar, biodiesel, and wind power provide resources for design schools.

Colleges and Universities Support Sustainability

Colleges and universities are expressing their commitment to sustainability through curricular and non-curricular policies and actions. At Maine’s College of the Atlantic, the only major available is in human ecology, and in December 2007 the college became the first in the nation to go completely carbon-neutral. In 2004, Minnesota’s Carleton College became the first college in the country to own a utility-grade wind turbine. The college uses single-stream recycling to eliminate the separation of paper, plastics, and glass and invests a portion of its endowment in renewable energy funds. The University of California at Santa Cruz generates the equivalent of 100 percent of its energy needs from hydroelectric and wind power. Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative supports 25 full-time professionals with a $12 million fund from which departments can borrow to make investments in activities that are minimally harmful to the environment. Vermont’s Middlebury College alumni donated $73,000 to the college to support renewable energy projects.

The annual NCARB Prize competition linking applied academic research and problem-solving in professional practice has recognized sustainable projects through awards to California State Polytechnic, Pomona for low-cost sustainable housing for Tijuana, Mexico; to Clemson University for a study on localizing global climate change; and to the University of Virginia for its EcoMOD project and Learning Barge. Yet these commitments and prizes speak primarily to best practices for individual institutions, and their wider influence on sustainability education appears limited.

Emerging National Support

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture core values state that graduates of professional architecture programs should be able to design architectural projects with creativity and technical mastery, lead interdisciplinary design projects ethically and collaboratively, be active stewards of the environment, think and act critically, and work in a nurturing, engaging, and safe environment. Emerging from these core values, the ACSA in 2005 published “The Green Braid: Towards an Architecture of Ecology, Economy, and Equity.” This sustainability primer compiles 15 years of peer-reviewed conference session papers addressing sustainability in the context of architectural history, theory, pedagogy, and design, and it bridges research in academia and professional practice.

Looking ahead, an ACSA position paper proposes revised accreditation standards to increase expectations in NAAB student performance criteria “to include separate perspectives on the relationship between the profession and society and the profession and the natural environment.” The ACSA recommends that under the NAAB Condition SPC 3.1.5 on Architectural Education and Society, a program should “demonstrate that it equips students with an informed understanding of ecological and environmental problems in the built environment and develops their capacity to address these problems with environmentally responsive architecture and urban design decisions. In the Architectural Program Review, the accredited degree program may cover such issues as how students gain an understanding of environmentally sustainable architecture, including the complex interactions of built and natural environments; the emphasis given to generating knowledge that can mitigate social and environmental problems; how students gain an understanding of the ethical implications of decisions involving the built environment; and how a climate of global awareness is nurtured.”

The AIA supports stronger accreditation requirements on sustainability. A February 2007 AIA Conference on Sustainability in Architecture and Higher Education convened educators and practitioners who agreed to join others to provide tangible, innovative solutions to environmental problems. The AIA accreditation recommendation specifically calls for schools to teach sustainability as a global issue transcending social, cultural, geopolitical, and economic boundaries; as a complex set of micro- and macro-scale issues; as a cultural issue of which historic preservation and adaptive reuse represent important responses; and as a core value in technical and design architecture curricula.

The American Institute of Architecture Students has also taken a strong position supporting increased emphases in curricula on sustainability education. Additionally, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards proposes that “the development of the new NAAB Conditions for Accreditation and the student performance criteria must ensure sustainability is integrated into all expectations concerning ethical behavior and leadership, as well as in all aspects of expected student’s performance (programming and pre-design activities, design, building integration, and practice issues).”

AASHE and Campus Initiatives

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is a member-driven, nonprofit organization of American and Canadian colleges and universities founded in 2005 to promote sustainability across higher education. The ASSHE vision “is to see higher education take a leadership role in preparing students and employees to achieve a just and sustainable society.” AASHE works with private businesses, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies to provide education, communications, research, and professional development opportunities across higher education. Through its Web site, AASHE provides access to related organizations.

Because there is currently no comprehensive way to compare the sustainability of campuses and to benchmark an individual institution’s improvement over time, in April AASHE released for comment a draft of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS 0.5) for large research universities and small colleges. STARS is a “collaborative effort to develop a formal rating system for campus sustainability, with standards by which institutions may measure themselves and qualify for different levels of recognition.” STARS is designed to provide a guide for advancing campus sustainability, a benchmarking basis for making comparisons over time and across institutions by establishing common standards for assessing the achievement of sustainability, and facilitating information sharing about higher education sustainability and performance. More than 90 colleges and universities are pilot testing the STARS tools. Once this assessment is complete, AASHE will reorganize its annual awards program based on the STARS standards.

One of the most visible of AASHE’s program is the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, through which nearly 600 academic leaders have committed to eventually neutralize their institution’s greenhouse gas emissions, develop individual campus plans to become climate neutral, integrate sustainability education into their curricula, and help accelerate sustainability research and educational efforts of their schools. Signatories pledge to adopt green building standards and acquire energy efficient appliances.

In November 2007, the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment entered into a partnership with the William J. Clinton Foundation to connect colleges with companies offering to help fund and complete building retrofits that decrease energy consumption. It has also partnered with the nonprofit sustainability group Second Nature, headed by former Massachusetts Environmental Commissioner Anthony Cortese, to coordinate the climate commitment. Five major international banks agreed to offer $1 billion each to finance systemic energy efficient college retrofits to reduce campus capital spending and monthly operating expenses. Other college associations are lending support by disseminating sustainability research and best practices through conferences, e-newsletters, and other publications.

Teaching Sustainability

In professional practice, the United States Green Building Council is the nonprofit organization that certifies sustainable business buildings, homes, hospitals, schools, and neighborhoods through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED emphasizes the use of state-of-the-art strategies in sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials and resources selection, and indoor environmental quality. By 2007, more than 800 buildings had achieved LEED certification and an additional 6,000-plus are under development.

The 2006 DesignIntelligence survey of architecture schools reported that most programs encourage LEED knowledge and help students prepare for LEED accreditation. Nonetheless, fully 70 percent of the employers queried felt that graduates were not prepared for LEED certification, and the subsequent 2007 survey reported that 39 percent of employers considered that graduates had “very little understanding” of material life cycles, recycling processes, design for disassembly, and environmental impact. Sixty-two percent of firms reported that they received no infusion of new ideas about sustainability from recent graduate new hires. These figures point to the need for post-graduate continuing education programs to inform practitioners of the tools of green design in practice.

With regard to continuing education, for the two decades leading up to 2000, the most attended AIA national convention courses were presentation skills, marketing, leadership, and business management; the leading courses since 2000 have focused on green building, preventing moisture, and sustainable design. Similarly, more than 20,000 people attended the November 2007 Greenbuild Conference in Chicago, which offered 19 distinct LEED workshops.

Best-practice awards by the Boston Society of Architects and the AIA Committee on the Environment have encouraged deeper practitioner use of innovative approaches to achieving sustainable projects.

Prognosis and Recommendations

Increased student interest in sustainability coupled with a rising public policy commitment to green design and increasing energy costs augurs for greater involvement of design schools and the profession in teaching and applied research into ecologically sensitive design. New tax incentives for building green and increasing conservation appear inevitable as national policies shift away from those favoring consumption.

True alignment of educational policies and professional practice appears most likely through a dovetailing of research activities, innovations such as the AIA’s Practice Academy initiative, the proposed Teaching Firm initiative, and an enhanced Intern Development Program designed to fill the gap between the academy and practice. More collaborative sharing of best practices of designing and building sustainably can develop multidisciplinary case studies between universities and practitioners.

Denial of the negative implications of building unsustainably is no longer an acceptable public policy. Employing sustainability principles enhances the perceived value good design brings to clients, enabling ecologically sensitive designers in schools and practices to rise to the forefront of better serving human needs in the built environment.

Ted Landsmark, Ph.D., is president of Boston Architectural College and serves as a trustee to numerous arts-related foundations. He earned a B.A. and J.D. from Yale University and a Ph.D. from Boston University. In 2006, Landsmark received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from the American Institute of Architects in recognition of his efforts as a social activist. He is a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.