2019 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Design Futures Council! Over the years, the DFC has grown a very strong legacy of leadership and transformational change. DFC’s leadership in key trends includes sustainable design, technology, process innovation, management and design, and international practice. We wanted to share some of our articles from our 25-year history—from the beginnings of DesignIntelligence (1995) through today’s DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Enjoy!

If we aren’t careful, sustainability risks becoming just another slogan adopted by the design and business communities in order to show they are au Courant with the latest “buzz.” A scan of the Internet reveals 17 related sustainability web sites, as assembled by the Florida Center for community Design + Research, each with its own network of hyperlinked materials. There’s clearly no dearth of activity–both profit and nonprofit groups are eager to capitalize on the opportunities it offers.

But that’s exactly the point at which some caution and common sense are in order. If we define sustainability as designing in such a way as to lure back over the life of the facility or project all the resources expended in the mining, fabrication, shipping, installation, operation, restoration, and/or demotion of its components, as well as the cost in resources to gain access to the facility, then sustainable design is a lot more complex than designing building envelopes that reduce the energy operating costs by half, or using recycle tennis rackets throughout for flooring. The classic example is the huge, environmentally correct, stand-alone shopping mall placed on a site in the middle of the green countryside. Never mind that you must build a road and utility lines to reach the mall, and that the cars on the road are fueled by non-renewable fossil energy while expelling toxic wastes into the atmosphere. And never mind the impact of the new facility on the existing urban social fabric, and the resulting underutilization of an in-place infrastructure.

So the challenge, as we take the long view, is to integrate the environmental design process so all the factors, not only the design of the building, are fed into the sustainability equation. Consider these five points:

  1. Recycling materials. In principle, recycling is desirable. It can extend the life of endangered species; reduce the energy required when compared to manufacturing a new product from its traditional or conventional raw materials; and with luck, when discarded, is degradable over a reasonable time. But consider converting, say, plastic bottles into park benches or kitchen counters. From an ecological standpoint, it may make no sense if the bench and the countertop end up, as they surely will, as unbiodegradable landfill.A far better scheme is to get manufacturers to build a reuse-recycling-dumping triage into their products. This way, a manufacturer would take back a product after it outlives its useful life–say, a commercial refrigerator. The unit would be designed so that a) certain obsolete parts would be replaced and the product returned to the market place; or b) the unit would be taken apart and the parts recycled; or c) the whole unit is trashed. A good ratio, according to David Richards, a mechanical engineer in one Arup’s New York office, is to aim for 60 percent reuse, 30 percent recycling, and 10 percent waste.In any event, designers should always look closely at manufacturers’ greenness claims, understand the tradeoffs, and examine the impact on the bottom line.
  2. The naturally-vented building, combined with daylight for all, is common practice in Western Europe, and built into the codes. It capitalizes on a few basic physical phenomena–gravity (hot air rises), wind (can be channeled), and solar radiation–and is therefore cheaper than total reliance on complex pumping and mechanical distribution systems. The naturally-vented building is coupled with individual control of one’s micro-climate, a concept that disappeared with the coming of central air conditioning and lighting, but which our ancestors cherished.
  3. Dematerialization and demobilization are two key factors in sustainable design (or rather non-design). These two strategic concepts were brought up at the recent MIT conference on the “Dimensions of Sustainability” by MIT architecture school dean William Mitchell. Dematerialization asks the question each time: “Can we satisfy this need with a smaller building or no building?” by taking into account the ability to read or to bank without building a local library or erecting a branch bank (after all, as Harvard Business School professor A. Levitt wrote long ago, we’re less interested in buying a quarter-inch drill than we are in obtaining a quarter-inch hole).Demobilization follows a similar path, and asks why we cannot cut back on our mobility and reliance on energy-guzzling transportation when we can communicate as fast and as accurately by wire, radio, and fiber optics.
  4. The other side of the coin is the risk of social isolation brought on by the sustainable ideal. I can visualize a family ensconced in its cybercastle, with no need to travel to work, to entertainment, to conventions, with electronic access to shopping and other services, leading a life of total independence, linked to the outside world through a network of online hookups. We need to examine this more closely.
  5. For architects and other designers, a critical factor is the compensation available to them to ferret out feasible routes to appropriately integrated sustainable design solutions. Western European architects earn fees that are typically one-and-a-half percentage points higher than their U.S. colleagues, according to Arup’s Richards. This allows them to do the kind of applied research that has led to tectonic advances in such areas as the intelligent skin and the use of ecological materials. One solution to placing a proper valuation on design is to grow a whole new generation of enlightened citizen-patrons by bringing courses on the built environment into the elementary- and high-school curricula. In schools of architecture, the environment should be integrated with design studios rather than being singled out as a discrete topic.

To sum up, architects, other designers, and those who work with them on teams need to look at every project from concept to demotion, and direct their decision making accordingly. University of Virginia architecture school dean William McDonough has said that he would replace Vitruvius’ triad with one of his own–that designs should be ecologically intelligent, just, and fun.

And when you think that Venus, a planet in some ways like ours, underwent global warming and now enjoys a surface temperature of 900 degrees, then we must take advantage of the major difference between us and Venus–we do have some control over our fate.

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by Steve Kliment

This article first appeared in the 4Q 1996 issue of DI Quarterly.