Principles of Sustainable Design

How Sustainable Design is Shaping Everything from Architecture to Agriculture

Sustainable Design

Sustainable Design is Transforming Our Markets, Our Society, and Our Environment

We’ve previously talked about sustainable agriculture on this blog, but it should be said that this only one of many forms of the broader movement toward “sustainable design.” Sustainable design encompasses everything from architecture and urban planning to industrial design and, of course, agriculture.

Its basic intention is twofold: (1) to reduce or outright eliminate negative environmental impacts and (2) to reconnect people with nature and more holistic considerations of their place within it. Those overall aims go hand-in-hand, yet they are being pursued in a variety of different ways.

Below, we will discuss some of the basic principles of sustainable design alongside concrete examples of how it is shaping practices across a wide range of industries and disciplines.

Principles of Sustainable Design




Sustainable Design - Low Impact Materials



Use Low-Impact Materials. Sustainably produced and renewable resources are given preference in procuring materials. Sourcing materials from local or bioregional origins is part of this directive because doing so reduces the environmental impact of shipping. This is the same basic principle behind the concept of “food miles” and the locavore movement. Using non-toxic and recycled materials are also common practice in the sustainable design movement as these likewise reduce environmental impact.

Design for Durability. Designing products and processes that last is a crucial element in sustainable design. Creating quality, long-lasting designs that do not require frequent replacement is actually quite a novel idea in contemporary markets, where planned obsolescence and disposability have become disturbingly commonplace. The increasing regularity of people replacing electronics, for example, has led to landfills full of toxic heavy metals that leach into the soil–not to mention thousands of tons of unnecessary waste.




Sustainable Design - Reuse and Recycle


Reuse and Recycle. Not all waste is waste. Reused and repurposed products are ideal in reducing environmental impact. Why not use your empty yogurt container as tupperware after all? It’s made of the same stuff and doing so doesn’t require the manufacture or purchase of new goods. The same principle applies to all sorts of products that could easily be made from existing products. Recycling likewise reduces the use of fresh raw materials, energy usage, air and water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Assess Life-Cycle Impact. Looking at the overall, “whole-earth” impact of a product or process helps us look at our industries holistically. While in the short-term a given process might have negligible environmental effects, in the long-term they can be devastating. Keeping in mind the carbon footprint from procurement to manufacture to distribution and finally consumption can require complex calculations. Fortunately, tools for doing life-cycle assessments continue to become more accurate and easy-to-use than ever before, allowing quick, cost-effective evaluations to be made.

Develop Sustainability Standards and Practices. New, more stringent guidelines and standards are being developed and set for all sorts of projects. Certification systems like LEED and USDA Organic provide marketplace incentives for sustainability initiatives, while tougher rules for energy efficiency and environmental impact are gradually being adopted by various states and municipalities. Renewable Portfolio Standards and smog checks are other great examples of recently implemented sustainability protocols.



Sustainable Design Services

Substitute Personal for Communal Services. Changing consumer behavior often requires providing compelling alternatives. While it would be an incredible boon for the environment if we all exchanged our cars for bikes and buses, obstacles like infrastructure and inertia stand in the way. Offering car sharing services is one way entrepreneurs are helping shift our service models from personal ownership to shared use.

A Model for the Principles of Sustainable Design
Obviously, these general principles can be put into practice in a variety of ways. Coming up with a consistent code for sustainable design is a challenging prospect–especially if it is to cover a wide range of industries. However, that has done little to deter attempts at doing just that. One of the most influential and well-known examples sustainability principles is the “Bill of Rights for the Planet,” developed by William McDonough Architects:

The Bill of Rights:

  1. Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition.
  2. Recognize Interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend on the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
  3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry, and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their right to co-exist.
  5. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creations of products, processes, or standards.
  6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems in which there is no waste.
  7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

What Sustainable Design Means for Our Future

Principles of Sustainable Design

Principles of Sustainable Design

While principles such as these are still only employed by a minority of businesses, consumer demand is rapidly transforming markets and driving new, more sustainable business models. The push for sustainable design is far from over, but recent developments in everything from agriculture to industrial design are certainly heartening. Little by slowly, environmental considerations in the interest of posterity are gaining traction–and these principles are guiding the way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: