Environmental Sustainability And Design
Environmental Sustainability and Design is the point at which design solutions are sought and applied to issues of environmental sustainability.
Brundtland (1987) defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs.’ At the United Nations World Summit in 2005, billed as a once in a generation opportunity, the members identified what is now known as ‘the three pillars of sustainability’ – environmental welfare, social welfare and economic welfare. These must be balanced and designers must not compromise on any of these areas. (1)
Environmental sustainability includes a broad spectrum of disciplines including health, transport, the built environment, infrastructure and town planning. Designers play an important role, but cannot solve the environmental issues by themselves. They need to engage with architects, engineers, politicians, government bodies and the general public. Environmental sustainability is at the top of the agenda for all major governments. This has particular focus in Scotland with the First Minister of Scotland taking personal responsibility in this area. The Scottish Government believes that they can lead Scotland into a sustainable future. First Minister, Alex Salmond said at the Sustainable Scotland Summit (2010) – ‘The Scottish Government puts … sustainability at the heart of everything we do’. (2)
The Three Piles Of Sustainability
The history of Environmental Sustainability and Design can trace its recent history to the Brundtland Report. The World Commission on Environment and Development produced this report. The report linked together social, economic, cultural and environmental issues into a global solution.(3) In the 1960s and 1970s people began to be concerned about the environment and the use of pesticides. Friends of the Earth and Green Peace were formed to campaign on urgent environmental and social issues. In the 1970s, the world faced several major oil crises with the cost of oil rising sharply and having a big impact on world economies. People began to question their reliance on fossil fuels and began to think about conserving energy and possible sources of renewable energy. The 1980s saw two large environmental disasters at Bhopal (1984 – gas leak resulting in the world’s worst industrial catastrophe with 15,000 deaths) (4) and Chernobyl (1986 – worst nuclear power plant accident in the world). In the late 1980s the term Green Design and Eco Design began to be used to consider the impact and life cycle of a product from the raw material, through production, manufacture, use and end of life while attempting to minimise the environmental impact of a product. This movement has been grown alongside our awareness of environmental issues and global warming. In the 1990s global warming became much debated and its impact on world economics. The Rio Summit in 1992 planned to set limits on CO2 emissions and The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 aimed at fighting global warming with 39 countries agreeing to reduce greenhouse gases.
This brings us up to date with design being an integral part of environmental sustainability.
However, environmental sustainability is not a new idea or concept. In the 19th Century the re-designing of our towns and cities helped eradicate major infectious killer diseases like cholera and TB by improving sanitation in the design of buildings. Designers are now using a similar approach in New York to try to solve the problems of obesity, stroke and heart disease. Research has discovered that people who live near a park or green space are less likely to suffer from a heart attack and will be slimmer and fitter.(5)
Before industrialization the concepts of using local resources, re-using, reducing and recycling were essential core values. Designers are now revisiting the past to help design and create an environmentally sustainable future.
Designers and Design Practices
Designers now have to consider the sustainability and impact of all materials used. Where does a material come from? How is it made? Could a locally sourced material be used in its place? Could a recycled product be used? These are all questions that designers have to ask. A material from abroad may be cheaper but there is an environmental cost of transportation. Issues such as natural products, re-usable, recyclable, low emission, and embodied energy all have to be considered.(6)
The concept of Cradle to Cradle was first introduced 25 years ago but Michael Braunart and William McDonough in their book of the same name have brought this issue of lifecycle design to the fore front. Products can and should be redesigned at the end of their life into a new product.
In August 2010 Scotland Housing Expo in Inverness showcased 52 houses created with the future in mind displaying. The latest ideas on design and sustainability to promote eco-friendly lifestyles, respectful of natural resources. (7)
There were examples of hemp being used as insulation, rubber and corrugated aluminium cladding, communal central heating from wood burning chips, timber houses and many design features to reduce the carbon footprint and decrease energy consumption. Each house stated its estimated annual heating costs.
Corrugated Aluminium Cladding
Scotland’s Housing Expo Sign
While it is important for designers to look to the past for examples of sustainable design, it is also important that designers and architects are at the head of eco technology and also on the technology that impacts the environment. For example, the 2010 BP oil disaster in the US illustrates the need for closer co-operation between engineers and designers to safeguard and protect the environment from major environmental disasters.
Designers must work within the three pillars of sustainability – environment, social and economic factors. For example: until the cost is significantly reduced and the pay back period is seen to reduce, solar energy is never going to take off – ‘It takes 100 years to pay back installation costs’. (8)
Designers are no longer working in an isolated profession; they must work as part of a team. This team will be interdisciplinary and include specialists from a variety of fields. This may include health professionals, lawyers, economists, architects, education specialists and government bodies. This has given rise to organisations like Architecture and Design Scotland whose aims are to design a sustainable built environment in Scotland of which the Nation is proud. (9)
In August 2010 The Design Skills Symposium took place in Dundee to bring together designers, town planners and architects to study creating a better Scotland. This was collaboration between Architecture and Design Scotland, Mixed and Sustainable Communities Learning Network and Place Making Division of the Scottish Government. There were focused seminars delivering current research on placemaking and sustainability and an opportunity for learning through shared experience. (10)
The simple answer to all this: designers and design practices have to re-make the way we make things.
1. United Nations General Assembly. (2005) ‘World Summit New York Outcome Resolution’ A/60/1.
2. Sustainable Scottish Summit (June 2010). Scottish Government News Release 2
3. Sustainable development. (1987) The Report of the Brundtland Commission - ‘Our Common Future.’
4. Worst industrial disaster still haunts India. Available:
5. Heap, T. The Revenge of the Stairs. Available:
6. Knight, A. Hidden Histories: The Story of Sustainable Design. Available:
7. Scotland’s Housing Expo:
8. Hickman, M. Solar panels ‘take 100 years to pay back installation costs’. Available:
9. Architects and Design Scotland:
10. The Skills and Design Symposium Dundee. (August 2010).