Environmental Design

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Environmental design

Environmental design is a new approach in planning consumer products and industrial processes that are ecologically intelligent, sustainable, and healthy for both humans and our environment . Based on the work of innovative thinkers such as architect Bill McDonough, chemist Michael Braungart, physicist Amory Lovins, Swedish physician Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert, and business executive Paul Hawken, this movement is an effort to rethink our whole industrial economy. During the first Industrial Revolution 200 years ago, raw materials such as lumber, minerals, and clean water seemed inexhaustible, while nature was regarded as a hostile force to be tamed and civilized. We use materials to make the things we wanted, then discard them when they no longer are useful. "Dilution is the solution to pollution," suggests that if we just spread our wastes out in the environment widely enough, no one will notice.

This approach has given us an abundance of material things, but also has produced massive pollution and environmental degradation . It also is incredibly wasteful. On average, for every truckload of products delivered in the United States, 32 truckloads of waste are produced along the way. The automobile is a typical example. Industrial ecologist, Amory Lovins, calculates that for every 100 gallons (380 l) of gasoline burned in your car engine, only 1% (0 gal or 3.8 l) actually moves the passengers inside. All the rest is used to move the vehicles itself. The wastes producedcarbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides , unburned hydrocarbon, rubber dust, heatare spread through the environment where they pollute air, water, and soil . And when the vehicle wears out after only a few years of service, thousands of pounds of metal, rubber, plastic, and glass become part of our rapidly growing waste steam.

This isn't the way things work in nature, environmental designers point out. In living systems, almost nothing is discarded or unused. The wastes from one organism become the food of another. Industrial processes, to be sustainable over the long term, should be designed on similar principles, designers argue. Rather than following current linear patterns in which we try to maximize the throughput of materials and minimize labor, products and processes should be designed to be energy efficient and use renewable materials. They should create products that are durable and reusable or easily dismantled for repair and remanufacture, and are non-polluting throughout their entire life cycle. We should base our economy on renewable solar energy rather than fossil fuels . Rather than measure our economic progress by how much material we use, we should evaluate productivity by how many people are gainfully and meaningfully employed. We should judge how well we're doing by how many factories have no smokestacks or dangerous effluents. We ought to produce nothing that will require constant vigilance from future generations .

Inspired by how ecological systems work, Bill McDonough proposes three simple principles for designing processes and products:

  • Waste equals food. This principle encourages elimination of the concept of waste in industrial design. Every process should be designed so that the products themselves, as well as leftover chemicals , materials, and effluents, can become "food" for other processes.
  • Rely on current solar income. This principle has two benefits: First, it diminishes, and may eventually eliminate, our reliance on hydrocarbon fuels. Second, it means designing systems that sip energy rather than gulping it down.
  • Respect diversity. Evaluate every design for its impact on plant, animal, and human life. What effects do products and processes have on identity, independence, and integrity of humans and natural systems? Every project should respect the regional, cultural, and material uniqueness of its particular place.

According to McDonough, our first question about a product is whether it is really needed. Could we obtain the same satisfaction, comfort, or utility in another way that would have less environmental and social impacts? Can the things we design be restorative and regenerative: that is, can they help reduce the damage done by earlier, wasteful approaches, and can they help nature heal rather than simply adding to existing problems? McDonough invites us to reinvent our businesses and institutions to work with nature, and redefine ourselves as consumers, producers, and citizens to promote a new sustainable relationship with the Earth. In an eco-efficient economy, he says, products might be divided into three categories:

  • Consumables are products like food, natural fabrics, or paper that are produced from renewable materials and can go back to the soil as compost.
  • Service products are durables such as cars, televisions, and refrigerators. These products should be leased to the customer to provide their intended service, but would always belong to the manufacturer. Eventually, they would be returned to the maker, who would be responsible for recycling or remanufacturing.
  • Unmarketables are materials like radioactive isotopes, persistent toxins , and bioacumulative chemicals. Ideally, no one would make or use these products. But because eliminating their use will take time, McDonough suggests that for now, these materials should belong to the manufacturer and be molecularly tagged with the maker's mark. If they are discovered to be discarded illegally, the manufacturer would be liable.

Following these principles McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry has created nontoxic, easily recyclable, healthy materials for buildings and for consumer goods. Rather than design products for a "cradle to grave" life cycle, MBDC aims for a fundamental conceptual shift to a Cradle to Cradle® processes whose materials perpetually circulate in closed systems that create value and are inherently healthy and safe. Among some important examples are carpets designed to be recycled at the end of their useful life, paints and adhesives that are non-toxic and non-allergenic, and clothing that is both healthy for the wearer and that has minimal environmental impact in its production.

In his architecture firm, McDonough + partners, these new design models and environmentally friendly materials have been used in a number of innovative building projects. A few notable examples include: The Gap Inc. offices in California and the Environmental Studies building at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Built in 1994, The Gap building in San Bruno, California, is designed to maintain the unique natural features of the site while providing comfortable, healthy, and flexible office spaces. Intended to promote employee well-being and productivity as well as eco-efficiency, The Gap building has high ceilings, open, airy spaces, a natural ventilation system including operable windows, a full-service fitness center (including a pool), and a landscaped atrium for each office bay that brings the outside in. Skylights in the roof deliver daylight to interior offices and vent warm, stale air. Warm interior tones and natural woods (all wood used in the building was harvested by certified sustainable methods) give a friendly feel. Paints, adhesives, and floor coverings are low toxicity to maintain a healthy indoor environment. A pleasant place to work, the offices help recruit top employees and improve both effectiveness and retention.

The roof of The Gap Building is planted with native grasses and wildflowers that absorb rainwater and help improve ambient environmental quality. The grass roof also is beautiful and provides thermal and acoustic insulation. At night, cool outdoor air is flushed through the building to provide natural cooling. By providing abundant daylight, high-efficiency fluorescent lamps, fresh air ventilation, and other energy-saving measures, this pioneering building is more than 30% more energy efficient than required by California law. Operating savings within the first four to eight years of occupancy are expected to repay the initial costs of these design innovations.

An even more environmentally friendly building was built at Oberlin College in 2001 to house its Environmental Studies Program. Under the leadership of Dr. David Orr, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center is planned around the concept of ecological stewardship, and is intended to be both "restorative" and "regenerative" rather than merely non-damaging to the environment. The building is designed to be a net energy exporter, generating more power from renewable sources than it consumes annually. More than 3,700 sq ft (roughly 350 sq m) of photovoltaic panels on the roof are expected to generate 75,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year. The building also draws on geothermal wells for heating and cooling, and features use of natural daylight and ventilation to maintain interior comfort levels and a healthy interior environment. High efficiency insulation in walls and windows are expected to make energy consumption nearly 80% lower than standard academic buildings in the area.

The Lewis Center also incorporates an innovative "living machine" for internal waste water treatment , a constructed wetland for storm water management, and a landscape that provides social spaces, learning opportunities with live plants, and habitat restoration. It is expected that all water used in the building will be returned to the environment in as good quality as when it entered. The water produced by natural cleaning processes should be of high enough quality for drinking, although doing so isn't planned at present.

Taken together, these restorative and regenerative environmental design approaches could bring about a new industrial revolution. The features of environment design are incorporated in McDonough's "Hanover Principles" prepared for the 2000 World Fair in Hanover, Germany. This manifesto for green design urges us to recognize how humans interact with and depends on the natural world. According to McDonough, we need to recognize even distant effects and consider all aspects of human settlement, including community, dwelling, industry and trade, in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness. We should accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well being, the viability of natural systems. We have to understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever, and design doesn't solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. We should treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded and controlled. If we can incorporate these ecologically intelligent principles in our practice, we may be able to link long-term, sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to reestablish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Back Bay Books, 2000.

Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: Harperbusiness, 1994.

Hutchison, Colin. Building to Last: The Challenge for Business Leaders. London: Earthscan, 1997.

McDonough, William The Hanover Principles. 2000. [cited July 9, 2002].<http://www.mcdonoughpartners.com/principles.pdf>.

McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: A Blueprint for the Next Industrial Revolution. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 2002.

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