Sustainable Design + Students

Aug. 1, 2004
Beth Harmon-Vaughan, FIIDA

Taking a close look at sustainability.

What does sustainability really mean and why should it concern us? When and how does it impact our work and our lives? How can we ensure that interior design students are prepared to enter the world they'll face after graduation? How well prepared are academic programs to teach the principles of sustainable design?

FIDER is taking a careful look at sustainability to see what it means for future interior designers. The Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER), headquartered in Grand Rapids, MI, is responsible for setting standards and evaluating interior design academic programs for accreditation, the mark of quality education.

Trend watching and scanning for changes in both interior design practice and higher education alerted FIDER to rapidly expanding interest in sustainability. And, to make sure that FIDER's leadership has a deep understanding of the topic, a "Sustainability Day" was held in Atlanta, GA, in conjunction with the spring board meeting. The volunteers who head up FIDER committees for standards development, research and accreditation joined the FIDER Board of Directors at the workshop.

FIDER standards now require students studying interior design at the college level to understand the concept of sustainable resources. In the FIDER evaluation system, sustainability is a desirable, not mandatory, characteristic of student learning outcomes. Understanding is defined as a "thorough comprehension of concepts and their interrelationships." Kayem Dunn, FIDER executive director, reported that accredited programs meet that expectation with research projects, lectures, field trips and design projects. The current requirement is not stringent, but the evidence from program evaluations suggests that students do understand sustainable resources. The question hovering over the workshop was, "Is this enough?"

Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface, in his keynote address, challenged FIDER leaders to consider their impact on the planet. Describing it as "the crisis of our times and perhaps all times to come," Anderson talked about " the systematic destruction of the biosphere by you and me and our species." He also offered a ray of hope.

Reviewing the evolution of the environmental movement and its backbone of ethics (it's "the right thing to do") set the tone for Anderson's discussion of industrialism and its consequences. "Industrial ecology tells us the industrial system, as it operates today, simply cannot go on and on and on, taking, making, wasting—abusing the web of life," Anderson said. His company was challenged by customers to consider the environmental impact of manufacturing carpet. For the past 10 years, Interface has been responding with a plan with seven objectives: waste elimination, benign emissions, renewable energy, closed loop material flows, resource efficient transportation, sensitizing employees, customers, suppliers and communities and reinventing commerce.

Anderson reported that, "Sustainability has been unbelievably good for business" and suggested that other companies and industries must transform in order to survive. He encouraged FIDER leaders to consider their own roles, both as individual interior designers and as people with influence in the education of future interior designers.

The workshop continued with presentations that drove home the meaning of Anderson's passionate commitment to sustainability.

Anderson reported that, "Sustainability has been unbelievably good for business" and suggested that other companies and industries must transform in order to survive.

The U.S. Green Building Council and its impact on the building of buildings today was addressed at the workshop by Jeff Cotton, manager of environmental policy for Interface Americas. Cotton presented a clear view of the need for green buildings because of their significant environmental impact, especially in energy consumption and creation of waste. Consumer demand, along with federal, state and local government use of LEED, has fueled growth in the council.

Kim Chamness of the Perkins + Will Atlanta office presented a view of how design firms are ramping up to meet consumer demands. He maintained that it takes a dedicated team of design and build members to make a project sustainable. "In order to successfully build a sustainable project, all the team players have to be on board. The interior designer plays a pivotal role in gaining client acceptance," he said. Chamness gave examples from his recent work. He serves as the Sustainable Design Leader for the Perkins + Will Atlanta office, and as a member of the firm-wide Sustainable Design Initiative.

Knowing that designers are interested in seeing actual projects, site visits were part of the sustainability day program. A walk-through of the Silver-LEED certified Georgia Tech College of Management building in midtown Atlanta and the nearby LEED CI pilot project, the Interface showroom, demonstrated how problems of environmental impact are solved. A final site visit was to Pond Studios in LaGrange, GA. There, designer David Oakey described his personal journey to green design thinking and the influence of Ray Anderson from Interface on that conversion. Oakey has worked extensively with Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry. Exploring biomimicry theory brought to life in the hands of a designer, Oakey discussed the new design thinking process and provided a glimpse of the future.

So what does the future hold for interior design education?

When asked, "What did you learn that might influence you in the future?" a participant observed, "In particular, how critically important it is to ensure that students are educated now because by the time they graduate from school, these issues will no longer be topics for future consideration, but everyday applications and they must be knowledgeable and able to deal with them."

The FIDER Board agreed that future designers will need greater knowledge and set the wheels in motion to verify that sustainability is an important element of undergraduate education. The next step is to engage the FIDER research and standards development committees in focused research to determine whether the communities of interest agree with a proposed change. Accreditation standards are often referred to as "consensus driven" because of this consultation with people who might be affected by the change. If there is sufficient support, FIDER publishes the new requirement with an effective date set to give academic programs a reasonable timeframe to comply.

The sincerity of Anderson's perspective on the systematic destruction of the biosphere and his faith in "people motivated by being engaged in a cause larger than themselves" inspired participants to make changes for themselves as well. From the group of a dozen present for the workshop, at least three people are seeking LEED accreditation for themselves.

Change is possible. In the words of Ray Anderson, "One mind at a time."

Beth Harmon-Vaughan, FIIDA, is the chair of the FIDER Board of Directors. She is director of interior design at Leo A. Daly in Phoenix, AZ, an NCIDQ certificate holder, and currently seeking LEED accreditation. For more information about FIDER, or to make comments on this or other topics, visit its Web site at Download the complete standards for interior design education from the site.

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