Study Highlights Recent Graduates' Perceptions of Sustainable Design

Dec. 3, 2008

According to "Education Revolution," a study released recently by international architecture firm RMJM, students at top U.S. design schools rated job prospects as the top benefit of integrating sustainable design into the school curriculum, but only 6 percent of design leaders believe recent graduates are very well prepared to address sustainable design. In contrast, 23 percent of students and 32 percent of faculty think they are very well prepared. A total of 88 percent of firm leaders believe that knowledge of sustainable design will significantly affect a young person's advancement.

The survey also showed wide differences between graduates' aptitude on different areas of sustainable design as identified by LEED ratings.

The study was released at the 2008 GreenBuild conference in Boston last month. The study compared the opinions of three different groups: students currently enrolled in graduate/undergraduate architecture programs in the U.S; faculty in the architecture programs of those same schools; and sustainable design leaders of large design firms that hire the graduates of those schools.

Graduates' Preparation for Sustainable Design Careers

The survey queried faculty, students and sustainable design leaders to assess how well-prepared graduates entering the workforce are to practice sustainable design.

  • Only 6 percent of design leaders believe recent graduates are very well prepared, as opposed to 23 percent of students and 32 percent of faculty.
  • It is students who give the highest negative ratings to their peers (17 percent saying recent graduates are poorly or very poorly prepared, versus 13 percent for faculty and only 6 percent for design leaders).

The higher percentage of students giving themselves lower scores on preparation suggests that they either have higher standards for sustainable design and/or that the schools are not providing them with an adequate level of knowledge.

How Sustainable Design is Taught

The survey asked both students and faculty about the approach to the teaching of sustainable design within their academic institution. While there was agreement on the approaches, students seemed less aware of the available options.

  • The survey asked if their institution offered a concentration, special degree program, or dedicated courses in sustainable design. Students and faculty were in agreement that half offered dedicated courses. Fewer said their institutions offer concentrations or special degree programs and the students seemed less aware of these options. When asked if there are specialty courses on sustainable design separate from the architecture program, again the students seemed to be less aware: 82 percent of faculty said yes, compared to only 54 percent of students.
  • When asked about the teaching structure for sustainable design, most students and faculty said it was integrated into the curriculum and relevant to every class but more faculty thought so than students. At the same time, faculty and students do not perceive sustainable design to be a separate discipline. However, in both cases more respondents thought their institution did perceive it as more separate than they themselves did.

"The debate within academic institutions as to whether it is better to integrate sustainable design within an existing program or to set up a separate program is perhaps the most central issue," said Phil Dordai, Principal at RMJM and expert on sustainable design. "It raises the issue of how best to implement change, incrementally or more radically? Sustainable design represents a new focus for design programs and it has emerged in a fairly short period of time. In many ways it poses a challenge to the teaching of traditional design studios and asks faculty to integrate that new material into the very basic principles of how they approach and teach design. We hope this survey will help point out trends over time and show how schools that follow different paths can provide better methods of teaching sustainable design to the next generation of designers."

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