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The Ethics of Sustainable Design

May 1, 2004
Penny Bonda, FASID

What obstacles stand in the way of true sustainability?

Eco Design Matters Why doesn't everybody do it? Isn't this a question you frequently ask yourself about things that seem so right and logical to you that you simply can't fathom others not seeing matters your way? Take, for example, the Prius. David Pogue, a self-described techno-geek and The New York Times columnist, recently bought one and describes it as "the most efficient and least polluting car sold in America." Manufactured by Toyota, the Prius averages 55 miles per gallon and produces one-tenth the exhaust of normal cars. He wonders, as do I, "with gas prices hitting $3 a gallon, environmental concerns intensifying and diminishing oil reserves," why isn't everyone driving one?Actually, I don't own a Prius and there are a number of really good reasons, but I know I should. Though most of us know what we "should" do, we can also articulate the reasons why we don't. But some things remain a mystery. For me, it's why anyone would question the need to begin thinking and behaving sustainably, not just with the cars we drive, but in the way we live every facet of our lives: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the products we buy and, yes, the buildings and interiors we design. Ray Anderson, the chairman of Interface, Inc., and Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine, both delivered keynote speeches at the ASID Interiors '04 conference in Savannah last March and both spoke forcefully about the ethics of green design. Szenasy challenged the audience to "be relentless and tough; we are talking about professional ethics here. As you source that big office job, or any other job, ask each contending manufacturer about its stance on sustainability. Is the chair designed for disassembly? Which of its parts are made of recycled materials? How many different countries does it take to produce all of its parts, which by inference tells you how much fossil fuel energy was spent in shipping parts from around the world? Does the manufacturer have a reclamation policy? I guarantee that if you engage your suppliers with these and other developing questions and concerns, they will respond. They want your order—they thrive on your orders!"Szenasy makes the point that designers have enormous buying power and quotes a BIFMA report that estimates 2004 office furniture shipments to top $10.5 billion. "By buying at this kind of volume," she continues, "your profession has enormous power. But this power comes with an environmental and social responsibility. You are responsible through your purchases for putting deadly toxins into our air and water supplies, and guzzling our decreasing energy supply." She's right, of course, and it's infuriating to me that green design hasn't penetrated deeper into the marketplace. As successful as it is, LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council's green building rating system, hasn't yet captured more than five percent of new construction in the U.S. What are the obstacles that stand between the design professional and true sustainability?
  • Ignornace.
  • When it comes to sustainability, "what we don't know can't hurt us" couldn't be further from the truth. Do you know that rainforests the size of New York City are being destroyed every day or that the oceans of the world have warmed substantially during the past 40 years due to global warming? Are you aware of the harm to human health caused by paints, coatings and adhesives with high VOC emissions? Do you know that the commercial cotton industry accounts for more than 10 percent of the world's annual pesticide consumption and the land its grown on needs to rest for five years before earthworms will return?
  • Inconvenience.
  • It's far easier to dump all of our trash into one big can, which we haul out to the dumpster, than it is to separate it for recycling. Tossing discontinued carpet folders from design libraries takes less thought and time than returning them or donating them to schools. Sending damaged furnishings to the landfill is less of a hassle than sending them to the refinishers.
  • Change Reluctance.
  • Humans are, by and large, creatures of habit and we find it hard to deviate from our established practices. Writing specifications from the boilerplate models we've used for years feels comfortable. There's security in the same-old, same-old versus the anxiety of taking a chance on a new product or technology that may be a more ecologically responsible choice. Change reluctance is also rampant among contractors. Many designers have seen their specifications disregarded by contractors who, through fear or ignorance, refuse to consider the greener process or product.
  • Special Interests.
  • Trade associations exist to protect and promote the industry they represent. Some do a fine job and are useful resources for design practitioners looking for technical data. However, trade associations often act as the lobbying arm of industry and legislators are constantly being pressured by these industry lobbyists to act in ways that are contrary to ethical practice: i.e., write regulations that are too lax or to roll back compliance measures in order to boost profits. For the uneducated, it's difficult to separate the spin from the truth.
  • Lack of Standards, Guidelines and Consensus.
  • This problem has abated somewhat since the release of LEED four years ago. However, the developers of LEED, including me as chair of the LEED for Commercial Interiors committee, readily admit that a significant number of unresolved issues exist. Measuring the emissions from furniture and the debate over the toxicity of PVC are hotly debated topics. Experts are also struggling with incorporating life cycle analysis into materials selection. While there is widespread agreement that LCA is an essential tool in evaluating the ecology of a product, reaching consensus on how to frame the protocol has proved difficult.
  • Aesthetics.
  • This oft mentioned obstacle to sustainability from years past has largely disappeared. Gone are the days when green design meant home-grown and dull. I challenge anyone to find more beautiful projects than the Audubon House by the Croxton Collaborative, Environmental Defense by Envision Design or HOK's National Wildlife Federation headquarters.
  • Budget and Time Constraints.
  • Okay, all together now: "Green design costs too much and takes too long." It's been said so often it's almost become a mantra and one that, frankly, contains kernels of truth. Green design is a discipline to be learned, much like any other. However, like riding a bike, once mastered it becomes second nature, and with use develops into an exciting skill. Researching the environmental properties of window films, learning the fundamentals of daylighting and querying manufacturers about their environmental performance are truly rewarding intellectual pursuits.
  • Functional Limitations.
  • There are materials that perform beautifully, but are so dangerous they should never be used. Asbestos is a good example. Some say PVC is another and designers, accustomed to specifying vinyl flooring, furnishings and window treatments, struggle to find viable alternatives. Dedicated practitioners have succeeded, however, in installing PVC-free projects without any compromise in quality or performance.
  • Apathy and Denial.
  • It is astonishing to me that there are people who refuse to believe that the world is getting warmer, that potable water is becoming scarce, that species are being lost at an alarming rate and that resources are being depleted. Equally troubling are those who recognize that our planet is in trouble, but feel it's somebody else's problem. For every designer who is careful to specify only certified wood, there are many others who continue to be driven by self-centered consumerism by insisting upon the use of endangered tropical hardwoods for furniture and flooring.A Chinese proverb says, "If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed." When ignorance ends, negligence begins and its antidote is responsibility. Making the choice to educate ourselves and then act on our new-found knowledge is the ethical obligation of every one of us.

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