Sustainable Design 101

April 1, 2003
Laura M Bailey, FIIDA

Sustainable Design 101

Does it seem like the world around you understands sustainable design while you're being left behind? Do you understand the meaning of terms such as sustainability and green? Do you wonder what sustainable design tenets and the elements and principles of design have in common?The fact that you are reading this article means you have a sincere interest in learning and knowing more about sustainable design. You are not alone in this exploration. With the increasing number of projects becoming certified by the LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System, as well as the growing number of organizations that are becoming members of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the interest in sustainability has escalated accordingly. As a result, there's a real need for education for those who are just now getting involved. And it's never too late. The USGBC was formed just nine years ago as the building industry's only balanced, non-profit coalition promoting the understanding, development and implementation of green building policies and design practices. By asking questions now, you can take advantage of all the research and planning that's been conducted in recent years. One of the many positive aspects of LEED is that it encourages creativity in problem solving. Its criteria and evaluation are not prescriptive, thus allowing advancement in creating green buildings. And LEED is expanding; a pilot program is currently in place to establish LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED CI). If you are really serious about your commitment to green design and building principles, you can become a LEED-accredited professional. (Visit for more information.)Sustainable design, just like traditional design, is a process accomplished in steps. Some steps are large; others are small; all work toward creating less waste and promote more efficient resource management. However, questions about a project's effectiveness still must be answered by all design team members involved: What is the longevity of the complete design? Will the design endure the needs of the client? Will the design solution offer flexibility for the next occupant? Here is where sustainable design, and the basic elements and principles of design, merge for a successful solution. Strong design fundamentals enhance the longevity of any project. The more the elements and principles of a project are considered timeless, the likelier that the project will become a successful sustainable project. For example, the proper site location of a building—its locale, positioning to the sun, natural airflow around the site, and how it affects the surrounding area—are the basics for a correct design solution. This also fulfills a proper solution for our environment. How does this translate into a designer's interior solutions? Here are two examples: with proper placement of the building, day lighting should be an easy design element to incorporate. Also, reflectance of the interior finishes now becomes an important issue. The same questions can be asked when selecting products to be incorporated in the project. Are the products durable? Can they be disassembled? Are they made from recycled materials? Can they be recycled? What is the longevity of the product design? Currently, products are offered in several shades of green, which obviously can confuse the decision-making process in selecting the best products for a project. As you become more knowledgeable in sustainable design principles, your comfort level regarding selections will also strengthen. Yes, there is some "green wash" by manufacturers. However, I believe most manufacturers are sincere in their attempt to be more sustainable. Their products may currently exist in a light shade of green, yet they are in the process of learning. After all, everyone has to begin somewhere, so do manufacturers. It's important to keep asking questions relevant to their products. Questions may include: Is the product recyclable or recycled? Is the material made from post-industrial and post-consumer byproducts? How does the product economically influence the life of the project? What are its environmental attributes? What are its features? How does it influence indoor air quality? How is it maintained?Several organizations can assist in making selections by establishing standards and guidelines for green products. I hope in the future we will be able to review the specifications of a product with standardized criteria, perhaps similar to the food nutrition chart. For more information on some of these organizations and an overview of sustainable design product manufacturing, check out "Sustainable Products for Green Design," written by Steve Hoffman and offered as a home-study CEU by the IIDA educational department. It appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of the EnvironDesign Journal (a supplement to IS magazine) and can be accessed on-line at Magazine/edj_'02/ceu.html.So what's on the horizon in sustainable design? William McDonough and Michael Braungart have issued the challenge associated with "eco-effective" design. They urge us to go beyond attempts to minimize the human impact on the world. Through the strategy they call eco-effectiveness, McDonough and Braungart challenge us to create products that will be regenerative nutrients to our world. Their recent book, Cradle to Cradle, is a great read for more information on a process that celebrates abundance, rather than bemoaning it.It's important to remember to keep asking questions; eventually you will find the answers you seek. The momentum for protecting our world is upon us and you will be amazed at how your information network will dramatically widen as you, yourself, become more knowledgeable. Don't forget—every step counts.Laura M. Bailey, FIIDA is the IIDA Sustainable Design Advisor for 2002 to 2003. IIDA is headquartered in space 13-122 at The Merchandise Mart, Chicago, and can be reached at (888) 799-IIDA or by visiting

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