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Sustainable design (also called environmental design, environmentally sustainable design, environmentally-conscious design, etc) is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment and services to comply with the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability.

The intention of sustainable design is to "eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skillful, sensitive design". Manifestations of sustainable designs require no non-renewable resources, impact on the environment minimally, and relate people with the natural environment.

Applications of this philosophy range from the microcosm — small objects for everyday use, through to the macrocosm — buildings, cities, and the earth's physical surface. It is a philosophy that can be applied in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, urban design, urban planning, engineering, graphic design, industrial design, interior design, and fashion design.

Sustainable design is mostly a general reaction to global environmental crises, the rapid growth of economic activity and human population, depletion of natural resources, damage to ecosystems and loss of biodiversity.

The limits of sustainable design are reducing. Whole earth impacts are beginning to be considered because growth in goods and services is consistently outpacing gains in efficiency. As a result, the net effect of sustainable design to date has been to simply improve the efficiency of rapidly increasing impacts. The present approach, which focuses on the efficiency of delivering individual goods and services does not solve this problem. The basic dilemmas include: the increasing complexity of efficiency improvements, the difficulty of implementing new technologies in societies built around old ones, that physical impacts of delivering goods and services are not localized but distributed throughout the economies, and that the scale of resource uses is growing and not stabilizing.

The motivation for sustainable design was articulated in E. F. Schumacher's 1973 book Small Is Beautiful. In architecture, sustainable design is not the attachment or supplement of architectural design, but an integrated design process. This requires close cooperation of the design team, the architects, the engineers and the client at all project stages, from the site selection, scheme formation, material selection and procurement and project implementation.

Principles of sustainable design

While the practical application varies among disciplines, some common principles are as follows:
  • Low-impact materials: choose non-toxic, sustainably-produced or recycled materials which require little energy to process
  • Energy efficiency: use manufacturing processes and produce products which require less energy
  • Quality and durability: longer-lasting and better-functioning products will have to be replaced less frequently, reducing the impacts of producing replacements
  • Design for reuse and recycling: "Products, processes, and systems should be designed for performance in a commercial 'afterlife'."
  • Design Impact Measures for total carbon footprint and life-cycle assessment for any resource use are increasingly required and available. Many are complex, but some give a quick and accurate whole earth estimates of impacts. One is estimating any spending as consuming an average economic share of global energy use as 8000btu/$ and CO2 production of .57kgCO2/$ (1995$) from DOE figures.
  • Sustainable Design Standards and project design guides are also increasingly available and are vigorously being developed by a wide array of private organizations and individuals. There is also a large body of new methods emerging from the rapid development of what has become known as 'sustainability science' promoted by a wide variety of educational and governmental institutions.
  • Biomimicry: "redesigning industrial systems on biological lines ... enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles..."
  • Service substitution: shifting the mode of consumption from personal ownership of products to provision of services which provide similar functions, e.g. from a private automobile to a carsharing service. Such a system promotes minimal resource use per unit of consumption (e.g., per trip driven).
  • Renewability: materials should come from nearby (local or bioregional), sustainably-managed renewable sources that can be composted when their usefulness has been exhausted.
  • Healthy Buildings: sustainable building design aims to create buildings that are not harmful to their occupants nor to the larger environment. An important emphasis is on indoor environmental quality, especially indoor air quality.

Hannover Principles/Bill of Rights for the Planet

A model of the new design principles necessary for sustainability is exemplified by the "Hannover Principles" or "Bill of Rights for the Planet," developed by William McDonough Architects for EXPO 2000 to be held in Hannover, Germanymarker.

  1. Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition.
  2. Recognize Interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend on the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
  3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry, and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their right to co-exist.
  5. Create safe objects to long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creations of products, processes, or standards.
  6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems in which there is no waste.
  7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  9. Seek constant improvements by sharing knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers, and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and reestablish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

These principles were adopted by the World Congress of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in June 1993 at the American Institute of Architect's (AIA) Expo 93 in Chicagomarker. Further, the AIA and UIA signed a "Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future." In summary, the declaration states that today's society is degrading its environment and that the AIA, UIA, and their members are committed to:

  • Placing environmental and social sustainability at the core of practices and professional responsibilities
  • Developing and continually improving practices, procedures, procedures, products, services, and standards for sustainable design
  • Educating the building industry, clients, and the general public about the importance of sustainable design
  • Working to change policies, regulations, and standards in government and business so that sustainable design will become the fully supported standard practice
  • Bringing the existing built environment up to sustainable design standards

In addition, the Interprofessional Council on Environmental Design (ICED), a coalition of architectural, landscape architectural, and engineering organizations, developed a vision statement in an attempt to foster a team approach to sustainable design. ICED states: The ethics, education and practices of our professions will be directed to shape a sustainable future. . . . To achieve this vision we will join . . . as a multidisciplinary partnership."

These activities are an indication that the concept of sustainable design is being supported on a global and interprofessional scale and that the ultimate goal is to become more environmentally responsive. The world needs facilities that are more energy efficient and that promote conservation and recycling of natural and economic resources.

Conceptual Problems to Solve

  • Diminishing Returns: The principle that all directions of progress run out, ending with diminishing returns, is evident in the typical 'S' curve of The Technology Life Cycle and in the useful life of any system as discussed in Industrial Ecology and Life Cycle Assessment. It's as reliable an expectation as any principle of science that diminishing returns signal natural limits. Common office and business management practice is to read diminishing returns in any direction of effort as an indication of diminishing opportunity, a potential for accelerating their decline and signal to turn elsewhere. (see also: Law of Diminishing Returns and Marginal Utility and Jevon's paradox.)

  • Unsustainable Investment: A problem arises when the limits of a resource are hard to see, so increasing investment in response to diminishing returns may seem profitable as in the Tragedy of the Commons, but may lead to a collapse. This problem of increasing investment in diminishing resources has also been studied in relation to the causes of civilization collapse by Joseph Tainter among others. This natural error in investment policy contributed to the collapse of both the Roman and Mayan, among others. Relieving over-stressed resources requires reducing pressure on them, not continually increasing it whether more efficiently or not

Waste Prevention

Negative Effects of WasteAlmost 40 million tons of solid waste are generated in the U.K. each year. By the year 2000, the municipal solid waste stream is expected to increase by 20 percent to 50 million tons. Today, Each country generates between 3-4 pounds of solid waste per day. This means that U.K. citizens generate the most garbage per capita in the world.

Experience has now shown that there is no completely safe method of waste disposal. All forms of disposal have negative impacts on the environment, public health, and local economies. Landfills have contaminated drinking water. Garbage burned in incinerators has poisoned air, soil, and water. The majority of water treatment systems change the local ecology. Attempts to control or manage wastes after they are produced fail to eliminate environmental impacts.

The toxic components of household products pose serious health risks and aggravate the trash problem. In the U.S., about eight pounds in every ton of household garbage contains toxic materials, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury from batteries, insect sprays, nail polish, cleaners, and other products. When burned or buried, toxic materials also pose a serious threat to public health and the environment.

The only way to avoid environmental harm from waste is to prevent its generation. Pollution prevention means changing the way activities are conducted and eliminating the source of the problem. It does not mean doing without, but doing differently. For example, preventing waste pollution from litter caused by disposable beverage containers does not mean doing without beverages; it just means using refillable bottles.

Waste Prevention StrategiesIn planning for facilities, a comprehensive design strategy is needed for preventing generation of solid waste. A good garbage prevention strategy would require that everything brought into a facility be recycled for reuse or recycled back into the environment through biodegradation. This would mean a greater reliance on natural materials or products that are compatible with the environment.

Any resource-related development is going to have two basic sources of solid waste — materials purchased and used by the facility and those brought into the facility by visitors. The following waste prevention strategies apply to both, although different approaches will be needed for implementation :

  • use products that minimize waste and are nontoxic
  • compost or anaerobically digest biodegradable wastes
  • reuse materials onsite or collect suitable materials for offsite recycling

Examples of sustainable design

A wind turbine

Sustainable planning

Urban planners that are interested in achieving sustainable development or sustainable cities use various design principles and techniques when designing cities and their infrastructure. These include Smart Growth theory, Transit-oriented development, sustainable urban infrastructure and New Urbanism. Smart Growth is an urban planning and transportation theory that concentrates growth in infill sites within the existing infrastructure of a city or town to avoid urban sprawl; and advocates compact, transit-oriented development, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including mixed-use development with a range of housing choices. Transit-oriented development attempts to maximise access to public transport and thereby reduce the need for private vehicles. Public transport is considered a form of Sustainable urban infrastructure, which is a design approach which promotes protected areas, energy-efficient buildings, wildlife corridors and distributed, rather than centralised, power generation and wastewater treatment. New Urbanism is more of a social and aesthetic urban design movement than a green one, but it does emphasize diversity of land use and population, as well as walkable communities which inherently reduce the need for automotive travel.

Both urban and rural planning can benefit from including sustainability as a central criterion when laying out roads, streets, buildings and other components of the built environment. Conventional planning practice often ignores or discounts the natural configuration of the land during the planning stages, potentially causing ecological damage such as the stagnation of streams, mudslides, soil erosion, flooding and pollution. Applying methods such as scientific modelling to planned building projects can draw attention to problems before construction begins, helping to minimise damage to the natural environment.

Cohousing is an approach to planning based on the idea of intentional communities. Such projects often prioritize common space over private space resulting in grouped structures that preserve more of the surrounding environment.

Watershed design and carrying capacity suggest that the foundation of smart growth lies in the protection and preservation of water resources. The total amount of precipitation landing on the surface of a community becomes the supply for the inhabitants. This supply amount then dictates the carrying capacity - the potential population - as supported by the water crop.

Sustainable architecture

Sustainable architecture is the design of sustainable buildings. Sustainable architecture attempts to reduce the collective environmental impacts during the production of building components, during the construction process, as well as during the lifecycle of the building (heating, electricity use, carpet cleaning etc) This design practice emphasizes efficiency of heating and cooling systems, alternative energy sources such as solar hot water, appropriate building siting, reused or recycled building materials, on-site power generation (solar technology, ground source heat pumps, wind power), rainwater harvesting for gardening and washing, and on-site waste management such as green roofs that filter and control stormwater runoff. Sustainable architects design with sustainable living in mind.Sustainable vs green design is the challenge that designs not only reflect healthy processes and uses but are powered by renewable energies and site specific resources. A test for sustainable design is — can the design function for its intended use without fossil fuel — unplugged. This challenge suggests architects and planners design solutions that can function without pollution rather than just reducing pollution. As technology progresses in architecture and design theories and as examples are built and tested, architects will soon be able to create not only passive, null-emission buildings, but rather be able to integrate the entire power system into the building design. In 2004 the 59 home housing community, the Solar Settlement, and a 60,000 sq. ft. integrated retail, commercial and residential building, the Sun Ship, were completed by architect Rolf Disch in Freiburgmarker, Germanymarker. The Solar Settlement is the first housing community world wide in which every home, all 59, produce a positive energy balance.

Sustainable landscape architecture

Sustainable landscape architecture is a category of sustainable design concerned with the planning and design of outdoor space. Design techniques include planting trees to shade buildings from the sun or protect them from wind, using local materials, on-site composting and chipping to reduce green waste hauling, and also may involve using drought-resistant plantings in arid areas (xeriscaping) and buying stock from local growers to avoid energy use in transportation.

Sustainable graphic design

Sustainable graphic design considers the environmental impacts of graphic design products (such as packaging, printed materials, publications, etc.) throughout a life cycle that includes: raw material; transformation; manufacturing; transportation; use; and disposal. Techniques for sustainable graphic design include: reducing the amount of materials required for production; using paper and materials made with recycled, post-consumer waste; printing with low-VOC inks; and using production and distribution methods that require the least amount of transport.


Sustainable agriculture adheres to three main goals: environmental health, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. A variety of philosophies, policies and practices have contributed to these goals. People in many different capacities, from farmers to consumers, have shared this vision and contributed to it. Despite the diversity of people and perspectives, the following themes commonly weave through definitions of sustainable agriculture. For more information on the subject of sustainable architecture please go to the external link entitled UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

There are strenuous discussions — among others by the agricultural sector and authorities — if existing pesticide protocols and methods of soil conservation adequately protect topsoil and wildlife. Doubt has risen if these are sustainable, and if agrarian reforms would permit an efficient agriculture with fewer pesticides, therefore reducing the damage to the ecosystem.

Domestic machinery and furniture

Automobiles, home appliances and furnitures can be designed for repair and disassembly (for recycling), and constructed from recyclable materials such as steel, aluminum and glass, and renewable materials, such as Zelfo, wood and plastics from natural feedstocks. Careful selection of materials and manufacturing processes can often create products comparable in price and performance to non-sustainable products. Even mild design efforts can greatly increase the sustainable content of manufactured items.

Disposable products

Detergents, newspapers and other disposable items can be designed to decompose, in the presence of air, water and common soil organisms. The current challenge in this area is to design such items in attractive colors, at costs as low as competing items. Since most such items end up in landfills, protected from air and water, the utility of such disposable products is debated.

Energy Sector

Sustainable technology in the energy sector is based on utilizing renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, hydro, bioenergy, geothermal, and hydrogen. Wind energy is the world's fastest growing energy source; it has been in use for centuries in Europe and more recently in the United Statesmarker and other nations. Wind energy is captured through the use of wind turbines that generate and transfer electricity for utilities, homeowners and remote villages. Solar power can be harnessed through photovoltaics, concentrating solar, or solar hot water and is also a rapidly growing energy source.

The availability, potential, and feasibility of primary renewable energy resources must be analyzed early in the planning process as part of a comprehensive energy plan. The plan must justify energy demand and supply and assess the actual costs and benefits to the local, regional, and global environments. Responsible energy use is fundamental to sustainable development and a sustainable future. Energy management must balance justifiable energy demand with appropriate energy supply. The process couples energy awareness, energy conservation, and energy efficiency with the use of primary renewable energy resources.

Sustainable technologies

Sustainable technologies use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life. There is a significant overlap with appropriate technology, which emphasizes the suitability of technology to the context, in particular considering the needs of people in developing countries. However, the most appropriate technology may not be the most sustainable one; and a sustainable technology may have high cost or maintenance requirements that make it unsuitable as an "appropriate technology," as that term is commonly used.

Encouraging sustainability

The use of sustainable technologies may be encouraged through means such as reducing the capacity of the electrical cable supplying a home, such as Australia's Crystal Waters Village. In some cases the electricity supplier charges a higher rate for the energy used when the capacity of the supply is increased.

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of certificate and degree programs offered with a concentration in sustainable design.Carnegie Mellon Universitymarker's Master of Science in Sustainable Design degree program provides an integrated education that strives to prepare its graduates for careers that will reshape the built environment in a sustainable fashion. This challenging program is intended for recent graduates and practicing professionals with degrees related to the built environment including architecture, landscape architecture, ecology, engineering, construction, interior architecture/ design, facilities management and others. Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture was ranked #3 in sustainable design education in the United States by the journal DesignIntelligence in its annual "America's Best Architecture & Design Schools" issue.

Boston Architectural Collegemarker offers both a certificate in sustainable design, as well as a bachelor of design studies degree with a concentration in sustainable design. Additionally, the University of Texasmarker main campus in Austin offers a Master of Science in Sustainable Design degree as well as a masters degree in architecture with emphasis on sustainable design. Western Washington Universitymarker in Bellingham, Washingtonmarker has a growing sustainable design program as a cooperation between the Industrial Design major the and Huxley College of the Environment. With an increased focus on the importance of sustainable design globally, there is likely to be higher demand for professionals educated specifically in this discipline. In 2007, Philadelphia Universitymarker began offering a Master of Science in Sustainable Design degree. This program seeks a horizontal acquisition of knowledge and skills based on collaborative and interdisciplinary work.

Minneapolis College of Art and Design's ground breaking Sustainable Design Certificate Program is the first ever accredited online certificate program not exclusive to architecture, focusing on sustainability ideas that can be applied to any effort. The program was developed, and is taught, by long-standing eco-practitioners and advocates for sustainable design, including members of: Worldchanging, Biomimicry Guild, The Natural Step, Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and the Permaculture Guild, with the core group coming from the o2 Global Network. As an all online program, students come from all industries, cultures, and career stages to share ideas and insights while learning how to apply systems thinking to their own work. Not limited to designers, business and government decision makers find they not only learn how to apply sustainability systems thinking, but learn creative out-of-the-box thinking as well.


In some countries the term sustainable design is known as Ecodesign, green design or environmental design. Ecodesign as meant by Victor Papanek, did include social design and social aspects. Over the past years the terms sustainable design and design for sustainability — besides other new terms — became more accepted globally, including the triple bottom line (people, planet and profit).

See also

Advocates and practitioners

Events and Conferences



  • Chris Hendrickson, Noellette Conway-Schempf, Lester Lave and Francis McMichael. "Introduction to Green Design."
  • Green Design Initiative, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA
  • in Sustainable Design ",Carnegie Mellon University,Pittsburgh PA
  • Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture and Planning. Williams, Daniel E.; John Wiley & Sons, 2007.*
  • Paolo Tamborrini, "Design sostenibile. oggetti, sistemi e comportamenti", Electa, 2009
  • Birkeland, J.: Design for sustainability: a sourcebook of integrated ecological solutions. London: Earthscan, 2002

Presidio Graduate School

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