[Special Topic] Sustainable Design: The Way Out

In the 21st century, I think the heroes will be the people who will improve the quality of life, fight poverty and introduce more sustainability.

                                                          — Bertrand Piccard

What is sustainable design?

According to McLennan (2012), sustainable design (also known as environmental design) is “the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability”. The said design principles often include:

♣ Protect landscape and water resources;
♣ Minimise non-renewable energy consumption;
♣ Balance long-term economic, social and environmental needs;
♣ Provide cost-effective development solutions; and
♣ Enhance quality of life (Horsley Witten Group, 2012).

Usually the above principles are carried out through a holistic approach and the figure below shows clearly the major components of such an approach:


Figure 1: Sustainable design components. (Source: ICT Sustainable Design, 2015).

Why is sustainable design important?

In the convention of business practice, success is the absolute key. But green business has developed two criteria alongside the financial one and this forms the triple bottom line, which is often referred to as “people, planet, profit” or “ecology, economy, equity” (see figure 2 below).


Figure 2: Triple bottom line framework. (Source: Wikipedia, 2012).

Across the globe, buildings account for 40% of energy use, 38% of greenhouse gas emissions, 12% of potable water, and 20% of solid waste streams in developed countries (Neiser, 2014). The triple bottom line graph above states clearly that all three aspects are playing a part in our pursuit for a better future. And designing buildings to suit environmental needs is also probably the least costly way with minimal negative social impacts.

Buildings going green: principles & examples

In her in-depth analysis of sustainability management in the hospitality and tourism industry, Dr. Vinnie Jauhari (2014) points out that a successful sustainable design of a building should follow seven principles:

♥ Local Vegetation Cover

♥ Energy and Resources Independence

♥ Sun Effect

♥ Natural Lighting

♥ Stack Effect

♥ Construction Materials

♥ Embodied energy (pp. 52-56).

Below is an good example of how Villa Flora, a revolutionary sustainable greenhouse / office building becomes “the greenest building in Netherlands”.


Figure 3: Design for Floriade 2012 in Venlo: Greenest Building in the Netherlands. (Source: Kristinsson, 2008)

Villar Flora supplies her own energy. It is also carbon-neutral and all organic waste is being digested into biogas for an extremely efficient Fiwihex cooled gasturbine for the production of warm water and electricity. The “grey water”, so to speak, is used for plant growth. And various kinds of glass regulate licht and radiation of sunheat.

Greener and better: products “in the now”

There are three major frameworks used in sustainable product design: natural capitalism, natural step, and cradle-to-cradle.

Natural capitalism focuses on:

⌋Radically Increase the Productivity of Natural Resources
⌋Shift to Biologically Inspired Production Models and Materials
⌋Move to a “Service-and-Flow” Business Model
⌋Reinvest in Natural Capital

Natural Step is based on:

⌋Substances from the Earth’s crust should not accumulate in the environment
⌋Substances produced by society should not increase in the biosphere
⌋We must preserve the productivity and biodiversity of the ecosystem
⌋Resources should be used fairly and efficiently to meet human needs

Cradle-to-cradle includes:

⌋Eliminate hazardous materials
⌋Consider the entire lifecycle of products
⌋Materials should be upcycled (the process of converting waste materials into new materials or products of better quality or a higher environmental value)
⌋Less bad does not equal good

Below are several award-winning designs from WantedDesign, one of the most popular shows of New York Design Week.

Figure 4: Wake Up Dear (WUD) makes these captivating wood and string lamps in collaboration with local artisans in Atlanta, Georgia. They’s extremely lightweight and their delicate geometric patterns cast dramatic shadows on the wall. (Source: Inhabitant, 2015)


Figure 5: Masuo Fujimura’s Step Up Chair is a multi-purpose piece of furniture that doubles as a step ladder and triples as a valet/place to hang clothes. (Source: Inhabitant, 2015)


Figure 6: Michael Garman’s modular felt teardrop shelves. Made of thick felt, baltic birch and brass, they can also hold plants, mirrors or tsotchkes.(Source: Inhabitant, 2015)

A Future of sustainable design

The world we live in today is the work of designers. Everything is originated in ideas of designers. So imagine the power of placing sustainability at the heart of those design decisions, making it a ‘must’ rather than a ‘maybe’ in every product, service or creative solution. That would reshape the world and make it even more exciting.


Horsley Witten Group. (2012). Sustainable Design Principles. Retrieved from http://www.horsleywitten.com/profile/sustainable-design/sustainable-design-principles/

ICT Sustainable Design. (2015). ICT design products and principles. Retrieved from http://www.ofsrc.ul.ie/index.php/research/6-ict-sustainable-design

Inhabitat.(2015).  20 Fascinating Design Finds Spotted at WantedDesign 2015. Retrieved from http://inhabitat.com/20-fascinating-design-finds-spotted-at-wanteddesign-2015/wanted-design-lead-image/

Jauhari, V. (2014). Managing Sustainability in the Hospitality and Tourism Industry. Watertown, United States: Apple Academic Press, Inc.

Katun, A. (2010). Sustainable Product Design Basic Best Practices.Retrieved from: http://greeneconomypost.com/sustainable-product-design-8870.htm#ixzz3akTnIaqP

Kristinsson, J. (2008). Design for Floriade 2012 in Venlo: Greenest Building in the Netherlands. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Floriade2012Design-GreenestBuildingNL.pdf

McLennan, J. F. (2012), Transformational Thought: Radical Ideas to Remake the Built Environment. Kansas City, United States: Ecotone Publishing.

Newsier, L. (2014). The Importance of Sustainable Design. Retrieved from http://www.mlive.com/business-resource-center/2014/07/the_importance_of_sustainable.html

Said, H., & Berger, L. (2014). Future Trends of Sustainability Design and Analysis in Construction Industry and Academia. Practice Periodical On Structural Design & Construction, 19(1), 77-88. doi:10.1061/(ASCE)SC.1943-5576.0000181

Wikipedia. (2012).  A graphic describing the some of the areas of study that the Triple Bottom Line framework works with. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Triple_Bottom_Line_graphic.jpg

*Featured image: Kubina, J. (2007). An example of passive solar energy system of Technische Universität Darmstadt (Darmstadt University of Technology) in Darmstadt, Germany. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Technische_Universität_Darmstadt_-_Solar_Decathlon_2007.jpg


  1. Another detailed post Suzanne. Did you think about discussing the Orokonui Eco sanctuary (fieldtrip) building as part of this post? It was interesting that you included furniture. When I was in Barcelona last year sustainable design (Antonio Gaudi) was a huge tourism attraction; his houses, furniture, parks and even a subdivision. Certainly a man ahead of his time.


    • I, too, fancy Gaudi’s work. It’s so eye-catchy at first look and the charm is so enduring that the more I stare the more I see. He is a true genius.
      I think the Eco sanctuary is a good example of sustainable design. The temperature control with the opening/closing of the windows, the rain-water collecting device and their re-use of discarded materials all fit into the principles of sustainable design.


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