What is Green Design?

In response to Miguel Verissimo’s query to the “Green Design” on-line group.

Miguel, you asked originally what "Green Design" means to ‘us’, in light of three observations concerning the design (and build) community of professionals: (1) the key concept of ecology has been forgotten; (2) scale has become unimportant, and (3) technology has supplanted simplicity in materials and methods. Forgive me if my paraphrasing has taken you out of context.

Any time I see "ecology" in a statement, I immediately refer to Odum before proceeding. Eugene Odum – the father of modern ecology – was keenly interested in the inter-connectedness of things and place his whole life; it was the focus of his research, and was the passion he passed on to his students and disciples. He was a man who saw simplicity where others saw complexity, he was disinterested in ‘splash’ and pro-active in his personal life (not the lives of others) – he was not an environmentalist. If things changed, they changed first in his own life and ‘place’, and his example led to changes in those around him, or touched by him.

Green design, like Odum’s life, begins in-situ, with our own personal inter-connections and place. Change there, leads, inevitably to change elsewhere. When designing (and implementing design) we are changing with purpose, and not merely responding to our place.

Odum’s "web-of-life" idea, was put into practice through his definition of "eco-system." An eco-system is a dynamic (that is four-dimensional) space with arbitrarily defined boundaries – ecology is the study of the inter-connections within that space (how its parts inter-act and react to each other, the pathways of energy flow, etc.) and between adjacent spaces. We often think of ecology in concrete terms: predator-prey-food-structure. But, it is a conceptual tool for analysis, a means to answering questions.

I believe "Green Design" (when it is not purposed to confuse consumers with intentional or unintentional deceit) is at its heart: ecological. It considers the place, the inter-connectedness of its parts, and the relationship of that place with adjacent spaces, objects, processes, etc. (not just physically adjacent, but through social and bio-physical pathways).

Building Science or Energy Efficient Design are very narrow applications of Green Design. When I consider the different standards and designations systems out-there, they all have in common, not just the purposed intent of a structure, its energy use, occupant health, but they also consider the structures place in its community, and how use of that structure will impact the community (its people, wildlife, rivers, bays, etc.).

There is a marketing/consumer backlash against the use of the word "green" to designate an environmentally friendly building, community or product. Its born out of its misuse and out of misunderstanding. It doesn’t change what designing green is: a systems approach to design that consider place as important.

I had always thought the role of architect or designer implied that "place" was as important as function or form. After all, we live in modified places – nowhere we live is un-designed, or unmodified to meet our purposes. It is just that some designed spaces encompass a larger boundary of consideration than others.

I don’t believe ‘ecology’ has been lost from Green Design – it is missing from green washing (but so is morality and ethics).

Design is acutely aware of scale and scale impacts, whether we are considering a unique thing, or the production of something. You cannot necessarily fault a designer for the scale of a project. The scale impacts of the project are going to be part of the design – its the definition of the space that may lead to unconsidered problems after a project is completed. It is defining the design space that dictates to what degree a project’s scale can be accommodated. Neglecting to properly define the system boundary will lead to system failures.

Sometimes we are constrained by ignorance, sometimes by resources, other times by our clients … still we may be short-sighted by our own desire, greed, political correctness or ethical/political spinelessness … so boundaries can be improperly defined, and problems – sometimes monumental disasters – can occur. Buildings fail, communities get polluted, sprawl and congestion plague the places we live and work.

Scale is a part of green design – it is that arbitrary boundary of analysis. It is a political boundary for large projects. The larger the scale of the project, the greater the financial and political interest … the more complex the social constraints become.

Ecology has taught us that simple systems are robust systems. Complex systems are more rigid. When we design complex engineered systems, we create numerous pathways of response. But as we increase the number and complexity of these pathways (inter-connections) we decrease the part’s scope of response. The ability of the system to fail safely is compromised. Natural systems never fail, they only change. We build and modify, and by doing so, introduce complexity to a system. We also design with little or no intention to change – quite the opposite. Look to your local planning department, and tell me the rules and politics of development of any kind don’t meet resistance at every level. We design for rigidity – "to stand the test of time." Eco-systems are dynamic, simple and fluid if they are to be robust.

When we consider durability in design, we are actually thinking in opposition to eco-systems. I don’t have a problem with this. Its part of being human. And Odum stated that problem analysis within ecology was to seek out a harmonious relationship with nature – we are after all, creative destroyers of our environment, not merely reactive participants. I believe in this respect, Green Design needs to look at the extent of the design boundary, and how the project will affect the robustness of the place and its adjacencies when we consider the scale of a project, or the complexity of the structure/design.

There is a sexiness to high-tech that we have a natural affinity for. Sometimes the high-tech solution is the way to go. Maybe not in other cases. High-tech materials tend to be complex assemblies. They are rigid from a systems point-of-view, and do not always contribute to a space (or an adjacent place) in the way we want (a material may be inert at my home, but its production hazardous and risky). The simple solution to a problem is often the most graceful. Science, says it will most probably be the most dynamic and robust solution.

I am not advocating that we start living in tikihuts and sod houses … but, green design, implemented with reduced-impact and community harmony as its principle goals, is the place to start any project.

[Added 5/16/2009]

Ecology is a field of scientific endeavor – an eco-system is a concept. "Ecological thinking" would be the application the scientific understanding of ecology to a particular problem – in the case of this discussion, to the design of some object (say, a lounge chair), or structure (be it a house or an office tower), or a planned community, we would bring an understanding of meta-systems model building to test-out and untimately build a structure that meets pre-determined goals. Ecology, as a science, DOES NOT consider the human animal as an political-economic agent … and so thinking purely ecologically will lead to design failure.

Conservation Biology (a kind-of applied ecology) often tries to bring human agency into its planned programs; but, often fails to go far enough because of the political dynamics between professioal groups and their model paradigms – its that human agency thing that gums up the works.

You must go beyond ecology, if you are design in a social construct. Just as you must go beyond engineering or sociology or economics or politics if you are to design for people in an environmental construct.

You can attempt to model all the layers of systems you want but the model will only grow in analytical complexity. Setting model/analytical boundaries becomes imperative, else the model become so complex and cumbersome that its outcomes become meaningless. Consequently, we move beyond ecology/economics and on to heuristics for design, and the means of testing a design to some standard or goal (so that we call something green and distinguish it from other objects, structures or plans). So we tend toward rules (presumably informed by systems science and other applied investigations) to guide the design process – all those different calculators and "green" standards are little more than heuristic guides for design.

There is harmony in this process (although there may not be much harmony in the making of the rules). Artistic/aesthetic concept become a part of the design challenge, whether we are addicted to energy or not (sidenote – its not energy addiction, its market externalities that under-price the use of a kJ).

Nature does not tell us that individuality is important, quite the contrary – that is an anthropomorphism, and is a dangerous road to travel in understanding nature in all its brutal beauty.

Each actor in the design process is a specialist by trade and necessity – we can’t know everything. So, large scale projects rely on some means of assembling that knowledge in a team (charettes, round-tables, etc.): the team approach overcomes the ignorance of individuals (although it introduces its own dynamics as a management system).

Equilibrium is an unatural and unstable state. Plan for change.

The miracle of "green design" (or "any" design for that matter) isn’t that something energy efficient or carbon neutral is built, it’s that something wonderful can be made real in-spite-of the limitations we place on ourselves. I think, Miguel, this is your civilizing artistic/aesthetic endeavor, whether created by a trained architect or borne of the vernacular efforts of craftsmen and citizens alike.

The systems approach to design-build necessesitates that the means (the methodology of design and of construction) complement the ends (the purposed object, structure or community). To violate that complemtarity, violates the system (those inter-connections in the boundary of analysis or implementation) and leads to failure: a chair that cannot support the weight of its occupant because the designer or manufacturer took a short-cut, ignored an assumption, or substituted an inferior material – the same applies to a house, a bridge or a community.

In that respect, your exhortation to "self-responsability" is the moral imperative of the designer and builder to act ethically and with integrity. "Integrity" – I use that with all its force of thought here, since moral character is transferred from the design team to the structure itself.

Click here for the original discussion.

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About Richard Porter

Richard Porter is the principal photographer at Unusual Exposures Photography and Digital Art (www.unusualexposures.com). When he is not shooting, planning or editing, Richard can be found working in his apiary, cavorting with friends, getting dirty in his garden, and enjoying all that life has to offer.
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