Sustainable Design

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Rob Knapp
Evergreen State College

Human welfare depends on using the Earth’'s physical resources, material cycles, and biological processes, but present human techniques, understanding, decision-making, and perceptions of need are profoundly blind to their destructive effects on these essential functions of the Earth. The reverse is also a problem: present attempts to protect the Earth are often blind to how they impact human welfare.


This pattern addresses people whose work involves direct or indirect interactions with the environment, i.e. with Earth's regenerative systems of all kinds.


It is not news that Earth's environment is under assault at all scales, from the planetary (global warming, overfishing, ozone depletion, and the like) to the local (toxic waste sites, extinction of rare species, oil spills, and so on) and everywhere in between. Nor is it news that all of these assaults are intimately entwined with the welfare of human groups or even whole populations. Whether or not evil masterminds are making the basic decisions (probably negligence is much more often to blame than malevolence), present-day industry and agriculture, together with present modes of finance and organization, do provide the framework for billions of people to engage in livelihood, child-rearing, recreation, even spirituality. This framework cannot be simply abolished without great suffering.

Fortunately, the three decades since the first Earth Day have seen the linking of a mode of thinking—design—and a set of values—sustainability—to seek new ways of building, making products, and providing utilities and services with reduced or no destructive effects on the planet. Examples of this “sustainable design” include the "living machine" concept for sewage treatment, "green roofs" of soil and plants, and passive solar techniques for managing indoor temperatures.

In a green roof, hardy plants in a layer of soil form the first surface between the weather and the building. Underneath is an impervious layer which does the rest of the waterproofing and keeps roots from growing down into the building. Like a conventional, inorganic roof, this assembly protects the building interior from the elements, but it is better in some important ways. The presence of a large planted surface softens the building’s appearance, and brings nature much closer to hand. Evaporation from plants and soil keeps the roof much cooler in summer than normal surfaces, which benefits building occupants and reduces the heat island effect for the surrounding town. The planted layer also protects the impervious surface from solar ultraviolet light and swings of temperature, so it lasts longer.

In green roofs, one has a particularly clear case of sustainable design. The direct environmental effects, on energy, urban air quality, longer life of materials and the like are positive, and intangible effects such as contact with nature go in good directions, as well. Simultaneously, human welfare, at least as understood by the occupants of buildings, is also supported. Sustainability, as a set of values, accepts human purposes and an inevitable degree of human impact on the rest of nature, even while it hopes to minimize destruction and pollution. Sustainability is a compromise between environmentalism and economic development.

Design enters the picture because sustainability has never been conceived in terms that are both concrete and applicable everywhere, and it probably cannot be. The range of environmental and human situations across the planet is too wide, and each situation has too many delicately related variables for any general formula to apply. The discussion of sustainability has identified topics of attention, such as energy, toxic emissions, local production, and resource equity, but it can only voice ideals, not definite rules. To express sustainability in a specific time and place, one needs a mode of thinking which can synthesize general values like sustainability with local constraints and opportunities. Design is just such a mode. (See the DESIGN STANCE pattern for more on this point.)

Sustainable design is much like conventional design, but sustainable values replace novelty, fashion, and mastery of nature as priorities. There are also several important new emphases. Sustainable design is much more open to community involvement than the conventional expert-centered design approach, and it assumes that older traditional practices can contribute much to present designs. Finding ways to synthesize expert knowledge and community wisdom, and bring together traditional and innovative methods are active areas of experiment and investigation.
Sustainable design needs to be integrative in brand-new ways, because such a wide range of of environmental and human values in each project needs attention. Whereas an architect could previously draw a form and instruct engineers to find a way to build it and heat it, with everyone relying on cheap energy and industrial materials to permit a solution, sustainable design usually needs to be a team effort from the start, allowing a mutual influence of energy, materials, form, and other considerations. As a simple example, solar energy in the U.S. calls for southern orientation, while good access from roads at a given location may call strongly for northern. Sustainable design does not place one of these values automatically higher than the other: the right integration for the project and its users has to be worked out each time, with relevant voices represented from the beginning.

Taking nature seriously also guides the time perspective of sustainable design. Whereas architects or engineers have often conceived their work as timeless and independent of Nature’s processes, the sustainable designer understands the work as an intervention in the natural flows of the planet. It creates impacts, but also receives them. Even heroic engineering, like the New Orleans system of levees, cannot defy Nature indefinitely. And even the most profitable (or most humanitarian) project of the present can inflict enormous costs on the planet, including its people, in the future. Sustainable design does not regard the future as superior to the present, but it regards it as the involuntary heir to what happens now, for good or ill.


Consider each building or product as a double intervention—in the Earth'’s cycles and processes, and simultaneously in the human culture of needs and techniques. Make use of available understanding, both innovative and traditional, both natural and social, to gauge the proper balance of human and non-human effects for each intervention. Remember that present culture builds from the work of the past, and future culture will have to build from what the present provides. The ethic of sustainable design is not only that future existence should be possible, but that it should exhibit justice and beauty for humans and for the rest of nature.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Human welfare depends on using the Earth's resources, material cycles, and biological processes, but current approaches are blind to their destructive effects on the Earth. We need to consider each building or product as an intervention in the Earth's cycles and processes, and in the human culture of needs and techniques. The ethic of Sustainable Design suggests that future existence — as well as justice and beauty for humans and for the rest of nature —should be possible.

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