| John Spacey, January 24, 2016 updated on March 20, 2021
Sustainable design is the practice of designing products, services and processes to be sustainable. This primarily means that designs minimize environmental impact and improve quality of life in communities they touch throughout their entire lifecycle. The following are practices, principles and techniques that are commonly used to create sustainable designs.
AestheticsAesthetics greatly impacts quality of life and is often considered of importance to sustainable design. For example, people typically find parkland crossed with bicycle and walking paths to be more aesthetically pleasing than a highway.
Appropriate Technology A design approach that calls for small-scale solutions that suit circumstances and context. For example, a technology for growing a particular crop in a particular climate. Appropriate technology may consider factors such as the local culture, economy and ecology. Associated with inexpensive and practical approaches.
BiomimeticsDesigns modeled on natural materials, mechanisms and processes.
ConvivialityThe idea that designs be friendly to people. In other words, people don't need to bend to the technology, the technology bends to people. Associated with designs that suit human cognition, physical characteristics and culture.
DeconstructionThings that are build to be deconstructed for reuse or recycling. For example, some buildings can be deconstructed for reuse as opposed to demolished.
DowncyclingRecycling that results in products of lesser value. Often results in materials becoming waste eventually.
DurabilityHigh quality products that resist wear and damage can reduce resource consumption as products don't need to be replaced, returned or repaired.
Efficiency Designs that are energy and resource efficient over their entire lifecycle from production to recycling.
Emotional Attachment The observation that people grow emotional attachments to certain items while other items are viewed with indifference. Emotional attachment can work as a sustainable design goal because it greatly encourages reuse. For example, tea cups that are designed to develop an aesthetically pleasing pattern as they stain over the course of years might achieve far greater reuse than a plastic cup.
Human ScaleHuman scale is the practice of designing things at an appropriate size, weight, speed, distance, temperature, pressure, force and energy level for humans. For example, designing urban environments so that people can reach the services they need with a reasonable distance.
Interdisciplinary Design Interdisciplinary design is the practice of forming design teams with diverse backgrounds, skills, abilities and knowledge. Sustainable design considers a large number of factors spanning technical, environmental and cultural areas and typically requires a diverse set of skills and viewpoints.
Low Impact Materials Materials that are both free of harmful substances and resource efficient.
MarketabilitySustainable design found its beginnings in grassroots projects that occasionally produced idealistic and impractical designs. As such, a rule of thumb developed that valuable sustainable designs are marketable. In other words, they can easily be sold at a profit. This doesn't imply that designs produced by non-profits need to be sold or commercialized. It is simply an observation that if a sustainable design is truly valuable that people would be willing to buy it. Applies to areas such as architecture and product design.
Mixed Use Design A particularly important concept in sustainable architecture and urban planning that calls for neighborhoods and large buildings to include a blend of residential, commercial, community and cultural features. For example, a neighborhood might have a variety of housing, schools, medical services, offices, museums, parks, shopping and facilities such as sports venues. It is a model that minimizes the impact of transportation on quality of life and the environment. It may also create a sense of community similar to that found in a village.
NarrativeIn many cases, a sustainable design has an interesting story behind it that tends to add to its value.
Organic Materials The use of materials from organic sources or materials synthesized to be identical to organic material. Generally useful because organic materials are often known to be biodegradable and low impact. Avoids introducing novel chemicals into the environment.
Passive Design A design technique used primarily by architects to automatically benefit from the environment. For example, passive solar heating may use windows that let light in when its cold inside and shut light out when its hot. The term passive implies an extremely lightweight solution that achieves significant gains.
Proximity Of Design A design goal that places things close together to improve efficiency or quality of life.
Quiet Design Products and services designed to minimize noise pollution such as electronics that don't beep.
RecoverRecovery of materials or energy that had been discarded or abandoned. For example, renovating an abandoned warehouse to make an attractive office space.
RecycleDesigning things from materials that can be easily recycled in the communities where they are sold.
ReduceEliminating waste from products, services and processes to reduce the use of resources.
Regenerative Design Designs that restore their own energy or resources such as brakes on a train or car that generate electricity.
Renewable Resources Use of natural resources that can be replenished via natural processes. Solar power is a classic example.
Reuse Designing products to be reused eliminates waste and tends to reduce consumption of resources. Reuse is related to other design goals such as durability and emotional attachment.
Safety By Design Designs that reduce health and safety risks such as a vehicle with an automated accident avoidance system that applies brakes if you're about to hit something.
Self Reliance Self reliance is a common theme of sustainable design. For example, buildings that produce their own energy with solar technologies or a community designed to grow its own fresh vegetables.
Slow Design A design principle that slows things down to human speed to improve quality of life. Runs contrary to the notion that faster is always better. For example, a well paced meal at a restaurant may span several small courses that take several hours in total. This arguably has a more sustainable feel than a fast food meal that is served and consumed within minutes. Slowness may have a tendency to reduce overall resource consumption. It can also increase perceived value and satisfaction with a product or service.
Small Is Beautiful A design principle that aims for small scale solutions often at the local level. Runs contrary to the common notion that bigger is better. Small is beautiful also represents an alternative to the industrial model that relies on economies of scale such as mass production or cloud computing.
Social Design The practice of considering the social impact of your designs.
Strategic Design The practice of looking at design from a big-picture and long-term viewpoint.
Transition Design A design approach that takes practical steps towards solving complex problems.
UpcyclingRecycling that results in goods of equal or greater value. Tends to avoid waste more effectively than downcycling.
Waste Is Food The principle that all waste products should be a nutritious food for at least one plant, animal, fungi, protist, archaea or bacteria.
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