AIA Associate, Oh Planning and Design

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What are the barriers to implementing sustainable design?

Sustainable design of all shapes, sizes, forms, and methods are amazing, and have pushed building and product design into new areas as we learn to lessen our impact on the environment. Even though we, as a people, have made great strides in accomplishing sustainability, such as LEED and Living Building Challenge designed structures, why hasn't it become more wide spread? What are the struggles for things like sustainable design, alternative energies, and other green ideas?

  • May 4 2013: Hi Kevin,
    in the 70's, my dad, (who was an industrial designer and professor) James Hennessey, wrote a series of books with Victor Papanek called "Nomadic Furniture", a sort of DIY handbook for sustainable design.
    In fact, his and other sustainable design ideas are going to be exhibited at MAK in Austria next month!

    I feel sustainable design is making a big come-back, especially thanks to the current recession. Folks don't have the money to buy new, expensive design, and are coming up with their own creative solutions by 'upcycling' what they already have.

    Unfortunately, I also think there is a common misconception that a sustainable ('green') product is either 'not as good', or more expensive than conventional products. We've been trained by society to be concerned about the status attached to the products we buy. Having garden furniture made out of used pallets is pretty awesome in my book, but to someone more materialistic than me, it could be perceived as downright awful.
    • May 4 2013: You make a great point. As much as we as designers and architects want to push forward fancy new green-tech, something as simple as recycled materials and sustainable harvested materials can be considered green. Often, the low-tech green solutions are just as good as the high-tech. Perhaps what designers need to realize is we should present a vast range of options for a vast range of costs, so that a client can make the decision based on how much they want to invest in now, and perhaps even later.

      That's cool that your dad wrote that book - I'm going to have to look into that! And thanks for the input!
      • May 5 2013: Absolutely! Something as simple as having your own veggie garden, or if you really have no green thumb (like me), shopping at the farmer's market instead of the supermarket. There are all sorts of guides on the net to build your own solar panels to supply power or warm water.

        In Holland, alternative energy is subsidized to a point - the waiting lists are long and due to the recession, the amount of money to invest in sustainable energy has been drastically cut back. But it's still there!
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    May 3 2013: I think that profit and technician maybe the leading factors.On the one hand,if people can't find extra benifits in sustainable way, compared with the conventional one, they are not likely to convert the current methods, which seem meaningless in their eyes(But I'm afaid people seldom take the great value of the environment into consideration when caculating profits they gain. Obviously,this method is completely wrong!). On the other hand, sustainable ways require more high-qualified talents in certain fields, and it is true that such talents are in great need in many advanced fields ,which will also slow down the process of spreading the sustainable ways..
    • May 3 2013: Often times, I find that people try to advertise that sustainable design will reap greater benefits in the long run. A high initial cost with pay backs in savings in the future. Do you think that this isn't an effective enough way to convince people to invest in these kinds of ideas? Often times, an architect/designer pushing for sustainability would say something like "this building will pay off in saving ten years down the road." Perhaps people are not able to foresee the use of their building that far into the future?

      And if sustainable design requires too many expensive highly-skilled professionals, should we be looking at training professionals across a vast span of different expertise, so that if I wanted a green product at a small scale (i.e. - a cover for my iPhone, or a small addition to a house), that I can higher a cheaper green expert?

      Thanks for the input
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        May 4 2013: Advertisements on sustainable ways is one thing, but people's reaction is quite another. I totally agree with your idea "people can foresee the great value of the sustainable way but they do little about their words". As a member of a organization which is dedicated to promote the idea of "Garbage Classification", I gradually realize that people will feel awkward and less motivated to do something others seldom do, such as picking up garbages left on the grassland.Though it seems strange, the trend is common to be seen everywhere.Thus,if we want to promote something sustainable, there must be courageous groups who practice it as pioneers and then people will feel at ease to imitate them. in my opinion, pratice is more convincing than words of mouth.

        As for the professionals, I still think that as there are few pioneers in practicing the sustainable ways, people are not very enthusiastic toward them so that people are less likely to step into such newly-presented fileds. As a result, though government are willing to training professionals in certain fields, it doesn't appeal to people.
  • May 5 2013: American congress and no vision. The truth will piss you off before it will set you free .
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    May 4 2013: Probably the biggest barrier is that O has been caught with his pants down too many times and so would be reluctant to squander more money on ideas that are not in the same zip code with the market place.
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    May 4 2013: .
    My answer:

    The biggest "barrier" is invalid (harmful) happiness.
    which wastes bout 90% of our resources-energy.

    To clear the "barrier" is very easy.
    Just Be Happy Validly!
  • May 3 2013: Great point RH. It's true, we've made great steps in a relatively short amount of time when you look at the larger scheme of things. Yet, given how we are at the breaking point of the limits that our planet can provide, it seems that we should be acting faster than 40 years out. Perhaps you're right - in time, sustainable design may just become good old plain design, and we no longer differentiate between "green" and "not-green." Thanks for the input!
    • May 4 2013: I sure hope you're right, Kevin!
      Thinking 'green' is a trend, and a trend by definition means something that is temporary, not meant to last. The irony is that, sustainable design IS designed to last! We live in a disposable age where it is cheaper to buy a new product instead of getting the one we have repaired.
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    R H

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    May 3 2013: I'm not an architect or builder, but regarding barriers to positive change I would look for who benefits from the status quo. What is their power/influence level in the market? I would also offer that 'green/sustainable' technology has made significant strides in a relatively short period of time - would you say within the last 40 years? Most corporate and personal visions and missions today regarding any tech initiatives include a 'green/sustainability' component. In 40 more years we may look back at us 'primitives' of today and cringe like we now do watching movies of doctor's smoking cigarettes while performing lobotomies :)
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    May 3 2013: Inertia, status-quo, and profit.
    • May 3 2013: How would we go about changing the status-quo? Or decrease inertia, for that matter? I understand the profit side very easily. And it feels like, as much as we like to say to each other that we are being green/sustainable, when it comes to the reality of buying a product or constructing a building, people behave differently then the way they talk. I forget where it was, but essentially people say to researchers "yes, I am willing to pay more for green products," but when they actually begin purchasing in the real world, they reveal that that statement only works to a certain extent.

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        May 3 2013: In order to affect inertia you must introduce a Force. To do so is to affect the status quo. It is called rocking the boat. People will yell at you to shut-up and sit down. If you have the courage and conviction you will introduce a Force by remaining standing and shouting, "But we are headed for a waterfall and will all die if we do not change our course!" If you lack the courage and/or the conviction you should sit back down. Best wishes Kevin.
      • May 4 2013: I feel it comes down to making an investment that will benefit our earth, rather than for the benefit of ourselves individually.
        My husband and I invested in a solar energy system 10 years ago, and have since then earned our investment back. In fact, our electricity bill adds up to exactly nothing per month.
        People have no qualms about spending hundreds on the latest iPhone, a flashy car, a designer suit or bling on their finger. As soon as status no longer plays a role, because we have hit that waterfall, will people understand the need for change.
        • May 4 2013: That's great to hear about your return on investment. Designers/architects talk about that all the time with clients, but the increase in initial cost is always what drives them away from good sustainable design ideas. I guess the only thing that we can do is continue to push the idea forward and hope that it will spread to a larger audience in the future.
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          R H

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          May 4 2013: When economists finally put a 'cost' on the depletion of non-renewable raw materials from the earth (commodities), and the gov't starts charging for using non-renewable resources - similar to what's done with carbon credits for pollution - then the 'initial cost' investment for sustainable materials will be a 'lay-down'.