Technical performance, functionality and aesthetics are often cited first when evaluating the soundness of a design and although the fin-de-siecle catchphrase “environmental sustainability” gains increasing mention, do designers and academics really know what this term implies?

In 1997 The Institute of Engineers Australia National Committee on Engineering Design (IEAust – NCED) was asked to consider what it could do to support issues of sustainability and the committee recognised that design was an integral part of the process of improving recognition of the need to care for our planet.

They also realised that many debatable descriptions of ‘good’ design were almost always descriptions of ‘sustainable design’.

The “Design Guidelines for Our Planet & Us”, a concise A4 document, evolved from this concern and has become a useful summary for students, engineers and designers.

The guidelines illustrate how sustainable design philosophies provide a mechanism for producing ‘good’ design for long and short-term benefit, and why these mechanisms are successful. They apply to engineers and designers at all levels from decision makers of large industrial firms, educators at tertiary level, and product designers all the way through to design students. 

As part of a national campaign to promote the concept of environmental sustainability in the design sector, Cliff Green, Principal, Cliff Green Design and member of the NCED spoke to the IEAust on the guidelines in Sydney early in March.

“Focusing on the welfare of our planet as a whole, that is the welfare of the entire ecosystem of humans, plants, animals and the environment, we can provide ourselves, our future engineers and designers with the guidelines needed to massage creativity towards a single concept from which a ‘good’ design will emerge,” said Green.

The guidelines focus on two areas of the innovation process: 

Planning

The “planning” section is for those people initiating an enterprise so that the purpose and justification of the enterprise can be evaluated in terms of the welfare of our planet. It is probably at this stage of the project formulation that there is the greatest implication for sustainable development. 

The guidelines invite the planner to consider the following:

• Will the product or project over its full life cycle leave our planet in better condition?

• Will our environment, our plants, our animals, present and future humans benefit because of this project?

• Does the project treat all peoples and animals with compassion?

• Does the project warrant every form of risk involved?

In regards to each of the intended phases of:

• material acquisition

• construction

• operation

• dismantling

• component & material disposal

Is the lowest energy method involved?

Can renewable energy sources be used?

Can existing materials or equipment be used?

Have all effects & by-products been considered... chemical, biological,  temperature, environmental,  radioactive, safety, social?

Have undesirable effects been minimised?

Are all precautions in place?

Is the community informed of all risks and implications?

Design

For students, product designers and developers employed within design departments of companies, it will be the design section of the guidelines that will be of more immediate use. The guidelines ask designers to: 

1. Minimise – for the sake of lowering costs, minimising error, and guaranteeing more environmental sustainability to consider economies in the following areas of product design and development:

• parts

• manufacturing operations

• assembly operations

• skills needed

• tools needed

• special materials

• quantity of material

• size

• energy needed overall

• wastage

2. Maximise – to reduce costs, increase reliability and performance, reduce waste and further sustain the environment, the functionality of the following elements should be maximised:

• function per part

• features of manufacture 

• parts per fixing

• batch size

• symmetry

• recycled material usage

• energy recovery

• part life

• part recovery & re-use

Not only do these guidelines seem sound in terms of benefiting the planet, they compliment the cost cutting, profit driven nature of the industrial enterprise. They should not be used to override functional requirements, but rather to test them. 

The NCED is encouraging every designer, manager, lecturer, and student to have a copy of the guidelines on the noticeboard to consistently remind the design community of the congruency of ‘sustainability’ and ‘good’ when it comes to design.

The Guidelines are available at www.ncedaust.org. 

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