September 16th, 2021

Environmental Design is, Emphatically, not the Status Quo

Posted in: All News , White Papers

The following article was originally authored and published by Joanne McCallum in 1996, as part of the Ecolutions Environmental Magazine. With the announcement of national recognition as a Green Pioneer with the CaGBC, we felt it was time to revisit this article and share it once again. In helping to define Environmental Design, Joanne raises important questions and calls to action as relevant today as when they were originally published 25 years ago. 


In the next few issues of Ecolutions, we will be presenting a number of examples of what has come to be termed “environmental design”. In this first article, we will be setting the stage by providing some background on what environmental design is, and what types of considerations go into accomplishing it.

Some things, however, are easier to define in terms of what they are not, as opposed to what they are. In the case of environmental design, this is fitting, since environmental design is, emphatically, not the status quo. The movement towards embracing environmental realities in design activities has been a response to a recognition that something is going wrong: the results of what has become our culture’s normal way of designing our lifestyles and living systems are not what we had been led to expect.

First, a bit of history. The 1950s were in some ways the Golden Age of Futurism. The vision of the future that was generally held then was that technological wizardry was going to alleviate all of us poor suffering masses from the drudgery of looking after ourselves, and we would progress towards a state wherein our worst problem was going to be in deciding which technological marvel we were going to entertain ourselves with next. Nuclear energy was going to be so cheap it would be essentially free, and we would all be wealthy and happy.

It has been something of a rude surprise, which some of us are still having a hard time believing, that the world that has been produced by the technological paradigm is anything but a utopia; in fact we are close to disaster. Our culture however, has invested several centuries – starting with the Renaissance, and the Age of Reason – in developing the analytical and technological approach. This approach has become do deeply entrenched in how we think about and plan things that it has become “second nature” to us: the technological paradigm is our culture’s normal way of designing our lifestyles and living systems.

Now we find that our normal way of doing things is having potentially fatal consequences. Of course, we are going through all of the human reactions in the face of a crisis: denial, anger, laying of blame, depression, etc. One of the more constructive reactions, however, is the field of environmental design. Which gets us back to the point of saying that environmental design is easier to define in terms of what it is not: It is not the normal way of doing things; it is the conscious recognition that we must consider more in our design activities than we have traditionally considered.

Our first proposition is that the environmental crisis is a design crisis. Accept, for a moment, that everything ever built by humans, all of the systems we use to produce, market and dispose of the goods we need (and otherwise use) in sustaining our lives, everything we wear, live in, move around in and sleep on, are all the product of design. Goods are consciously designed; and many systems are consciously designed, while others end up being shaped by the cultural attitudes and approaches we take. An example of the latter is urban sprawl; no one decided that suburbia should consume vast tracts of our best agricultural lands. It happened, however, as a direct result of how our culture has handled the ownership of land and organization of economic production. At the bottom of it, our participation in our environment has been designed both intentionally and by default. Therefore, the results of our participation in our environment are a result of our strengths and weaknesses as designers. Hence: the environmental crisis is a design crisis.

To propose that we need to move away from the normal mode of design, and incorporate more into our decision making, is the easy part. The hard part is now defining what that new approach is: what additional considerations are necessary and what differences to decision making processes are needed to facilitate environmental design. Not surprisingly, the situation right now is somewhat experimental. Which is one good reason to be bringing a range of different approaches to your attention.

We have been asked, on numerous occasions to define the term “environmental design”, presumably because one of us is an architect and a designer, and the other is an environmental consultant , and we both have degrees in Environmental Design. It is a simple enough question, with a less than simple response. In our work out dictionary, printed in 1975, it had the following definitions:

  • Environment: surrounding, surrounding objects, region or circumstances.
  • Sustain: Bear weight of; hold up; keep from falling for sinking; enable to last out; hence sustainable; keep going continuously
  • Ecology: Branch of Biology dealing with living organisms’ habits, modes of life, and relations to their surroundings
  • Design: mental plan, scheme, purpose, delineation, pattern, groundwork, general idea, construction.

It is interesting to note that according to these definitions, ecology is the only term that dealt expressly with life. Design has to do with our intentions, sustainability provides direction to our intentions and the environment is the context.

The environment has its base in the universe of natural systems and behaves in definable patterns, according to the rules that can be learned. Design is a human activity resulting in an object or a set of objects being made to exist in this context. Environmental design recognizes that there is, or should be, a relationship between the environment and the design, and seeks to identify, understand and enhance the patters that connect our natural environment with our designed environment.

Whether or not we plan for it, interactions between our designs and the functioning of natural systems will occur, and the consequences will be driven by the patters and rules that define natural systems. As Don Aitken of the Union of Concerned Scientists put it: “There are no side effects, there are only system responses.” Economists have tried to define this problem away, using he notion of “marketplace externalities” as an excuse to ignore the consequences of economic activity (ie: human activity.) If the costs of the system responses are not incorporated into the marketplace transaction that causes them, values within the system are degraded – and our economic system is nowhere close to recognizing and properly allocating the costs of system responses. The typical example of this phenomenon is pollution.

So environmental design involves predicting and designing around the potential system responses to our designed interventions.

Sustainable design is a subset of environmental design – one which gives a specific direction to the course of environmental design, and establishes parameters within which design activities should respond. It has, by definition, a value associated with it which implies in our society, a design response which has less negative impact on the environment and improvement in the status quo.

Related to the concept of sustainable design is the notion of sustainable development, defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, in the report “Our Common Future” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainability implies that a balance can be achieved between the living world, which has been evolving over a period of four billion years, and our designed world of roads and cities, farms and artifacts. Sim Van Der Ryn notes that unsustainability results form lack of integration between these two worlds.

It is critically important to understand the concept of sustainability and what it implies precisely because it is often misunderstood and consequently mis-used. Further, it is important to recognize that there are different types of sustainability. Technological sustainability is based on the premise that every problem has either a technological answer or a market solution. To a very large degree, the report “Our Common Future” is based on this approach to sustainability. It asserts that sustainability is to be attained by more rapid, economic growth in both industrial and developing counties, freer market access for the products of developing countries, lower interest rates, greater technology transfer and significantly larger capital flows. In other words, do what we are doing, only now do it better and minimize the negative system responses.

Many years ago, Dr. James Cragg, Professor Emeritus University of Calgary, noted: “Within our technological society we can recognize a situation not unlike that with exists between developed and developing countries. In spite of all the political attempts to bridge the gap between them, the gap has widened. Within the societies of the Western world, in spite of the expansion of education, knowledge, necessary to the control of technological systems, becomes increasingly sophisticated and, as a result, becomes concentrated in the hands of relatively fewer people. In fact a new division of culture is emerging which divides those who have the sophisticated knowledge to operate the technological society from those who consume products.”

Ecological sustainability, defined by the environmental educator David W. Orr, “.. is the task of finding alternatives to the practices that got us into trouble in the first place; it is necessary to rethink agriculture, shelter, energy use, urban design, transportation, economics, community patterns, resource use, forestry, the importance of wilderness and our central values.” Remember: the technological paradigm, our culture’s normal way of designing our lifestyles and living systems, is why we are looking for alternatives in the first place. And our current state of affairs is not even technologically sustainable.

Technological sustainability assumes continued development based on a model of consumerism and replaceability of exhausted resources, while ecological sustainability requires an acceptance of limits to technology, limits to materials wants, limits to the stress placed on the biosphere, and limits to hubris. It is not good enough to do good environmental design for, say, the drainage system for a new roadway when the roadway itself is not part of an ecologically sustainable approach to transportation.

The biologist Gregory Bateson asks: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the ameba in one direction and to the backway schizophrenic in another? .. What is the pattern which connects all the living creatures?” He concludes, after recognizing first, second and third order connections, that the pattern which connects is a meta-patter: it is a pattern of patterns. It is that meta-pattern which defines the vast generalization that indeed it is the patters which connect.

Which brings us back to design. The everyday world of buildings, artifacts and domesticated landscapes is a designed world, shaped by human purpose. The environmental crisis is a design crisis. Sum Van Der Ryn writes: “It is a consequence of how things are made, buildings are constructed and landcapes are used … we have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defines human interests but have neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures. And Sim is being generous; we haven’t even considered all of the consequences for ourselves.

Relationships, systems and patterns … interacting, stimulating and balancing … assimilating, synthesizing and creating.

In order to identify, understand and incorporate the patterns which connect the natural world into our designed world we need to expand our understanding of design and to define design as “ … the intentional shaping of matter, energy and process to meet a perceived need or desire.” The stage on which we play, and with which we design our interventions, is inhabited by the patterns of relationships between our artifacts and ourselves, and between ourselves and our environment. By respecting and enhancing the patters which connect, we will be able to redesign the details of the products, buildings and landscapes around us. “Such redesign – attending carefully to scale, community, self reliance, traditional knowledge and the wisdom of nature’s own design … involves a search for the nitty gritty design details of a sustainable culture, one grounded in the texture of our everyday lives.”

As Albert Einstein said: “The difficult part is not finding the answer, it is finding the right question.” Which of us is truly considering what it is to be alive on this planet?