Connecting sustainability's theory and practice
Alex Lobos
November 26, 2015 - 5:58am

Blog article written by Alex Lobos, Associate Professor, Industrial Design – RIT

Most people understand the basic concept of Sustainability and its importance in today’s world, but when looking deeper into how to execute it, things get more complicated. Not everyone is clear on how to apply it in their discipline(s) and sometimes there is a disconnect between those who develop design principles and those who implement them in the field. This is why it’s important to define clearer connections between sustainability’s theory and practice. While it is necessary to understand overarching goals behind the principles we want to follow, they have to go beyond theoretical principles and work as guidelines that are easy to follow in everyday practice.

A good starting point is understanding that true sustainability is more than ecology. While most people think of being “green” as reducing environmental impact, true sustainability also addresses issues that affect society and commerce. The combination of these three components is known as the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) and it aims at generating solutions that eliminate environmental impact while also enabling social growth and economical fairness and stability. This is a very important concept to understand as organizations, corporations and institutions across the world are adopting this vision. In order to go deeper into how to apply TBL, here are three basic concepts that explore ways of looking at sustainability from different perspectives, each one with examples from Autodesk Sustainability Workshop’s Project Gallery.


1. Designing Consequences

Traditional design process is based on principles of form and function, generating design solutions that are attractive, functional and convenient. Current design practice has evolved from this traditional model to include other variables such as user experience, and most recently, sustainability. User experience looks at all the different levels of interaction between a designed artifact and its user, providing a deeper connection with the product and an enjoyable experience. In terms of sustainability, the biggest, and perhaps more dramatic change, is that designers need to think beyond experiences and also focus on the consequences that such experiences and features will generate. Selecting a specific material or finish, for example, could affect a product’s durability or limit its options for end of life. Designing for consequences means that it is not enough to envision how a product will operate and be used by consumers, but also to understand the resources needed for its fabrication and what happens to it when it reaches its end of life.

Student redesign of the New York City metro card.

A group of students from Pratt Institute came up with Metroway, a clever redesign for New York City’s Metrocard. Current cards wear out fairly fast because of how often they need to be swiped and are rarely recycled when they stop working. Metroway proposes a contactless RFID tag that makes the card more durable and also keeps its layers separated, which is good for disassembling the card for recycling. 

Design for a residential passive heat recovery system.

Tom Lipinski at Green Structures developed a residential passive heat recovery system, called Ventive S. Designed particularly for older homes with less efficient heating systems, this versatile retro-fit kit increases ventilation into the home while using the natural airflow in chimneys to pre-heat the air that goes into the house. The solution is easy to install and reduces energy use (and cost!) significantly.


2. Paying attention to the whole lifecycle

One of the most effective ways of considering consequences and making sure that no tradeoffs are overlooked is the analysis of a product’s whole lifecycle. Designers tend to focus primarily on the “use” stage of the lifecycle because of the strong connection with user interaction. Because of this, designers have to make a conscious effort to understand what happens before a product is produced and used as well as what happens to it after its useful life. This overarching awareness leads to sustainable designs that are efficient and promote advantages at multiple levels. A good way of maximizing a lifecycle is to identify specific components in a product and explore them throughout different stages. Once these key components have been optimized they can be combined either to generate more substantial benefits or to cross check for potential tradeoffs and issues. For example, reducing the dimensions of a product can make it more portable, which is appreciated by consumers, while also needing less materials for its fabrication, improving its volume and weight for transportation and even reducing the amount of materials that will need to be recycled and/or disposed of. Making decisions across the lifecycle has significant benefits and results in products that could be simple, efficient, inexpensive and with fewer tradeoffs.

The Net Zero Energy classroom.

The Net Zero Energy Classroom is a good example of whole lifecycle design. Developed by Anderson Anderson Architecture, this modular classroom uses natural power sources such as wind and solar in order to generate the energy that the classroom needs for its operation. The design combines elements such as ventilation, insulation, heating, etc., in order to maximize efficiency across the lifecycle, providing a solution that is versatile enough to be installed in a wide variety of climates. 

Students designed this portable lighting system that goes with a user from room to room, reducing wasted energy.

A group of students at Rochester Institute of Technology designed MATE, a portable lighting system for the home office inspired by wax candles. The idea of carrying a single light source throughout the home contrasts dramatically to current lighting systems that have multiple light fixtures in every part of the house and that often stay on even when rooms are empty. MATE proposes a network of interconnected lighting modules that go with the user from room to room, reducing energy use and product redundancy.


3. Long-term solutions

Most products have their largest environmental impact during their fabrication. This is due in big part to the amount of resources needed to extract and process raw materials and other processes needed to turn them into parts. In order to offset the large amounts of energy used in the production stage, it is important to extend the usable life of a product for as long as possible. Products with short lifespans are not used long enough to offset the resources that went into creating them. This is why when designing new products, it is important to include options that extend their life as much as possible. These options can include using a neutral appearance that doesn’t become outdated quickly, or high-quality materials that last longer and age gracefully, increasing the perceived value to the product. Strategies like these prevent products from looking “old,” instead they develop visual “character”; or they result in products that don’t get “dirty” easily but instead develop an interesting “patina”. Another effective strategy is allowing for products to be easily repaired and/or upgraded. This ability allows for products to remain current even if newer technologies emerge. Electronics are a great example of this trend due to the rapid pace in which newer and faster processors come out to the market. Creating products that are compatible with newer technologies allows for upgrading of parts instead of having to replace the entire device.

This phone unfolds, making it easier for users to repair it.

Students at the Elisava Escola Superior de Disseny de Barcelona designed The Smarter Phone, which offers a simple, fun design that ‘unfolds’ to expose its internal components. This design encourages users to repair their phones as well as to upgrade components when needed.

This faucet is designed to preload only the amount of water necessary for washing hands to save water.

The Finite Faucet is a good example of increasing user awareness and managing water consumption when washing hands. Designed by Cole Smith at Virginia Institute of Technology, this public restroom faucet preloads the necessary amount of water for washing hands prior to each use. The consumer sees how much water is left, becoming aware of the appropriate amount of water needed for performing the task. The long term benefit comes from eliminating water waste each time someone uses the faucet, leading to significant water savings over time.

If you want to explore more exciting projects around sustainable design, check out the project galleries at Autodesk Sustainability Workshop and Autodesk Design Academy.


About Alex Lobos, Associate Professor, Industrial Design - RIT

Alex Lobos was born in Guatemala, where he started his career as industrial designer. He moved to the United States in 2002 and since then he has focused on sustainability, emotional attachment and user-centered design as a means to elevate quality of life. Lobos is an associate professor of industrial design, Miller Professor for International Education, and extended program faculty at Golisano Institute for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He frequently lectures and teaches throughout the United States, Canada, México, Guatemala, Panamá, Perú, Colombia and Taiwan. His research and academic work has been sponsored by companies such as Autodesk, AT&T, Colgate-Palmolive, General Electric, Kraft, Staples, Sun Products, Unilever and Wegmans. Lobos is a Fulbright Scholar and holds a MFA from the University of Notre Dame and a BID from Universidad Rafael Landivar.  

Prior to RIT, Lobos served on the faculty of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Universidad Rafael Landivar. He also worked an industrial designer for General Electric and Whirlpool. Lobos loves marathon running and has been a drummer for the Guatemalan top rock acts Bohemia Suburbana and Malacates Trebol Shop.