Designing with a Conscience

By Katie Padda — April 30, 2021

“The best way to predict the future is to design it” – Buckminster Fuller

In light of Earth Day last week, now seems like as good a time as any to call attention to some of the ways in which creative practitioners are adapting for a more eco-conscious future; a future in which our planet might stand a chance…

Around 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are locked in at the design phase. This means if you are creating anything, you are inherently responsible for the potential impacts of your creation throughout its entire life – from cradle to grave (or ideally cradle to cradle). It is critical therefore that decisions at the early design stage utilise innovation and creativity to prioritise the greater good of Earth.

The key is to adapt: to create and design without sacrificing the future of our planet and the quality of life of its inhabitants and instead attempt to lessen the self-inflicted damage.

Let’s dive into some of the effective eco-conscious design strategies put into action by talented modern-day creatives. May you find as much inspiration (and dare I say hope?) from the work of these practitioners as I do… more power to them.



Image creds: Beat Widmer

Dematerialisation put simply is using less materials in a design to deliver the same function. Cutting down on materials is one the most effective ways to reduce inflicted damage on the environment in numerous ways – from reducing energy used in manufacturing to eliminating issues with end-of-life disposal.

A really interesting example is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur building, created for the 2002 Swiss Expo. The pavilion defies all preconceptions of what constitutes a pavilion by simply using masses of fog to form the walls and roof of the structure over a basic steel skeleton anchored into the lake bed. Water was pumped from the lake, filtered and shot as a fine mist through 35,000 high-pressure nozzles to create the fog. As a result, the pavilion appeared as a cloud hovering over the lake, described by the architects to be made from nothing but the site itself.




Biodesign goes a step beyond approaches to design and fabrication simply inspired by biology – such as the shape of the Japanese bullet train mimicking the heads of Kingfishers (large heads and narrow pointy beaks enable them to enter the water at speed without making any noise…).

Image creds: Carole Collet

Biodesign involves incorporating living organisms as essential components – such as fungi or cultured tissue. The idea is that the product’s properties are enhanced as a result of these living materials; working with nature in the most literal sense.

Materials Researcher and Professor Carole Collet’s widely exhibited project, ‘BIOLACE’, suggests reprogramming the developmental biology of plants to fabricate textiles. Collet explores using synthetic biology to turn plants into multi-purpose factories – producing ‘augmented’ food at the same time as growing fabrics from their roots. Biological engineering could form a new way to manufacture textiles which is less reliant on chemicals and less energy-hungry than current production models.




Repurposing Waste

Image creds: Studio Swine

Designers across the globe are looking at waste materials and considering how we might give new life to this abundance. This involves re-examining a material’s function and removing preconceptions regarding certain substances.

Studio Swine’s Hair Highway, for instance, explores the potential of human hair when infused in natural resin as an alternative to wood.

“Hair is one of the few natural resources that is increasing globally. Hair grows sixteen times faster than the trees used for tropical hardwood which can take 300 years to reach maturity.” – Studio Swine.

Equally, Sea Chair by Studio Swine and Kieren Jones is made entirely from plastic recovered from our oceans that would take thousands of years to degrade – the same plastic that is being broken up into ever-smaller fragments by the ocean as we speak.



Energy Sourcing

This one is pretty straight forward – where is the energy being sourced? As we are all aware, moving forwards we need to see a distinct shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Image creds: Murray Fredericks

One Central Park in Sydney is a prime example; its tri-generation plant supplies electricity, heating and cooling for 3,000 residences and 65,000 sqm of retail and commercial space in 14 buildings at Central Park. Tri-generation is twice as energy efficient as a coal-fired power plant and essentially involves recycling waste energy to produce heat and cooling as a free by-product. The site is predicted to reduce carbon emissions by up to 40% equivalent to 190,000 tonnes over the 25 year plant life.





Image creds: Peter Aaron/OTTO

Design for Disassembly

Design for Disassembly is designing something to be easily taken apart at the end of its life for repair, remanufacturing, repurposing and recycling. Many tech products are great examples of what this is not – complex and confusing to take apart, locking the end owner out and discouraging repairability in favour of selling more products.

Done right, design for deconstruction can be game-changing. Cellophane House, by architectural firm Kieran Timberlake, was assembled like a car. The construction was broken down into integrated assemblies called ‘chunks’ which were fabricated off site and then stacked on top of each other with a crane. Built for exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, modularity enables the house to be efficiently transported.