All Things Being Equal: A Not-So-Radical Approach to Maximizing Sustainability in Design

A key development in sustainable design is that operational carbon has decreased much more dramatically than embodied carbon in recent years. In other words, the ever-increasing efficiency of systems for HVAC, lighting, and water mean that now the materials we put into a building have a much larger effect on the building’s overall environmental impact than the operations of that building over its lifecycle. This makes our role as designers even more critical; we are the ones calling the shots, and if we aren’t committed to specifying the very best materials we possibly can, we can’t claim to be the champions of sustainability we say we are.

Common knowledge in our industry dictates that the client drives the level of sustainability achieved in a project. Some clients see sustainability as a crucial concern, making an effort to request sustainable materials, or even to pursue certification through a program like LEED or WELL. But other clients put environmental considerations solidly at the bottom of their list of priorities.

However, in my opinion, the established practice of following the client’s lead in regards to sustainability is deeply flawed. The client’s opinion of sustainability is irrelevant. It is our responsibility as designers to deliver the highest level of sustainability on every project, regardless of the client’s interest in doing so.

Now I’m going to break down that radical-sounding statement in an effort to outline the logic behind it, and maybe even help you see it as rather obvious. In these situations, our commitment to sustainability is the constant. What varies is the client’s commitment. This is where “all things being equal” comes in. Imagine you are looking at two samples of carpet. They both match the client’s aesthetic preferences, both offer excellent durability, and both have similar price points. The only difference is that one is a sustainable product made of recycled plastic, and the other is made of far more environmentally harmful virgin plastic. All other things being equal, we should be selecting the more sustainable product.

This scenario is not an imaginary one. Even just a decade ago, sustainability had an unavoidable connotation of expense. But in the present day, the societal appetite for increased sustainability is making sustainable products more affordable and accessible. And as prices drop, we will continue to encounter more situations where we can choose a sustainable product with no significant impact on the project budget. In this changing world, we can no longer treat a client’s lack of enthusiasm about the environment as a convenient excuse to select a harmful product.

So the next time you’re browsing for materials, ask yourself: “is there a more sustainable manufacturer I could be looking at?” Because all things being equal, the sustainable choice is the one that allows us to make a difference, in our industry and in the world.

Multidisciplinary designer, thought leader, and passionate believer that design is the solution to every problem. Designing a better world every day.