Google “sustainable design” and the first ‘hit’ you get is from Wikipedia. Not a bad place to start, if you are unfamiliar with this new emerging school of thought.
Wikipedia defines sustainable design as, “the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment, and services to comply with the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability”.
With the aim of sustainable design being to work in harmony with nature, utilize renewable resources, and shift or shape social behavior, we living here on the coast of Oaxaca, don’t have to look very far to see that this ’emerging’ way of thinking is actually just a new take on an old way of life.
Maya and Aztec people were masters of sustainable design, having no other choice but to construct their lives out of the offerings of Mother Nature. Cities were built from carved stone or mud. Buildings were covered with thatched roofs, each palm being placed with the anticipation of how it would shed the rain, shade the sun and withstand the wind. Years of careful observation of the local climatic conditions went into the planning and construction of each structure; synchronization with natural cycles was essential.
The industrial revolution and inventions like steel, cement, and plastics meant humans no longer had to understand the environment in which they to build and develop. These, seemingly, ‘stronger-than-nature’ materials have allowed societies to build wherever and whatever they want, but at what price?
Production of modern building materials requires natural resources that must be mined, transported and then, manufactured. All of which cause some form of pollution. Perhaps, the Maya and Aztec people had it right all along. After all, their structures still exist today because of careful study of natural processes.
Modern sustainable design seeks to revitalize the concept of using natural materials, minimize impact to the surrounding area and connect people with their natural environment.
Sustainable design can be applied on both large- and small-scale projects. Entire urban centers are now being re-evaluated and re-planned in some major European cities, using this philosophy. Planners are incorporating living roofs, gray water filtering systems, recycled materials, and more green space for citizens to enjoy.
Mexico, too, is investing in future urban sustainable design. The Mexican government sponsors full-ride scholarships for Mexican architects to study in Europe, where sustainable design is more prevalent. These professionals then return home to help shape the next generation of eco-friendly Mexican cities.
Small-scale projects can be as simple as schoolhouse made of cob (sand, clay and straw) and bamboo, serving a rural village in Africa or South America; that incorporates a school garden, water catchment and sanitary, outdoor composting pit toilets. No great architectural plans, just simple earthen design.
More and more, sustainable design concepts are now showing up in the fashion and textile industry as well. Materials made from recycled plastic bottles, hemp and bamboo are being used to create more environmentally friendly fabrics. And, just today, I watched a news report on the use of sour milk to produce a new, ‘silky’ sustainable fabric for women’s fashion.
Be it, building, urban planning or fashion, the principals of sustainable design are the same:
- Working with renewable or low-impact materials
- Favoring non-toxic, recycled or sustainably produced materials
- Energy efficiency
- Conservation or diminished use of water
- Reducing waste and consumption
- Increasing durability and longevity of products
- Sourcing materials from the closest possible location
- Innovative, meaningful design that evokes a shift in behavior from the consumer
A major benefit of using recycled and natural products is they lend themselves to more organic shapes and textures. Sustainable design tends to look and feel more nature-made. Buildings no longer have to have rigid 90-degree angles and hard surfaces. Living walls and roofs create flowy, explosions of color; as well as delivering edible fruits, vegetables and herbs directly to your kitchen. Hand-made cob houses can mimic the shapes found in the forest or desert, blending in, rather than standing out.
The idea of this fast-developing approach to design is to work with nature instead of manipulate or stand against it, blend with its natural environment, sync with seasonal cycles, and silently dissolve back into the local ecosystem…much like the ancient ruins that surround us here in the state of Oaxaca.
For modern designers, the challenge is to study, learn from and protect their natural environment as carefully as their ancestors did while providing for the needs of modern man. Vastly more complicated, but when executed successfully, immeasurably more rewarding; not just for the designer, but for society at large.