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Sustainable Design Part II: New Designer Genes

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New Designer Genes: Nick Radford, Director of Ecoliving Design, examines the elements of good design and how design needs to become sustainable.
Design is how we put together all the different elements and processes included in a plan. A house, is not just pieces of timber and roofing but also a set of processes involving different people, for example, tradespeople and owners. The finished house incorporates many different processes such as cooking and cleaning and movement and interactions between people.

The finished house incorporates many different processes such as cooking and cleaning and movement and interactions between people. Designers have to think about both elements and processes but architects, for instance, don’t often include processes. The poorest people in the country live in units and state housing designed by architects who live a completely different lifestyle.

Above: Design iterative stage - modelling  Below: Design follow up
Very few of such homes actually work. A better approach is iterative design where the aim is to make the design a solution to a problem. The designer must ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers to gain the information needed to understand the design problem. Models, from quick sketches to drawings to real models or 3D computer ones, are a way of testing and refining the design. The last stage of the design process is follow-up to see how well it worked for all the people involved, making the designer better informed for the next job. Sadly, most designers don’t allow for follow-up. It takes time to keep retesting, refining and getting feedback from the people involved, so there is a financial incentive not to go through this iterative process.

Bellingen just had its main street redesigned by a landscape architect who didn’t talk to anyone who drives a truck. Delivery trucks can’t turn because of the new planting beds so the delivery function of the design doesn’t work. It costs much less to get a design right on paper than to fixing something that was built wrongly.
Failures of the design process can be even more spectacular. The World Health Organisation (WHO) asked all the tribes in the remote hills of New Guinea what they wanted.

The people said they wanted snake anti-venom, fridges to store it and solar power units to keep the fridges going. They also wanted everything to be stand-alone so they could fix things without having to go to the city to get parts, a trip that took weeks to walk and crossed through enemy tribes. The bureaucracy, however, came back with the solution to build a central hospital in the city. The people who could have benefitted from some medical help had no access and, ironically, the hospital couldn’t find staff because the different tribes refused to work together from fear of intertribal warfare within the staff.

Below: A modern building with no natural relationship to air (photo praveen3d)    
In sustainable design the natural processes of air, water and nutrients (soil and the vegetation which creates it) are included. Sustainable design means growing food where people live, removing agriculture from our environmental footprint. This can be backyards, market gardens or manipulated forests. Waste water that is untreated is just a pollutant but treated waste water directed to crops is a useful product and a design solution.

In The Philippines their 12m² backyards have stacked crops and they have vines growing over their rooves, a solution that goes most of the way to feeding their families. People in units can grow food on balconies and in Australia there are 4-6m road verges next to every house. In sustainable design the projects have to interact with ecosystems and the ecosystems will be affected by their work. Nature does a very good job of putting together efficient cycles of resources but humans that design their own environments have to think very hard to achieve such efficiency. Nick Radford says that an architecture degree will have some instruction about energy, probably none about water and nothing about soil. Designers, however, need to understand ecosystems and ecological processes as part of their work. It’s time for new designer genes.

Nick Radford presented this discussion on A Question of Balance with Ruby Vincent,.  Summary text by Nick Radford and Victor Barry. Images from Nick Radford, April 2018 

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A new working order Sustainable Design Part One Sustainable Design Part III

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