Introduction: Design Education for a Sustainable Future


Preface – Design Education for a Sustainable Future by Rob Fleming

This book is disruptive. The bedrock that supported the design and construction industry for centuries has now shifted in so many directions and has been shaken so vigorously that the basic premises of design practice and by default design education are in need of serious reconsideration. The landscape of professional practice, as driven in part by the need for financial survival and by the rise of sustainability, is changing must faster and more dramatically than anyone could have predicted. Behind it, albeit more slowly and more covertly, the foundations of design education are beginning to shake free from the shackles of decades, if not centuries of inertia. With that comes the clarion call to leave the comfortable zone of benign neglect, a strategy by which we academics employ to deal with the most controversial and uncomfortable issues (see diversity) to a new, self-aware, and more evolved consciousness. The disruptive nature of this book is not in its capacity to break things apart, but rather in its ability to convey a new mental map of design education, one that is ethically grounded, increasingly inclusive, deeply cooperative, better aligned and integrated to the core.

 

In that sense, this book is a polemic – an argument for the reconsideration of design education as an essential tool in the larger societal movement towards a sustainable future. The reader is driven towards a possible if not probable conclusion that sustainability is the next great paradigm, the foundation of a new integral world view that is, and, or will, fundamentally alter design education processes and by default the future generations of young people who will shape our built environments. But the polemic also serves as a diversion, a slight of hand, to coax each reader to confront their own design consciousness – to begin the process of becoming aware of their own pedagogical strengths and weaknesses. Such experiences can be either: Deeply troubling and lead to therapy (or at least to drink); or to pedagogic nirvana, the state of bliss so powerful that teaching for free would seem perfectly fine. Of course the end result will land somewhere within that very wide spectrum.

 

This book is horizontal in its organization – a study of the interrelationship of the values and behaviors that comprise the meta-framework for design education. The reasons for this are straightforward. Sustainability is still not widely understood nor valued, and therefore, continued work is required to this end. As a response, I try and contribute to the coalescing definition of sustainable design by offering a set of frameworks borrowed from Integral Theory and Integral Sustainable Design. But I also offer a wide array of concrete examples either from my own fifteen years of sustainable design education experience or from others: practitioners or educators that have grappled with sustainability at varying levels and from differing directions.

 

The temptation by the reader will be to interpret this book as an indictment on standard design education practices. While some parts will attack some fiercely defended educational methodologies such as the design jury, the overall premise is to present the next move forward as an evolutionary jump rather than a bloody revolution. The foundations of studio based education remain sound and will continue to gain favor as more and more disciplines seek to incorporate project based learning into their core methodologies. The temptation to tear apart has been resisted through the premise of “Transcend and Include” – a process by which new models of organization emerge and layer on top of older models creating a wonderful palimpsest of approaches and methodologies that serve simultaneously as a critique of the old methods and as a reaffirmation of their continued efficacy.

 

There are no images of buildings, landscapes or interiors in this book. The purpose is simple. Designers have been trained to reach high levels of visual literacy, as in the ability to view any design expression and immediately identify its precedents, influences, visual meaning, and, ultimately to determine the project’s value. But that perception of value is based almost solely on its visual, spatial, or tectonic content and is devoid of a deeper understanding of the economic, environmental, and social forces that eventually shape projects. As designers we can slice and dice any project design, breaking down even the best intentioned work and, we also elevate less worthy projects that offer little sustenance for a society starving for meaning and content in projects. Such visually astute but hyper critical processes can be traced back to their roots in the design academies where students gain an amazing depth of visual literacy and a sharp tongue often at the expense of other important aspects of design practice and for life itself.

 

Like the timid third year design student that sheepishly pins sketches to the wall and awkwardly attempts to verbally communicate intent, I, also find myself in this position. If completion trumps perfection and if a new emphasis on intention and method in design education is coming, then the work contained within this book will have to suffice. Like the mid review, the student hopes that the critics “get it.” Agreement is optional, but hopefully the message itself was delivered well enough to drive meaningful conversation and to stir debate. In the end, if that is achieved, then this project could be considered a success. I have long ago realized that people change when they are ready. My goal is to provide the nudge, the slight push to the left or right towards the very large mirror that we all must encounter at some point in our lives, the mirror that drives our consciousness to new levels, reshapes our values, changes our behaviors which in turn will hopefully make us better educators.

 

 

Disclaimers

This book is extremely U.S. centric in its views of the world and its peoples. The reasons for this are inexcusable but they are there none the less. I have yet to gain enough perspective or knowledge to properly place this book in a global context. I have unwittingly fallen victim to the misguided view of America as the center of the universe, when I know intuitively that such is not the case. Given the tight deadline for this book and the amount of research needed just to cover the main points I am left with the realization that many readers outside the US may find the work provincial. I believe that the book still holds great value for the global reader and I therefore beg forgiveness in advance for the limited scope of references and examples provided.

 

Secondly, despite the years of effort to be more inclusive of the disciplines that comprise sustainable design education: Interior design, landscape architecture, architectural engineering, civil engineering and construction to name a few, my overall approach is still defined by years of architecture practice, teaching and education. While I make attempts to offer examples from other disciplines, the inevitable focus on architecture is relentless. Given that, I ask for patience from my colleagues and from the readers.

 

Lastly, despite my attempt to be comprehensive, a number of important critical aspects of design education have been left out. The impact of research and the differences between undergraduate and graduate education have been excluded not because they aren’t important but because something had to be excluded for the simple sake of completion. The subjects of genetic algorithms and evolutionary biology along with fabricated architecture have also been excluded from the book because I have limited knowledge and understanding of these areas of interest.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

 

form follows world view

 

The premise of this book is remarkably simple. It is based on a series of straightforward questions that seek to uncover the context, values and behaviors necessary for effective twenty-first century design education. Is society moving towards a new sustainable or integral world view, a new set of cultural values that are reshaping the very fabric of human existence? If so, how are such profound shifts in consciousness impacting the design and construction industries? And how can design educators better reflect the zeitgeist of the new century by moving from well-intentioned but lightweight “greening” to the deeper and more impactful ideals of sustainability and resilience?

The process of answering these questions begins with the requisite historical narrative which explores cultural evolution not as a slow and gradual rise to new levels of complexity but rather through a series of hyper-accelerated jumps in human consciousness. The jump from dispersed Hunter Gatherer cultures to centralized agrarian societies and then to industrialized nations correlates well to the convergence of new energy sources and the invention of new communication technologies.

Jeremy Rifkin argues in his book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis that “The convergence of energy and communications revolutions not only reconfigures society and social roles and relationships but also human consciousness itself.”1 The early twenty-first century, as characterized by unprecedented sharing of information via wireless networks and by the emergence of renewable energy technologies, demarcates a threshold from one world view to another, a jump from an industrialized conception of nature as immutable and infinite to a Gaia inspired view of nature as alive, intelligent and, most of all, fragile in the hands of man.

The principles of sustainability, which emphasize ecological regeneration and co creative processes, comprise a new and powerful ideal that is reshaping technologically driven initiatives, especially those associated with the design and construction of the built environment. Societal conceptions of money and profit, consumerism, design and technology are radically shifting to address the superficial but useful demands of “greening,” and are leading to finding deeper and more impactful processes to meet the much higher bar of sustainability.

The unpacking of such lofty but important aspirations must include the painful but necessary establishment of the territory and domain of sustainability and sustainable design as a means of laying the groundwork for a more in-depth look at design education. For many designers, the word “sustainability” is taboo. Some refrain from using it at all due to a high level of confusion (thanks, in part, to “green washing”) surrounding both the word itself and its connotations. Others use the word naively, as a catch-all for all things good and progressive. In addition, the meaning of the word shifts when understood in the context of different parts the world, different economies and differing cultural expectations of quality of life. Despite such complexities, the actual meaning of sustainability and its connotations comprise the epicenter of a vast paradigmatic jump from an industrialized design approach dominated by materialism, technological expression and what Thomas Friedman called situational values2 to a
design approach supported by virtual simplicity, environmental regeneration and an adoption of sustainable values. In short, the developed world is moving from a focus on raising the standard of living via technological progress, as defined by comfort and convenience, to a focus on a higher quality of life as defined by meaningful embodied experiences and through relationships with each other and with nature.

The amorphous nature of sustainability is both its great strength and its weakness. As such, it allows for multiple entry points: from biophilic and emergent design expressions to tectonically inspired energy efficient designs to socially responsible activism. While John Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line of People, Profit and Planet is now well established in the world of commerce and government, the simple yet compelling collection of words has yet to become part of the designer’s mental matrix. Opportunities such as economic viability and environmental regeneration are slowly and awkwardly finding their way into the mainstream of design education thinking, while the inclusion of socially responsible design varies from school to school and from studio to studio. Susan Szenasy, editor in chief of Metropolis magazine, argues in the Journal of Interior Design that “after all, social equity is one leg of a three-legged sustainability stool; the other two legs are ecology and economy.”3 While the three-legged stool of sustainability is on one level a powerful icon of the new sense of integration, on another level it is deeply troubling for the designer. The absence of the experience of sustainability is problematic not just for designers but for society as a whole. Are we to be left with blocks and blocks of highly performing built projects that leave little, if any, nourishment for the soul? Lance Hosey argues in his new book, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design, “If it’s not beautiful, it’s not sustainable. Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern – it’s an environmental imperative.”4 Indeed, the idea that buildings, landscapes and interiors must be both highly performing and also beautiful helps to form the nucleus of the proposed “Quadruple Bottom Line,” a term developed in collaboration with Sustainable Design student Anne Sherman to add the experiential or aesthetic component to the existing triple bottom line tenets of environment, economics and equity. The addition of experience into the now well established collection of equity, enterprise and ecology prompts the discarding of the utilitarian three-legged stool of the triple bottom line in favor of the more comfortable and inviting four-legged chair of sustainability. In this way, the entry point for designers is wide open, offering an avenue of exploration that is more familiar and therefore more accessible to the typical designer and, by default, the typical design educator.

But the need for the aesthetic pathway speaks volumes to the inability of design professionals and educators to embrace sustainability in all of its phases and meanings. The fixation on aesthetics, formalism, tectonics and space making at the expense of directly addressing larger societal issues partially explains the slow movement towards more integrated and sustainable practices in both practice and the academies. Ultimately, LEED rated green buildings need not be ugly, while highly evocative and beguiling design expressions need not be devoid of an ethical foundation. Evolving the design professions to higher states of consciousness does not demand a paradigm shift so much as it does the transcendence to a new more integrated world view, and the inclusion of all preceding world views. The approach of “both and” or “transcend and include” recognizes the continuing value of all previous world views and plays an essential role in the establishment of new design consciousness not as a choice between the past and present, but rather as an additional motivation to pursue sustainability. The emerging integral world view is best described in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, while Mark DeKay’s Integral Sustainable Design serves as a powerful framework to organize, unite and catalyze the various forces that shape the sustainable built environment.

The implications of the new world view for design educators are staggering. Current educational models can be characterized as exclusive, competitive, formalistic and isolated and do not reflect the emerging sensibilities of the spirit of the age. As far back as 1968, Whitney M. Young, Jr., head of the Urban League, challenged the AIA on issues relating to social responsibility and diversity within the profession.5 In 1991, Kathryn Anthony, in her book Design Juries on Trial, offered the first whispers of a need for changing the way projects are reviewed.6 In 1996, Boyer and Mitgang in their publication Building Community recommended that architects and architectural educators assume a leadership role preserving the environment and the planet’s resources.7 In 2001, the AIAS Studio Culture document cited “hazing” as one of the attributes of design education.8 An exhaustive 2006 AIA sponsored report, Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education by Lance Hosey and Kira Gould, suggests that design educators are only just beginning to nudge at the opportunities presented by sustainability.9 But the emergence of a new design consciousness asks: if form follows
world view, and if integration is the new consciousness, then how will that impact design education?

The process begins with understanding some core values – inclusion and cooperation – and by pursuing a set of integral core behaviors: beginning with inclusion, the question of “who designs” has new meaning in the age of collaboration, cooperation and integration. Those students marginalized due to the color of their skin, their gender or any other difference comprise generations of lost design talent for the industry and perpetuates the perception and reality of design as an exclusive club. Those without design training – clients, neighbors, engineering consultants and builders – have limited entry points in the typical design process and even less so in academic projects, despite the fact that their contributions clearly shape the overall design product. The drive towards inclusion raises many questions, including: How will the largely Caucasian dominated design academies overcome years of privilege to build more diverse and inclusive learning communities? How will the design professions let go of their tight control over discipline territory to open opportunities for meaningful collaboration?

If inclusivity sets the cast of characters for effective collaborations, the rules of engagement that govern design education must evolve to feature the intention to create highly cooperative learning environments. The shift from teaching design as a solitary creative pursuit bereft of contingencies to teaching designers to become facilitators of diverse groups, integrators of ethical content, and generators of highly evocative and beautiful places is reflected by Jeremy Till in his 2009 book Architecture Depends: “This in turn suggests a move from architect as expert problem solver to that of architect as citizen sense maker; a move from a reliance on the impulsive imagination of the lone genius to that of the collaborative ethical imagination; from clinging to notions of total control to a relaxed acceptance of letting go.”10

The integrated design process as applied to design education can allow for the horizontal and equitable participation of all students regardless of discipline, skill level or personality. Such leveling of the playing field is supported by Rifkin, who writes: “The traditional assumption that “knowledge is power” and is used for personal gain is being subsumed by the notion that knowledge is an expression of the shared responsibilities for the collective well-being of humanity and the planet as a whole.”11

Ultimately, the question must be asked: how will studio professors overcome the years of heredity that drive the physically punishing and emotionally draining competitive design studio for one that is uplifting, optimistic and life enriching? Inclusivity and cooperation demand new behaviors from academics such as the realignment of studio curricula to account for the rise of flatter, more contingent, more interdisciplinary work. Pre-emptive engineering, for example, as enabled by early collaborative design charrettes, allows technically proficient domain experts to participate early in the process of design, leading to higher and more legitimate forms of integration. Value engineering through the entire process connects students to the cost contingencies of design and forces a dose of reality that is so rare in most design studios. Lastly, clients and community members can provide meaningful service to the studio project, but better at the beginning when key decisions are made and design directions are established. Jeremy Till argues in Architecture Depends, “The most important, and most creative, part of the process [design] is the formulation of the brief. The creative brief is about negotiating a new set of social relations.”12 Indeed, the design brief expresses the consciousness of the project, develops the necessary diverse stakeholders, determines the rules for the co-creative design process, sets the schedule of interactions and clearly illuminates the integrative goals of the project.

Finally, the conscious pursuit of higher levels of integration forms the behavior that propels the emergence of new design education practices. The gap between the intention of integration, however, and its actual operation in educational settings is as wide as it is deep and fraught with numerous structural and psychological challenges. The academically reinforced disciplinary silos serve to prevent collaboration. The makeup of disciplines necessary to pursue higher levels of collaboration not only exist in separate schools and colleges within universities, but also possess deeply territorial impulses that work against such efforts. The psychological chasms and structural barriers in place are so deep that the possibility of a more integrated and sustainable curriculum crumbles at the feet of hundreds of years of academic tradition. But the meme of sustainability persists, first gnawing at the heels of an otherwise inattentive academic community, then beginning to force the construction of bridges between the silos, and finally to the pitching of large pedagogic tents.

The use of the word tent in favor of silo is not an arbitrary metaphor because it underscores the porosity and horizontality of sustainability. Nevertheless, the move towards the operational, while daunting, must begin. On one level, design education, especially the studio, is one of the most powerfully effective vehicles for learning across the entire spectrum of higher education. On another level, such otherwise excellent approaches often lack the inclusiveness, cooperation and alignment necessary to drive the ethical content of projects and to reach higher levels of integration. Design students already possess an extremely high visual literacy; ecological literacy, however, is essential if an overall movement towards integration is to occur. The use of online teaching and “flipped classrooms” present a method to free up lecture courses to become additional centers of innovation. They can serve as portals for technology courses to enable mini integrative design studios or offer avenues of participation from students who are marginalized due to distance or financial or family constraints. The use of integrated sustainable design charrettes early and often in studio, especially in the collaborative development of the design brief, and especially prior to the generation of formal responses, can be an excellent tool in the expression of ethical and functional foundations of sustainable projects. The addition of vetting (collaborative feedback loops as part of the charrettes) can provide structured and useful direction for design students from a variety of stakeholder views. The immense potential of design/build projects possesses by default, the inclusivity, cooperation and alignment necessary for design integration. Lastly, the design educator, with the benefit of specialized training, can evolve from designers who teach, to educators who teach design.

The rise of integrated project delivery, integrated design processes, inclusive design teams and participatory design processes all reflect the changing tides in the processes and products that comprise the formation of the built environment, and by default, demand an answer to a simple question: can design educators heed the call for change and begin the process of jumping into the compelling but difficult age of integration? The simple answer is yes, but. Yes, design educators are already excellent synthesizers and integrators and some have already begun to innovate through such programs as Illinois Institute of Technology’s MS in Integrated Project Delivery, The Columbia (University) Building Intelligence Project and Philadelphia University’s MS in Sustainable Design. But, such early efforts must be matched by a clear intention to pursue higher levels of integration, and the persistence must be present to place such intentions into operation.

Design faculty need not carry such a burden alone. Program administrators must also advocate for change, accreditors must continue to evolve their requirements, licensing agencies must continue to clarify their definitions of practice, the professional associations need to push towards higher levels of sustainability, senior practitioners can shake away the pressures of financial survival to adopt new design processes and young practitioners can participate in thousands of tiny revolutions through the writing of green specs and the completion of drawings that express higher levels of integration. Ultimately, the jump to a new world view is beginning to impact our collective consciousness, spurring a societal transition to more sophisticated economic models, to deeper levels of social responsibility, to higher levels of ecological regeneration and to a clear positioning of aesthetics as an integral part of sustainability. Design educators stand poised to meaningfully participate in the transition from the intuitive impulses of green design to the more holistic Integral Sustainable Design. Design educators hold the promise of a sustainable future in the hands of the students they teach.

 

Notes
1 Rifkin, Jeremy (2009) The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, Penguin, New York, p34
2 Green, B., “Tom Friedman and Steve Jobs: Situational Versus Sustainable Values,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2012, www.huffi ngtonpost.com/brent-green/
tom-friedman-and-steve-jo_b_1010112.html, Accessed 8/9/2012 5:56PM
3 Szenasy S. (2012) “Reflections on Sustainable Design,” Journal of Interior Design, 37 (1): px
4 Hosey, L., (2012) The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology and Design, Island Press, Washington, p7
5 American Institute of Architects, AIA Diversity / Then+Now+NEXT, https://sites.google.com/site/aiadiversityhistory/, Accessed 8/6/2012 9:15AM
6 Anthony, K. (1991) Design Juries on Trial, The Renaissance of the Design Studio, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York
7 Boyer, E. L., Mitgang L. D. (1996) Building Community: A New Future for Architecture Education and Practice, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, NJ p43 4883 DESIGN EDUCATION BOOK.indb 8 22/11/2012 10:34:27
8 Koch, A., Schwennsen, K., Dutton, T., Smith, D. (2002) The Redesign of Studio Culture: A Report of the AIAS Studio Culture Task Force, American Institute of Architects Students, Washington, D.C., p21
9 Hosey, L., Gould K., Ecological Literacy in Architecture Education Report and Proposal, American Institute of Architects and the Tides foundation, 2006, p44
10 Till, J. (2009) Architecture Depends, MIT
11 Rifkin, Jeremy (1) p15
12 Till, J. (10) p 169

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